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Wandering Blindly into my Teaching Career - An American in Spain

29th July 2019

By Ryan Williamson

Spain is a wonderful country and one that has been my home for over 12 years now. Having come from the United States with a Bachelor’s of Arts Degree in History / English Literature and with little ability to speak the languages of Spanish or Catalan (the primary language of the area I was moving to), I knew teaching was going to be my main job option. I had had lots of business and management experience before the move, but not knowing the local language was a real handicap for finding a job here in most fields.

When I first got to Spain, I actually lived about an hour outside of Barcelona in a small village, which also didn’t help my job prospects much. I had moved here for love and got married a month before I made the leap abroad, upending my life completely. Being Spanish, my husband had already established a life here and had an apartment rented for us because he was teaching Science and Technology at the local high school, so around that small village is where my work life in Spain began. I needed a job and I needed it quickly, so I updated my CV and off to the academies I went. It just took a few hours to hit the three small businesses in my village. No luck there at all. Being a native speaker piqued the interest of the academy owners, but not having a CELTA or DELTA certificate and having had no real teaching experience beforehand (other than a little voluntary ESL teaching to immigrants in Boston), I was not the most hirable person for the position.

We had a car and my husband didn’t need it to get to his job at the local school, so I decided to expand outwards. I applied for all the jobs in the local villages and towns and after a week I had a job, albeit a forty-five minute drive away to a seaside village that worked me five days a week for no more than 2 hours at a time each day. Experience is everything in this country, so I took the position, but for those next three months, I probably spent as much on petrol and car maintenance as I actually made in salary.

I learned a lot about my new career in those three months, but after my first autumn term, I knew I needed to find something closer to home for both my sanity and my bank account. This is where my real teaching career in Spain began. Feeling a bit more confident than I had felt before, with a little experience and understanding of what was needed, expected and required of me as a teacher, I went to the local larger town. It was 10 minutes away and much more desirable than where I was working at the time. I distributed my CV in person to all the academies and (nicely) demanded to speak to the owners directly as I looked them in the eye, shook their hands and handed them my CV. The American go-getter in me really thought that would work. Sadly, no luck. The lack of a CELTA or DELTA certificate was certainly holding me back.

Just before heading home defeated for the day, I stopped at the very last academy on my list. It was not an open door business, but one where you had to ring the bell to be let in. The older woman who answered the door was talking heatedly on the phone when she let me enter and she was obviously British and probably the academy owner. She covered the phone receiver and briskly asked me what I needed. I started to tell her that I was looking for work and handed her my CV. She abruptly returned to her phone call and held up her finger in that way where someone is telling you to hold on for a moment. My heart sank. It definitely felt like a clear rejection, but it seemed that she wanted to be nice and say to my face that they weren’t looking for anyone new. I waited anyway.

Once she finished the call five minutes later, to my shock and surprise she asked me if I wanted to start working in two hours’ time and to do classes for the rest of the week on a probationary period. I’m no fool. Of course, I said yes. She explained to me that she had just been informed of a death in her family and that she had to fly back to England for the week for the funeral. She didn’t have any extra academy teachers she could ask to take on her classes because one teacher had quit just days before and, since I had a little experience, she would let me take over her classes on a trial basis to see if I was worth hiring long term. At this point, I was feeling confident in my abilities as a teacher and knew I was going to give her students the best learning experience they were ever likely to get in all their years of English study.

I ended up working for 5 years for that academy - teaching General English to students at every age and at every level, teaching Business English to a wide variety of people who work in a lot of varied fields, teaching at organizations and unions that need very specific English instruction, writing my own industry-specific course and course book for people in the wine industry around Barcelona, becoming a Cambridge University English Speaking and Writing Examiner for every level, becoming an English editor for a variety of different types of publications, etc.

That is the story of my beginnings as an English teacher in a foreign land.

Now, what’s the takeaway from all this. In my twelve years here, I feel like I have a lot of advice for newbies to this field. Let’s take it step by step for those who are thinking about going abroad and believe teaching English is what they want to do.

1)     Get the CELTA or DELTA certificate if you don’t already have teaching experience. I am lucky in that my university degree included English Literature as part of my BA, but the truth is that I lucked into my teaching career and struggled until I got fortunate enough to have an owner/teacher desperate for a quick hire.

2)     Be committed. I knew that all I had to work with wasn’t sufficient for the very specific things Spanish people expect from their potential employees - experience, qualifications, flexibility, etc. If you are lucky enough to find something, commit and work hard. Don’t come to a place thinking you’ll work for a couple of years to get some life experience in a foreign land before returning home and can be nonchalant about punctuality, preparation, or other things. The owners of these academies sense that in a person and are much less likely to hire you if you don’t seem committed.

3)     Make sure the work you do is all contracted legally. There were many places willing to hire me, but the money was under the table (black money). I did a little bit of that, but ended up getting cheated out of 800€ at some point and realized that the only way to guarantee you get what you were told is to make sure everything is above board.

4)     Speak the native language if possible. I have also been lucky that the language barrier didn’t stop me from getting hired. I fortunately had a native Spaniard at home to help me when I didn’t understand some things, but the language issue has been a really big one for me. Many of the business and academy owners are Catalan / Spanish here and without the ability to talk or interview with them, my prospects were much more limited.

5)     If you don’t live in a big city with good public transportation, you will probably need a car to work a full schedule. If you don’t want to be stuck in rooms all day with groups of really small tired children for afterschool classes, then a car allows you to accept classes outside of your academy. I work in Barcelona now and don’t need a car for what I do, but when I was living outside of the city, it was essential.

6)     Make sure you have a friend or partner that has some understanding of the governmental systems, rules and offices and can help you understand things when necessary. Living in a foreign country brings on a lot of new challenges, but the biggest one is not understanding how things there work. You might need identification, tax filing help, unemployment benefits, medical coverage, etc. In every country, administration is a complex maze and you will appreciate any and all help someone who knows the system can give you.

7)     Accept everything possible at first and after a few years start being selective. At the beginning, I accepted almost every possible job that came my way. It exhausted me sometimes and wasn’t always convenient, but I needed the experience and it gave me an opportunity to figure out what I was good at, what I liked and what was acceptable for me once I had a bit more to put on my CV. After a few years of doing this, I was willing to step back and look at the practicality of what I was doing and start eliminating things that just weren’t financially or emotionally good for me. It’s hard to do, but it’s essential that at some point you take stock of your situation and set boundaries. I now only accept the things I want to do or work well for me. I am also much more comfortable in saying no to jobs if I don’t think I’m getting fair pay or respect for my experience. I feel secure about doing that now.

8)     Have fun. Teaching has been the joy of my life. Oh, I’ve had some rough classes along the way, but I’ve discovered that it can be such a fun and rewarding job. Having a class laugh at a story you tell or seeing that light in someone’s eye when they finally understand something is everything. It’s a job I fell into, but one I love and know I was meant to do.

Ryan Williamson

English Teacher from the USA who’s been working in Spain for 12 years teaching Cambridge Exam and Business English. I’ve written an English course book for wine industry professionals, edited European Erasmus+ project books, and edited a world-renowned comic.

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