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
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.
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.
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.
"Mercy" Vocabulary list (from the
chiringuitos - little bars
dueño - owner
Mahou - a local brand of cheap beer
camarero - waiter
guarro - dirty guy
pistola - loaf of bread (also pistol)
¿Mas 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