Number one for English language teachers

Spain: two viewpoints

Anthony Gore reports on the difficulties of working in Spain's private ELT market and Diarmuid Fogarty responds with a contrasting experience.

Anchor Point:1

Letter 1: The difficulties of working in Spain's private ELT market

I have been teaching English in southern Spain for almost two years. During that time I think that I have either experienced or have heard about all the possible pitfalls that can befall a teacher working in private academies. Spain has for a long time been a popular destination for native teachers of English and because of this native teachers are not exactly at a premium. There is work but not the kind of work where your ability to speak natural English means that the work will be well paid or your contribution appreciated. This may sound cynical but the truth ( at least about my area of Spain ) is that English is valued as a language, while teachers and to most extent students are seen as the unfortunate consequence of having an academy.

One is left in no doubt that the first aim of any academy is to make money, while the second aim is to save money with teaching students to read and write in English a poor third. I say read and write because many academies don’t bother to teach students to speak English and at least one that I know of tells teachers NOT to speak English in class ! It is easy to understand this emphasis on the written word. Spanish schools do not test their students orally at any time during their education ( until that is you take an English degree at university ). It is common to find students who are unable to speak any English despite finishing higher education and achieving good grades in English exams. These students are unable to make any connection between the written and spoken word and they often return to academies once they realise that they need to be able to speak English for their work.

As a teacher in a Spanish academy you will be faced with several likely situations with unmotivated students being your biggest class headache, I believe in a learner centred approach but students who refuse to be interested in anything, including music and popular culture, present a real problem when trying to prepare a class around their interests. Some of you will be saying that I must have chosen the wrong music or topics, you would be wrong; on one occasion I offered the class a blank cassette to take home and record the music they would like to work on in class, no one took up the offer. At other times I have offered them a choice of video to be viewed in class only to be told they didn’t care which they saw. These classes are frustrating the only advice I can give you is don’t get depressed, don’t drive yourself crazy trying to find the solution, but equally keep trying and if you find an answer email me !

Your employers are likely to cause you an equal amount of frustration; I have never experienced any form of formal teacher development or assessment while working here. I was once given a “school policy” which stated that teachers were “empowered to do their jobs”, this meant that you were left to sort things out on your own. In my experience employers will also change your hours without notice, refuse to tell you if you will be hired again the following year ( 99% of contracts are for nine months, it is unlikely that you can earn enough in that time to survive the three months of summer without work ) and if you are unfortunate enough to be a non-native teacher generally treat you without any consideration at all.

Perhaps all that has put you off, I hope not because I’m sure there are good schools in Spain and if you come you will find many students who have a genuine desire to improve their English; a population who are warm and forgiving even as you murder their language in an attempt to communicate; a climate that has three months of mild winter rather than two weeks of British summer; an unequalled selection of fattening foods and a culture styled on a passion for enjoying the worst as well as the best that life has to offer. The Spanish say “Work to live, not live to work” it’s a philosophy that worth remembering before you face that class of teenagers.

Anthony Gore


Letter 2: a response

What a bleak picture Anthony Gore paints of working in Spain, and one that rang few bells with me after having worked there for five years. I began teaching in the Basque Country in 1996 and encountered groups of students who covered the range of enthusiasm from poke-her-to-see-if-she's-still-breathing to gag-him-and-tie-him-to-the-chair. From his description of activities offered to his students, I am assuming that most of them are teenagers.

It is true that teenagers are notoriously difficult to motivate, and so it seems unfair to suggest that this is a characteristic of the Iberian adolescents. Neither do I find it likely that they ‘refuse to be interested in anything’. It's worth remembering that most students in the academies are not consulted about whether or not they wish to go there, nor are they given much time to get on with being adolescents. Parents thoughtfully package every minute of their offspring’s day into 'meaningful learning experiences' such as facing a tired, underpaid and increasingly cynical teacher in a language academy.

Whilst Anthony is to be commended for his attempts to make the language more meaningful by relating it to what he perceives as being of interest to his captive audience, he might find it more rewarding if he asks his students what it is that they would like to be discussing in English classes. It may well be that their real interests go a bit deeper than pop songs and videos. And he shouldn’t get too disheartened if his pleas for help are met with silence. Teenagers in most countries are not used to their views being solicited by figures of authority. It might be a case of softly, softly, catchee monkey.

I think that the Spanish education system also needs defending (loathe as I am to be the one to do it…). For two years I travelled around Spain working as a teacher trainer. My work brought me into contact with many colleagues who are working in very unfavourable conditions in the State system. Despite these conditions, there are a great many teachers who are trying out new and, dare I say it, revolutionary approaches to the teaching of English as a foreign language. It is no coincidence that some of the more refreshing voices in the world of EFL are to be found living and working in Spain.

Finally, I do share his opinions on the working conditions that teachers are forced to work under. Even the British Council is guilty of the exploitation of teachers by employing them repeatedly on short term contracts, which mean no summer pay and reduced social security contributions. However, once again, I think that this is a problem experienced by teachers on a global scale and it seems unfair to present it as a typically Spanish problem.

However, I can assure him that there are good employers to be found in Spain (including several in the south). Another alternative might be to join with some like-minded individuals and form a workers’ cooperative. After all, Spain has favourable laws for doing such things and the Mondragón cooperatives flourished (and continue to do so) in the north of the country.

In conclusion, I would like to encourage readers not to be too disheartened by Anthony’s description. Spain is a wonderful country to live in and work in. Of course, there are problems with greedy bosses and unresponsive students, but as the Spanish also say, No se puede nadar Y guardar la ropa – You can’t go swimming AND look after your clothes.

Diarmuid Fogarty

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