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A Bit of Guff about Teaching

A bit of guff about teaching English on the hoof in Madrid or the ramblings of a traumatized English teacher.

Tom Cunnigham's experience as an English teacher in Madrid. There are some words in Spanish. You can find a "mercy list" of the webmaster's off-the-cuff translations at the bottom of the page.

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A change is as good as a rest. My reasons for moving to Spain were to enjoy a little relaxation, diversification and contemplation. Instead I found a lot of late nights in improvised chiringuitos that could rarely be found twice and which only a bemused and not too discerning guiri would enjoy. The most interesting were the ones that only opened on weekends between 8 am and 12 am. Or where the dueño asked for the money first at nightclub prices and then sent a runner out to buy cans of Mahou in some Chinese convenience store. Or the café where the camarero or guarro arrived out with the pistola (baguette) under his armpit saying ¿Mas pan? Madrid has changed a lot since and is losing most of its dog-eared charm. But what, you may ask, has all this got to do with teaching English?

Separate the wheat from the chaff. First, you must know where you are and with whom you are dealing with. Spain is a former colonial power and as such suffers from delusions of grandeur. You will be reminded that Spanish is a much richer language than English. This certainly seems true when it comes to abusive language and insults. That it is the second most important language in the world. This may be true because depending on your point of view maybe Chinese doesn’t yet enjoy the same prestige that Spanish does worldwide. That it will soon be the most important language in the world as the domination of the US by the Spanish language is imminent. This of course is wishful thinking and anybody so delusional is always welcome to wait for the great conquest. The only Spanish needed in the US is No me dispares, llevate el dinero. And of course English is a lot more difficult to learn than Spanish. This could have something to do with the fact that different words are used to describe things but this is normal when learning new languages and some don’t even have the courtesy to use the same alphabet.

Have TESOL certificate will travel. I first arrived in Spain with a hastily acquired TESOL Certificate in hand and enough money to see me through till the following week. I’d spent most of my money getting hold of the certificate in a dodgy academy in London. This was just a foretaste of the grim and shabby reality of a decadent industry willing to exploit young travelers and adventure seekers and their unsuspecting pupils for the enrichment of a few. But what is new? This says a lot about my seriousness and preparation but even more about my faith and confidence in finding a job without any trouble. It should also be added that I didn’t speak one word of Spanish. As luck would have it, the night before I left for Spain I went to a music session in a bar and on relating my plans, was given an address in Madrid. I got my first job through an English teacher who lived in the same flat, starting the day after I arrived.

Go for it! The next morning I had to meet the man at his office. It turned out that his office was his old Fiat. All negotiations and transactions were done out of the boot of the car. Bemused I often wondered if all this didn’t look just a bit suspicious to passers by. My first gig was way out in the boonies: metro, bus, cross a motorway then into an industrial estate. Nobody in their right mind would have taken this job, so luckily there wasn’t any competition. Jorge was a friendly businessman who worked for a multinational company and he advised me to consider going back to my original job. I didn’t take it. Anyway, I was too busy enjoying my adventure in Madrid, soaking up all the diferencia that Spain could offer.

Getting into the swing of things. As I grew in confidence and debt, the classes grew in number but not necessarily in quality. I quickly became familiar with many areas of Madrid. Because I always travelled by metro I only had a piecemeal knowledge of the city and never understood how it all fitted together. I eventually got a regular evening gig in Katafi, where they make either the left or the right wing of the Eurofighter. I’ve forgotten which one, but maybe it depends on which party is in power. Thanks to the loyalty and cooperation of my students I managed to survive there for a couple of years. These students did not have inflated expectations and as the European Social Fund was paying, the living was easy and it was the era of España va bien.

The meaning of hell is other people. Variety is a very important ingredient in English teaching and there is always plenty of that. The students varied from the young spoilt pijo/a brat, to large groups of business suited executives. The former can be the most difficult and the latter the most nerve wracking. Then there’s the mature group of fitter welders who will never learn, not even enough to exchange names after two weeks of intensive classes. But the worst group of the lot is the group of know alls or listos. Their sole function in life is to bust your balls. Any curve ball pitched should be knocked into the mas allá by either asking the class to find the answer or by insisting on dealing with it in the appropriate context.

There’s no place like home but not for teaching. There is also no end to the variety of places where the unwitting teacher can spread the good word. These vary from sitting rooms to bedrooms and the very large to the very small office. The best early morning classes are held over coffee in a bar and if you get lucky you might one day find yourself in a purpose built language classroom. Not until you have experienced this can you realize how inspiring it can be. It’s the difference between being the equivalent of a vagabond carpet bagger or English language puta and a professional educator. But I wouldn’t hold my breath in expectation of acquiring these facilities in this sector. But remember your home should remain just that and not become an extension of your workplace.

Going it alone or cutting out the middle man. I decided to go freelance as it in theory pays better and gives you more control over your own destiny. But this meant leaving a company where I was now well established and looked after to a certain degree. I had worked my way or at least bided my time long enough to be at the top of the heap. The more ambitious had long since departed to greener pastures. Again, I had to begin at the bottom and take whatever crumbs fell from the tables of the elite troops. But with so called ‘better’ wages come higher expectations. Some of the students were tiburones and wanted to speak English now and not later, before and not after. Speak English in three easy lessons. Finally, a student set an unrealistic deadline within which I had to teach her to master writing reports which I explained was impossible. So demanding!

It was time to cut to the crap. I tried to explain that I could not teach them, only facilitate their learning. I also explained that I could not learn for them. I then explained that a language was not like transferring knowledge as in a computer class but a long slow process. I finally explained that if they did not study at home like a university student then it would take them the rest of their lives just to hold their own. The problem in this game is that the hassle received from the student or client is proportional to the amount paid by them. The fun is therefore by definition inversely proportional to the amount paid. How can anybody relax and therefore learn anything if they are watching the clock and calculating the teacher’s productivity rate at the same time?

The vulgarity of the filthy lucre. The bottom line as all business classes will relate is the need to get some money out of all this moving and shaking. I don’t know if English teachers are really supposed to make money because if making money was their goal in life then one wonders what they are doing in this business. For all the fun of the class and great relationship between student and teacher, the whole thing can turn sour when the student becomes the client and the teacher becomes the company accounts department. If a student misses a class then they obviously won’t want to pay but you obviously will need the money as your bills continue to arrive. If you need to increase the hourly rate then how do you break the news gently. If they are late in paying how do you ask for payment diplomatically. Oh the joys of independence. Dilemmas! Dilemmas!

Words of hope, advice and caution. So what is the moral of the story? Well, for a start it is not possible to please all of the people all of the time, but it is usually possible to please some of the people some of the time. If you start to beat yourself up about what you should and shouldn’t be achieving then you are on a slippery slope. In this game, as in most others, sometimes the harder you try the less satisfaction you seem to gain from it. Some days you have prepared what you think is the greatest class and the whole thing seems to fall flat on its face. Another day you are in there flying by the seat of your pants and the class is a roaring success. It has to be remembered that language learning is a process which cannot be forced. And that all students are different and learn differently. What one student considers un tío cojonudo another will mark down as subnormal. But remember that you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.

So what to do. Be proactive! You have to go in there and face the class in the sure knowledge that you know what you are talking about and that they have to do the work if they want to advance and not you. You have to grab the class by the proverbial balls and give them a good shaking every now and then. Ask them why they bother coming to class wasting their time and money. Ask them if they like English and if the answer is no then they might as well leave now as they are never going to learn anything. Remind them that something like welding classes could prove much more lucrative and interesting and that knowledge of English is not a priority on the Trans-Siberian gas pipeline. Sarcasm is a well tried and proven teaching tool. Too much self-criticism only leads to self doubt, despair and finally inaction which never got anybody anywhere.

Enthusiasm is contagious. If you are not enjoying the class then nobody else is. If this is a regular occurrence then there may be need for some drastic action. If you show an interest in them then even the worst student will appreciate it by also showing interest, as enthusiasm is contagious. If you know that you have given it your best shot then there is no more you can do and you have no need to feel guilty. It is all a matter of respect. You show respect by doing your best for them and they will return that respect. Respect, as we all know, has to be earned. If they still don’t show respect, then you have to respect yourself by refusing to teach them. It’s a very hard call to make, but shutting that door behind you for good opens up new opportunities and allows you to get on with your life.

Finally, keep in mind that it is all part of the great tapestry of life and all the people, places and situations which you encounter need to be taken with a grain of philosophy. And a final note of warning, stay clear of children as this is a very specialist area and best tackled only by experts.

Tom Cunningham

"Mercy" Vocabulary list (from the webmaster)

chiringuitos - little bars
dueńo - owner
Mahou - a local brand of cheap beer
camarero - waiter
guarro - dirty guy
pistola - loaf of bread (also pistol)
żMas pan? - ¿More bread?
No me dispares, llevate el dinero. - Don't shoot, take the money.
diferencia - difference
España va bien - Spain is doing well
pijo - posh snob
listos - smart guys
mas allá - "beyond" (death)
puta - prostitute
tiburones - sharks
tío cojonudo - great guy
subnormal - retarded

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Bray's English

Bray's English has a list of lessons they're looking to fill Tuesdays 20:00 to 21:00, Thursday 20: to 21:30 or Saturday 11:30 to 13:00 near Goya, Madrid. Mondays-Wednesdays 17:05 to 18:00 and Tuesdays-Thursdays 17:05 to 18:00 in Getafe.

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