Here’s a game for you: Close your eyes and think of Latvia. If your mind’s eye is full of mounds of potatoes or grey, shambling masses, try again after this post.
My names is James Wolanyk, and I’m a fantasy author and ESL teacher who has been working in Riga, Latvia since September 2016. I was a member of The Language House’s March 2016 course (forever a Marchie!), and have had an absolutely remarkable experience in this Baltic gem. I’ll say from the onset, in the spirit of full disclosure, that landing a job in the European Union can require an Olympian effort from any potential applicants (and can be a virtual nightmare for Americans, myself included). Regardless, there are varied and rich opportunities for those willing to put in a bit of elbow grease.
Shortly after graduating from TLH, I realized that my list of potential teaching destinations was nearly limitless. China, Vietnam, Thailand, and several of the other more popular ESL destinations were on the table, but I wanted to pursue a slightly more ambitious goal that I’d harbored for years: To work in Europe. As I noted before, the common job-seeking advice for ESL-teaching Americans in Europe (exempting the Czech Republic) is to stash your hopes at the door and start working on your CV for Asia. I stumbled across a job post for an international school in Riga just days after returning from a stint in Taiwan, and couldn’t believe my good fortune—full-time work, an EU working visa, and trillions of potatoes, all waiting for me!? I dispatched an inquiring email in record time, and, to my utter shock, was summoned for a Skype interview within a few hours.
In most cases, you’ll need to secure a working visa from abroad to have any hope of working in Latvia. If you find a school willing to sponsor you (this is where Brits typically pull ahead of Americans), the school can begin to prepare a letter of agreement for you, then have it sent abroad, signed, and brought to PMLP (the Latvian immigration and employment agency). Much like in other countries that don’t operate with freelance visas, you’ll likely want the support of the school’s administrative personnel (and lawyers, if they can afford to retain them) to simplify the ensuing process of verifying your work documents. These documents will include your passport, any diplomas, transcripts, additional certificates (such as your TEFL papers), and anything else that’s pertinent to your job description. If you’re processing your work visa in-country, be SURE to bring notarized and apostilled copies of your diploma and transcript to simplify the verification process. Securing a work visa means lining up an apartment, completing a medical check, and passing muster in the eyes of the Latvian government.
An important caveat to note is that most schools will hire you as a language consultant rather than a full-time teacher. Under Latvian law, teachers leading a class need to have A2 (CEFR) proficiency in Latvian, as well as relevant teaching credentials from their home country. In practice, this means you’ll likely be assisting a local teacher or hosting specific class activities, and won’t be labeled as a “teacher” in your contract.
If you’re not hired by an international school, you might find opportunities at a language school in Riga, though these openings are relatively sparse and don’t often feature the possibility of working visa sponsorship for foreigners. When you work at an international school, your work will largely consist of planning and developing curriculums for a specific grade level, creating original materials, adapting textbook lessons for your assigned class, and leading classes (up to 25 lessons per week, though typically less in practice). The workload in Latvia can be demanding, but Latvians are helpful, hospitable people who will help to ease you into your position.
As a teacher, your wages will vary wildly between local schools, international schools, and language schools. As a reference, however, the average Latvian teacher only makes about 700 Euros per month. Most foreigners will receive well above this rate, but keep it in mind when negotiating over your salary. The cost of living in Latvia is absurdly low, especially if you’re earning a decent local wage, and you’ll find that most one-bedroom apartments in Riga run between 350 and 550 Euros per month. Cell phone plans are cheap, with unlimited calls, data, and texts typically costing approximately 20 Euros per month. Food and drinks are reasonably priced compared to other Eastern European countries, but in Riga, they tend to run a bit higher in tourist hotspots. All in all, you’ll likely live comfortably in Riga or one of the surrounding neighborhoods, and should be able to pack away a modest amount in savings if you’re thrifty enough.
Latvia’s true wealth, however, doesn’t come in the form of salaries or savings. Latvia has a diverse array of hiking areas, biking trails, and untouched natural havens. There are a number of charming and scenic cities and towns scattered throughout the Latvian countryside. If you’re turned off by harsh winters or little sunlight, however, you’ll want to think carefully before shipping off to the Baltics. The summers, by contrast, are a miracle to behold.
One other element of Latvia is a strong sense of heritage and culture. Latvians are proud of their pagan roots and history, and are keen to show it off whenever possible. That being said, Latvians will also hold firm to things that some western visitors might balk at, such as traditional gender roles. It’s not a tremendous issue, of course—the attitude is welcoming to foreigners, and it’s a country that’s light on culture shock when compared to rival ESL destinations.
If you’re keen on finding work here in Latvia, be sure to prowl all of the big-name ESL job posting sites, as well as sending the occasional probing email to any international schools located in or around Riga. The postings may be few and far between, but if you manage to land a spot here, you won’t regret it.