I got off the Paris-Madrid train one extremely hot September morning.
Pretty tired, I’d been in Scotland for a week, spent another week in London, then a day in the “City of Lights” and had arrived at my final destination: Madrid, the capital of the country that I didn’t know, 30 years ago, would eventually become my home and work place.
Finding a living space was the first matter to deal with. Luckily, I had an American friend in Madrid who lent me a couch while I got on my feet. He was also instrumental in actually getting me on my feet, as I’d foolishly come to Spain not knowing even the basics of the language.
In time, I landed my first job as an ESL teacher. My class was humble—a small group of waiters at a three-star restaurant, taking lessons for one hour, twice a week.
Substitute work in an English academy came later, leading eventually to a 16-hour-per-week position.
Today, I’m a longtime English teacher armed with years of knowledge about the many different job opportunities, types of students, pitfalls and rewards that come with this job in Spain. In this post, I’ll share my experiences about what English teachers will encounter here and how to succeed in four key teaching environments.
Let’s start off with a little advice I wish I’d had when my train pulled in that September day three decades ago.
What I Wish I’d Known Before Teaching English in Spain
Besides preparing for the obvious struggles with culture shock and an ESL teacher’s modest income, there were two things that would’ve made my life a lot easier before embarking on this adventure:
Learning the local language:
If you think you won’t need Spanish just because you’re teaching English during your workday, you’re in for some basic, day-to-day frustration.
While Spain was once focused largely on English-only teaching with an emphasis on native speaker teachers, today you’ll likely be expected to know enough Spanish to explain some language concepts in the students’ mother tongue.
Plus, you’ll have to deal with the locals at one point or another when you’re not in the classroom! Learning Spanish will be vital to developing a social circle and absorbing the culture of your new home.
Preparing for a different classroom experience:
When in Rome (even though Rome isn’t in Spain!), you have to do as the natives do, and you can count on them doing things differently than what you were used to back home. That’ll include how English classes are conducted.
I’m not talking about the actual teaching—that doesn’t change much. I’m talking about the students and their attitudes in class and about English. In New York, I was the native. I was at home and my students were the foreigners. In Spain, I was suddenly the foreigner and all of my students were comfortably “at home.”
Teaching students in their home country means their motivation to learn may be less strong or immediate and they likely won’t be having consistent practice with English outside the classroom.
I’m also referring to how administrators approach the concept of foreign language teaching within a business model. We’ll cover a number of different scenarios throughout this post. And let’s not overlook the shifts in attitude about the necessity of English in a socio-politically changing Europe.
4 Class Types You’ll Encounter Teaching English in Spain
Thanks to online resources, looking for a job in Spain is relatively easy. There are several sites, such as GoAbroad, Spainwise and International Schools Services, that can get you started on your search.
If you’re just starting out teaching, you may want to check out Premier TEFL. They offer paid 9-month internships in Spain along with a 120-hour TEFL certificate and an accredited course.
There are different types of English teaching jobs in Spain, where you’ll face different sets of students, different teaching parameters and different ways to apply for or secure the job.
What I want to share with you is how to identify, prepare for and succeed at some common types of English teaching jobs in Spain. Knowing the kinds of English classes offered in Spain will help you search for the jobs that best suit you and choose wisely before accepting an offer. It can also help you avoid basic headaches and missteps in your professional life.
Following, then, are four types of English classes that you can expect to encounter in Spain. Though this list is incomplete, these are the basics and should help get you started on the right foot.
Spain is a diverse country with extreme cultural differences from north to south and east to west. However, I’ve taught in the four corners of this country and can say that you’ll encounter these class types no matter where you get off the train.
1. Language Academies
Don’t be fooled by that word “academy.” Though there are classrooms with desks, blackboards, students and teachers, academies in Spain are part of the “service industry,” and the education they offer is meant to keep a business afloat. Academia de Idiomas Newlink Huesca is representative of this type of school.
From internationally-known chains to locally owned neighborhood businesses, all academies share one thing: focus on the bottom line. In order to make money, they sell classes. Fortunately, student satisfaction is essential to having repeat customers, so most academies do pay attention to the quality of their classes. You, as a teacher, will be expected to deliver on those quality promises.
Your students will mainly be kids from three to 17 years old. There may also be adult groups occasionally, but the majority of the students will be school kids.
Classes are usually scheduled two hours a week on alternate days, like Monday/Wednesday. Nearly all of your classes will take place after school/work hours. Students are grouped by age, beginning with the youngest right after school lets out, at around 3 p.m. As the afternoon wears on students become older. Adult classes take place in the evening, after work (and Spaniards work well into the evening!).
“Chain Store” Academies
In large academies that have many schools throughout the country or world, there will usually be a set teaching method. This method, sometimes developed by educators, always cemented into the sales pitch of the business, is usually a trademark of well known, internationally recognized brands, such as Berlitz or inlingua. As a teacher, you’ll undergo training in this method and directors will expect you to use the method in class.
You’ll have very little leeway for creativity, as it’s “the method” that has been sold, not the talents of the individual teacher. If you’re required to wear a tie or skirt in class, you can expect that your creativity as a teacher is meant to be kept under wraps in the classroom!
However, for ESL teachers with little practical experience, this type of academy can be a great place to start due to the pre-set structure.
Private “Storefront” Academies
There are lots of “storefront” academies, or private local academies, throughout Spain. Check out ESL BASE for a comprehensive list of academies organized by region.
The basic administrative structure of a storefront academy in Spain includes an owner, a secretary, a “head teacher” and teachers. The owner will often be autónomo (self-employed), while everyone else will be contracted employees. The head honcho will be looking mainly at his or her bottom line, delegating study plans and syllabi to the “head teacher,” on down to the actual teachers.
Privately owned academies are usually more flexible about their programs, though the head teacher may choose the textbooks that’ll be sold to students and will ensure that teachers use those materials. Since texts are usually sold separately from the classes, it’ll be important to follow them so that students/parents feel the additional investment was well made.
These academies recognize the value creative teachers bring in their book bags. If you communicate experience and maturity in your ESL teaching during your job interview, many owners will take you up on your ideas and implement them in their sales pitch.
I landed a job teaching on-site business classes because of my extensive experience with Japanese businessmen in New York, and even got paid for material development!
School Review in Academy Settings
Think back to that college French class you took to meet your language requirement. Did you actually learn to speak French? Or did you simply learn a lot of grammar and spelling rules to pass tests? In Spain, English is generally taught the same way as math or geography: learn the rules, do the exercises and pass the test.
Because English differs significantly from Spanish in structure, vocabulary and pronunciation, school students tend to struggle with the language. They don’t always get good grades. Their parents worry about that college entrance exam. These kids end up in so-called repaso (review) or apoyo (support) classes at private language academies. For example, see the review classes offered through Nexolang.
This type of class is often provided through language academies like the ones mentioned above. However, there are also special review academies to help students with any or all of their studies at school. Though more difficult to locate, most larger cities have several of these types of academies. If you’re interested in this type of academy, here’s a list to get you started in your searches.
In review classes, your students will ask you to explain stuff that their teacher was unable to get across to them at school. They’ll ask you to help them with their homework. The cheekier ones will even ask you to do their homework for them!
Explaining the passive voice in English is an excellent example of what you’ll have to face in this type of class. While native speakers are taught that using the passive voice is kind of a no-no, English textbooks in Spain will often dedicate several chapters to this structure, never explaining its appropriate use or even that natives are actually discouraged from using it in writing.
You’ll find that this rule-based teaching will happen across the board. At school, students are expected to learn those rules, memorize the vocabulary and irregular verb lists, do their homework and pass the tests.
Review classes can be rewarding when your students are motivated to improve their grades, which is the final objective. They can be frustrating when you realize that that student is being asked to understand modal auxiliary verbs when they can’t manipulate “be” or “do” in simple questions and answers.
And the parents….
A quick word on Spanish parents. For years, the unofficial “second language” in Spain was French. Though this has shifted to English in the last generation, Spanish parents aren’t usually well versed in English and can’t offer direct homework help to their children as they might be able to do with math or geography. In review classes, you’re that homework help.
2. Business English Classes
Business English classes in Spain are a little different from those you might have taught in the U.S. In general, you’ll get this kind of job through references or at academies that have sold a business English program. A good place to start looking for business English teaching jobs in Spain is the CIEE (Council on International Educational Exchange).
These classes typically take place on-site at students’ workplaces. Your students will often have had little or no actual contact with native English speakers. Their motivation for having you come and give them classes, usually on a bi-weekly basis, will often be directly related either to company needs or personal job promotion goals.
One-on-one Business English Classes
A private, one-on-one class will probably have you sitting across the table from an important person in the company. My experience was almost always either giving classes to managing directors or CEOs, sometimes having private classes with mid-management people who took advantage of my being on-site.
You’ll want to tailor these classes to the specific needs of the student. He or she won’t be basking in extra time, neither for the classes that have been contracted, nor for any outside homework. Be very concentrated and professional, even when the friendly character of a Spanish manager seems to mean “relax!” These men and women have a lot of responsibilities and expect you to give results even when contact time is limited.
A company may decide to offer their employees voluntary, after-work or lunch-hour ESL classes. While the company may be making this offer generally to scout out potential English speakers for future promotions, and may even be taking advantage of government subsidies for offering formación (extra training), the workers will be in the class for other reasons.
One group I taught came about because of an American takeover of an Italian company located in Spain. I spent more than fifteen hours a week in the meeting room with this group. All of the students were highly motivated by anxiety about losing their jobs if they didn’t learn English, and quickly. Not a particularly healthy motivation, but in this case, for many of them, it worked.
In these types of classes, you’ll usually be teaching students with a wide range of English proficiency levels. One of the best ways to handle this is to mix basic English grammar and vocabulary lessons with business English role-play. All role-play should be of situations these lower-level employees may encounter on the job. You can tailor your role-play activities by surveying your students or observing them in day-to-day work and preparing specific material for their needs.
3. Private Classes
I first became an English teacher in Spain by offering private classes (as opposed to securing more stable employment through an academy or another institution/organization). It can be a stressful job path and it’s important to know the rules. Here’s my story:
I arrived on the basic 90-day tourist visa but it was almost fifteen years before an “irregular immigrant amnesty” allowed me official residence and a work permit. Those fifteen years were a mixture of enjoying the freedom of being in an underground economy and suffering from the difficulties of living and working without official documents for the indefinite future. I remember a Spanish immigration officer telling me bluntly that the only way I’d get a permit would be to meet a sweet Spanish señorita and get married…
During your 90 days on a tourist visa, you’re supposed to be visiting the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona or the Alhambra in Granada, drinking sangria and eating tapas while you bask in the sun. You’re not supposed to work.
Before considering giving private classes in Spain, make sure you’ve investigated the rules and bureaucracy behind residence and work permits depending on where you’re coming from. Teaching private classes is a worthy endeavor and working for yourself can be rewarding, but doing it without permits will become stressful as you discover all the things you can’t do: buy a car, buy a house, sign a work contract, etc. Though many have entered the market in this fashion, I wouldn’t recommend it, both for legal and personal reasons.
Private classes are found by placing ads in shops around town and, nowadays, on online classifieds platforms such as Milanucios. You’ll need a phone and a means of transportation, so a city with good public transit is often the best place to settle for this type of job. You’ll be moving about a lot (I actually spent more time on trains than in class when I did this in Barcelona)!
Private Classes with Proficient Adult Students
There are many adults who are proficient in English and are eager to keep from getting rusty in their conversational skills. These students will usually be college grads or even professors. Freer movement within the European Union has meant more Spaniards have spent time in English-speaking countries. When they return, they want to keep their level fresh.
Plus, the Escuela Oficial de Idiomas (the official, state-sponsored language school) has a strong reputation for pushing their students toward proficiency, and that can be an excellent place to scout out intermediate and upper-intermediate level students.
Though these may seem like simple “conversation classes,” unless your student specifically asks for friendly conversation, you’ll probably want to survey them to discover academic or professional objectives and plan classes accordingly. The more professional you are with these students, the longer they’ll study with you. They’ll also become free publicity for you, telling their friends what a serious, professional tutor they have. This will lead to more work.
Classes with Adult False Beginners
Nowadays, almost everyone has taken an ESL or EFL course. Foreign language is required in school and English has become the lingua franca. You’ll encounter false beginners: students who claim to have no English skills, but who actually have some background knowledge due to exposure to English speakers and content. They usually have a low opinion of their own proficiency because they haven’t learned how to correctly use the information they’ve stored.
For these students, you’ll want to combine a review of the basics while concentrating on getting them to speak up and pronounce correctly. You’ll find a lot of interference with them, especially phonetically, and much of your work will be helping them overcome their vergüenza (embarrassment) and getting them to speak despite their mistaken opinion of their level.
Private Tutoring with Young Kids
Parents in Spain are busy people. They typically work long hours to make ends meet. They want their kids to have all the opportunities the modern world offers, and a lot of those opportunities will require being able to speak English.
Having a private tutor come to the house a couple of days a week actually kills two birds with one stone for many parents; there’s a responsible adult sitting with their kid while they’re finishing up the workday, and the kid is improving his or her English.
Parents sometimes expect you to spend the entire lesson speaking English with their children. Problem is, you probably won’t have a lot in common to chat about with a 12-year-old boy or girl. There’s only so much conversation you can have about soccer.
You’ll need to plan these classes carefully and be pretty strict. Kids can be experts at hijacking the lesson and wasting time, which doesn’t lead to results that the parents can see… which leads to you loosing the job!
Academic Support for Kids
As in the academies, you’ll have your share of younger students who are simply failing English at school. Some parents who’ve tried private academies with no luck consider a private tutor the best way to get their kids to buckle down and improve their grades. That same student probably has a math tutor as well!
You’ll need to get your hands on the student’s school textbook early on. Try to get the parents to provide you with photocopies of the contents page of the book so that you can prepare additional exercise material based on the structures and vocabulary found there.
Don’t be afraid to be old-school with these students. The parents are often exasperated with school failure and want to see the grades go up. You should probably repeat the same exercises again and again, both from the textbook and from your additional materials.
Keep the student writing, filling in blanks, diagramming grammar and copying vocabulary constantly. Give homework, correct it, assign grades and record them. Show progress to both the student and the parents regularly. You’ll be a drill sergeant, but your students (and their parents!) will soon see results and be content.
4. Public and Private Schools
Public and private schools are built on the following structure (U.S. equivalent grades in parentheses):
- Primaria (grade school, first through sixth grades)
- Educación Secundaria Obligatoria (ESO) (Obligatory Secondary Education, seventh through tenth grades—students are allowed to leave school after 10th grade)
- Bachillerato (college track education, 11th and 12th grades)
- Formación Profesional (FP) (vocational school)
Grades are given on a 10-point scale, roughly equivalent to:
- 10, 9, 8 = A+, A, A-
- 7 = B
- 6 = C
- 5 = D (passing grade—celebrated by students, worried about by parents)
Get used to this scale of evaluation. Even though a five may seem a pretty low score to pass by (it is, after all, only 50 percent!), a lot of students will be more than happy to slip by with this rating.
Basic tips for succeeding in a public/private school setting:
- Make sure you understand what’s expected of you in class.
- Get approval from the head teacher or director before you get too creative.
- Read your work contract carefully!
For English teachers who are new arrivals to Spain, working as an auxiliary teacher (or teaching assistant) is one of the simplest paths to school employment. You’ll be providing supplementary classes based on the main English teacher’s curriculum and lesson plans.
These auxiliary classes are sometimes more free and flexible than traditional classes and can provide an opportunity for students to get additional conversation practice. You’ll typically fulfill one (or both) of the following roles:
- Encouraging students to apply their book-learned English in conversation
- Reviewing the material taught by their main English teacher
In either case, you’ll be expected to follow the textbook and the teacher’s class planning closely.
Here’s the full rundown on this type of teaching job and how to apply for one.
Extra Activity Lessons
In some schools, teachers must stop giving classes at midday. However, parents don’t usually get home for lunch until 1 p.m. That means there’s an hour during which the school cafeteria isn’t yet open, but the school can’t just send the kids home or out to play. That’s when they hire teachers to give additional English activity classes.
These classes can range from the already discussed review and support classes to fun activities like English game playing or drama. You’ll want to discuss with the school director exactly what he or she expects and how your own personal talents and capacities can make this extra activity both fun and educational for the kids.
Teaching English in Spain won’t be all that different from teaching English anywhere else in the world as far as the material you have to teach. What can be challenging is getting accustomed to the specific culture, attitudes and difficulties you’ll meet when getting started. Always remember that you’re the “guest” in their country and will have to adapt to their “ways.”
Once you’ve identified the type of class you’re facing and figured out your students’ objectives, you’ll find adapting to Spanish students is actually a pleasure. Though there’s a range of cultural personalities across the peninsula, leaving stereotypes aside, you’ll generally find the Spanish friendly and warm and almost always eager to learn.
Revel Arroway taught ESL for 30 years before retiring into Teacher Training. His blog, Interpretive ESL, offers insights into language teaching, simplifying the classroom, language class activities and general thoughts on ESL teaching.
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