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Teaching English Illegally

I never planned on teaching English illegally in Spain, it just happened almost by complete accident. After being told by a British placement agency that I would never get hired at a school in South Korea because I happen to be black, I quickly scratched the continent of Asia off my list of places to look for a TEFL job.

My Youngest Students!
My Youngest Students!
One day as I sat in a café in New York City, I spontaneously got the idea to look for work in Europe. At first I looked in France, for no good reason at all, for I speak minimal French. Then my eyes gravitated to the Spain listings when suddenly a light bulb went off in my badly in need of illumination mind that reminded me that I did indeed speak Spanish so maybe it wouldn’t be so hard to adjust in a country where I could already communicate with the people.

I found a job opening for a private academy in Valladolid, Spain, about two hours northwest of Madrid. I had never heard of the city, but I figured that if it was only a bus ride away from Madrid, it couldn’t be too bad.

The job had little experience requirements, but again required a dreaded photograph, which is pretty standard in most countries outside the U.S. Immediately a rash of irrational thoughts flooded my brain. I actually believed that perhaps the Spaniards might look at my photo and toss my application out of the window or something.

So, I took pre-emptive measures. I wrote an email of something to this effect: I have a degree in English Literature, speak Spanish and have taught English to Spanish-speakers before. However, I am not white. Other schools have informed me that they only want white teachers, please let me know if teachers of color are accepted at your academy.

Little did I know that the Irish/Iranian married couple that owned the school belonged to the Bahá’í Faith, a world religion of around five million members that basically believe that the same God sent Allah, Jesus, Buddha among other prophets to enlighten mankind. Racial discrimination is strictly prohibited.

Apparently, my message struck a chord with their inner Bahá’í and I was contacted for a phone interview, for which I had to call them. (The first sign that this school did things a bit differently.)

Soon after I was offered the job and about two weeks later I was on a plane headed to Spain where I was to spend nine very illegal months working and traveling throughout the European Union.

Most of the things you read on the Internet will try to discourage you from teaching illegally. If you google stories about non-EU English speakers working in the EU, you might even come up with horror stories about Americans, Australians or Canadians that got deported. It’s understandable, someone being deported is a much sexier story than someone like me who just fulfilled her contract and went back home.

So if you’re not afraid of the EU deportation boogieman read on, if so please stop.

Ways to Find Work
You can always try applying from home like I did, but this is just one option. I know of some people who just moved and hit the ground looking for work. You can always come on a three-month tourist visa and go from there. It’s probably best to try in the summer months when many schools are looking to hire for the fall. You must realize however, that in countries like Spain and Italy an abundance of legal Irish and Englishmen who want to chill out in the Mediterranean are applying too. Still, if you speak the language of your country of choice, you’ll have a definite advantage.

My school director even said that they preferred non-EU English speakers because the British and Irish teachers tended to be more serious than the American ones whose more upbeat personalities were more agreeable to the cheerier Spanish (His words not mine). I think it had more to do with getting around Spanish labor laws and paying the slave wages that they did.

There are also programs that advertise TEFL certificate programs that charge you around 1,000 euros and promise to help you find legal work. If you’re comfortable with that idea, please do your own research. I’ve read mixed reviews of such models.

Living There
I rented an apartment and opened a Spanish bank account with no problem, no questions asked. I even went to the doctor twice and just paid the reasonable visitation fee and went home. I traveled to Paris, Lisbon, Amsterdam and London. The only time I was asked any immigration questions was when I came and went to London. I just told them I was studying and my passport was stamped. I read one story about an American who told the UK customs officials that the purpose of his visit was to look for work, after which he was taken away and given huge black dots in his passport, banning him from entering the UK for some years. So don’t tell anyone with the authority to deport you that you are working illegally.

Teaching Advice
The number one rule I have for being an effective TEFL teacher is to realize first and foremost that you are there to work. Your school directors and students will pick up pretty quickly that you are only there to hang out and have a good time if you don’t put any effort into your classes.

When I first arrived at the school, a blond California girl started with me. She only lasted three months because she couldn’t take the director’s strict rules, and complained when our hours increased one month.

It honestly takes a bit of time to get used to your students’ levels. The best advice I have for that is to always start with more difficult exercises and then later switch to easier ones if need be. That way at least the students will feel like they’re being challenged.

Think creatively. There is a ton of stuff on the web to help ESL teachers, look at their ideas and tweak them to your students’ levels. One technique I also employed was to think of U.S. game shows, such as Jeopardy, Family Feud and The Price is Right and turn them into ESL games. It worked great and my students and I both had a blast.

If you’re teaching young children, as about half of my students were, they love if you bring in a stuffed animal, draw faces on their homework and pass out stickers. It sounds obvious, but I was really surprised at how much they loved it. Remember also that with five year olds you can’t afford to lose their attention for more than two minutes or you’ll be in for a long class period. I adapted my favorite childhood games such as “Simon Says” or “Charades” to my lesson plan. It worked great. It’s also best to enforce some type of disciplinary rules right from the start. I didn’t have it in me to be totally mean, but some structure must be set.

Final Words
I can’t advise anyone to go ahead and teach illegally in the EU, and say that you’ll have no problems. My pay was so low that there were several times when I had to choose between paying for food or rent. A lot of this was because I still have student loans to pay, so if you’re trying to save money don’t go to Europe to teach. I knew this going in of course, but it didn’t make it any easier. Still, millions of people work illegally across the globe and the EU every day so it’s not like you’re alone.

Also, it might help soften the blow if you’re in a place that you really feel comfortable. I grew up close to Canada, and the winter in Valladolid was the most brutally weather I’ve ever experienced. Valladolid definitely isn’t very cosmopolitan and the people have a reputation for being, well a bit mean, but I learned to like it.

That said, living and working abroad is one of the most life-enriching experiences a person could ever have and I wasn’t living in an idyllic, warm tourist haven. Mainly, I think of all the great people I met and the long list of “might would have nevers” I experienced while in Europe, including some of the following:

Giving private English lessons to a sexy professional handball player, meeting a gigolo, posing next to a Moai head in the Louvre, going to a live sex show (begrudgingly) in Amsterdam with a 33 year-old Miamian who had taken every drug except crack cocaine and heroin, going bar-hopping with a group of international drug dealers in Amsterdam, people watching in London, climbing castles in Portugal, hearing the story about the Canadian chick who stayed in Spain for a Moroccan guy who makes human pyramids at the beach and having a surreal, romantic eight hour conversation with a Chilean guy in Madrid.

Looking back, all of the encounters I had were definitely worth the nine months I spent working under the table. I got the opportunity to experience Europe in a way that most young Americans don’t – by actually living there, in a town where I could count the foreigners on my fingers and toes. If you have the opportunity and are not the super nervous type, I’d say go for it if the timing is right and you have the chance.