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Lessons Learned While Teaching in Spain

I didn’t grow up dreaming about teaching English. I don’t know anyone who did. My decision to leave home and teach English in Spain can be written off almost completely to impulsiveness. I received a job offer in Washington, DC but I remembered my last job there and the extreme boredom I suffered while sitting in an office. In a span of 2 days, I applied for TEFL courses and began planning my move to Madrid, Spain.

Teaching in Spain is an interesting experience. I chose Spain simply because I knew the weather was warm and sunny, they have good wine and sangria, the San Fermin Festival, “La Tomatina” and ultimately, because I had never met a person with negative things to say about Spain. I was lucky, because I did absolutely zero research before deciding on Madrid but it has been an unbelievable experience. The reason I say this is simple and fairly obvious, your destination is critical. Unless you are one of the few people who teach because they have an unquenchable thirst for the English language and the education of others, you are most likely teaching English in order to travel. For many, teaching English can be a bit of a drag sometimes. It isn’t the most exciting job in the world, but the freedom it gives you makes it all worthwhile. If you have been fortunate enough to be a native English speaker you can basically live and work in any corner of the globe, take advantage of it! While my friends back home are sitting in an office and sending forwarded email jokes around, I have the luxury of heading out to a bar for some sangria or meeting my friends for some tapas.

Over the course of the previous year teaching children, teenagers, adults and businesspeople I have learned numerous lessons, some the easy way and others not so easy. My experience in the classroom is limited to Spain but, based on stories from other teachers, can probably be applied to other countries in Europe and teaching in general.

Lesson #1 ­ Avoid teaching children at all costs. I have worked with kids in the past and really enjoyed it, which was part of the reason why I accepted classes with children initially. Spanish families are not known for their discipline. Children are often wild and out of control. Some families use English classes like a babysitting service. Other kids are forced to attend but have zero interest in actually learning the language.

Working with children in any field can be extremely rewarding and/or extremely frustrating. Working with young children and speaking a foreign language to them can be downright painful sometimes. For example, I was teaching a family of young children who were moving to the United States and thus, needed to learn English. I figured they would be motivated learners…I was more wrong than I was right. At one of our final classes, the nine year old daughter was complaining, yet again. She didn’t want to do the activity. She said it was boring. She was saying all this in Spanish. I was frustrated and said, “What do you want to do? You don’t like reading, writing, coloring or drawing. You can’t speak because you don’t know many words. You have lost your vocabulary book three times. Please, please, please tell me what do you want to do?” She responded, “No entiendo.” She didn’t understand. Perfect. Spanish 1 ­ English 0.

Lesson #2 ­ You must be flexible. I went to my first job interview at 11 a.m. and was teaching a class later that day at 2 p.m. I went to the class knowing nothing about the students. I didn’t even have their correct names. The director didn’t know what unit of the book they were working on and told me simply to pick a random chapter and start there. I took his advice. Unfortunately, when I arrived to the company I found out that they had already completed the unit I was prepared to teach. Here I was, sitting in my first class not knowing the students names and having no lesson plan. What the hell was I supposed to do for the next hour and a half? I managed to put something together on the fly and everything worked out. But, if you are the type of person who needs and likes order, teaching may not be for you. Schedules change. Students come and go. You must be able to think on your feet. Be personable and provide energy to the class. If you are tired and uninterested, your students will be too.

Lesson #3 ­ Use your students to your advantage. This is less about teaching and more about living. They know the city and country you are living in. They are the insiders. Find out what restaurants they like, where to go at night, which places are worth visiting and which can or should be skipped. If you are like me and decided to teach English in order to live in a foreign country, this is the most beneficial aspect of teaching. You are given a pipeline into the community. In some places in Asia it is not acceptable to socialize with students, but here in Spain, it is fairly common. It is a fantastic way to meet local people, especially if you have a limited knowledge of your new language.

Lesson #4 ­ Find motivated students. When I first arrived I asked a fellow teacher what types of classes he preferred to teach. He told me it didn’t matter as long as the students were personable and interested in learning. I thought this was strange because I hated teaching low level classes. For me, it was very slow and boring. I thought for sure he would voice similar sentiments. Now, I understand exactly what he meant. Students that are not interested in learning can make for very long days, weeks and months. On the other hand, students that are excited and ready to learn actually make it fun sometimes.

Lesson #5 ­ Students with little interest in learning can be very difficult to work with and can have a harmful effect on you and/or the rest of the class. I learned the hard way. My advice is that if you have a class you don’t like, get rid of it. Many teachers here in Spain work without contracts. Some piece their schedule together through a combination of different language academies and private lessons. I worked for three different language academies simultaneously last year. This has advantages and disadvantages. The freedom it gives you in terms of scheduling is easily your best advantage.

In Spain teachers and jobs are in abundance and salaries are low. As a result, the language schools have the upper hand. Don’t continue teaching a class you don’t like. Find a new class. Once upon a time, I taught a class of seven teenagers. Five of these girls were best friends. Sounds great, right? Thirteen year old girls tend to be a little chatty and, frankly, sometimes can be quite annoying. Other than the one that was in love with me, I had an extremely difficult time controlling them. They didn’t want to learn. Their parents forced them to attend class. They wouldn’t do homework. They were sent out of class. The owner of the academy reprimanded them. I tried using prizes and rewards. All attempts at discipline were unsuccessful. Following every class I was miserable because an hour and a half class with these kids was torturous. After unburdening myself of this class and filling that time slot at another academy, I felt much better and began to enjoy my work again. The bottom line, don’t suffer needlessly. In places with a very high demand for learning English there are many jobs available, take advantage of that fact.

Lesson #6 ­ Ask questions and do your homework. Hopefully your students will do this too, but when choosing an employer, there are certain things you should definitely ask about. Materials provided, travel expenses, salary, policies on cancelled classes (if students cancel a class inside of 24 hours, you should be paid), and holiday time provided are just some of the things you must ask about. The questions are similar to what you would ask in any profession, but remember ­­ you are in a foreign country…don’t assume anything. Make sure all these questions are answered before you begin working, you don’t want any surprises.

Teaching in Spain has been an incredible experience and I decided to stay longer than I had initially planned. I have managed to teach English for one year, full time, and avoid teaching any classes before 2 p.m. in the afternoon. I have met people from many different countries and have new friends from all over the place. I now have places to stay in countries as far away as Vietnam and New Zealand because of my time in the classroom. I have traveled around Spain, consumed an extremely unhealthy quantity of sangria, ran with the bulls and thrown tomatoes at random strangers in the streets of Bunol. While teaching English in Europe doesn’t offer a very high salary, the fringe benefits can be amazing.

More reading: Working in Spain