By Troy Nahumko
Open a job search for ESL job openings around the world at any time of the year and a sunny southern corner of Europe is bound to tally the most hits. A place where, if you subscribe to RP pronunciation patterns, the rain falls mainly on the plain. A place I have called home off and on for more than 15 years, Spain.
Welcome to one of the world’s biggest ESL markets, a place where every year more candidates take Cambridge exams than in China and a place where many ESL professionals begin and then unfortunately abandon their teaching careers. A place where people either come to try their luck or run to when they are down on it. It’s a country with a certain allure; the food, the sun, the beaches, the wine and the literature have all made it one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations.
So, as your holiday winds down and your return flight home beings to loom large, you begin to notice the ever-present job offers for English teachers. While the salaries seem somewhat low, the cost of living isn’t as high as it is back home and there’s nothing better than being in short-sleeves in November. More than a few teaching careers have started this way but it’s when the initial glitter wears off and the rain begins to fall that teacher burnout quickly sets in and that return ticket starts to look more attractive.
Looking up as you walk the streets of the country, you quickly become aware of signs for private English academies, suddenly you see them everywhere. Stilted, unnatural sounding names that are invariably accompanied by a Union Jack, double-decker bus, red telephone box or Beefeater to further certify their authenticity, reinforce your growing notion that teaching jobs abound.
Step inside, especially at the right time of year, and your suspicions will be confirmed. Before you know it you have been officially anointed a teacher and find yourself being stared at by eleven Spanish nine year olds. Even if you had bothered to get a CELTA before coming, your timetable shows something that the signs outside didn’t, 80 percent of your teaching is with Young Learners.
The Few Survivors
Extremely long days, capricious parents, shady payment practices, creepy landlords and…um, spirited kids make up just a few of the reasons why most teachers opt for that return ticket after their first year. The present no longer looks perfect and the things that you swore you would never miss become a nostalgic necessity. In spite of the yearly losses though, there are a few who make it past that crucial first-year hump and decide to stay on.
You find a better paying, or at least regularly paying post, make some friends, learn the language, find romance and realize that homesickness does in fact go away. A year goes by, then two and then three. Your circle of friends has expanded and the nice couple at the corner store know your name. You have memorized the answers to the course book that you have been using and have stopped cutting up so many little pieces of paper for each class but besides that, nothing has really changed. Despite your hard work, you are still earning the same as you did when you started and for some reason it doesn’t seem to go as far as it used to. Is this the end of the teaching road?
Where to from Here?
Even with extra training and further education, the choices at this stage are somewhat limited in a country like Spain. At this point many choose to add their own Union Jack to the growing number of signs and academies around the town only to realize that their former employer wasn’t exactly getting rich off the sweat of their brow.
Now, on top of a full teaching schedule, administration tasks and dealing with parents occupies what little free time they had during the day. A brave few decide to follow another path and take on the public examinations in order to become teachers in the state system, full-fledged civil servants with all the rights that entails, only to find out that the memorization of obscure facts counts more than teacher training and linguistic ability. Then there is always the near impossibility of trying to get in with the universities, most of which are more endogmatic than a small tribe living on a remote island. When applying you are soon faced with the sad realization that the years of perfecting your teaching trade at the chalkface do not hold as much weight as the publication of a few studies on the use of metaphor amongst Welsh immigrants to Pennsylvania in an obscure academic journal.
Time to Get Creative
Then I remembered, I started teaching abroad because I love change and to discover new ways of doing things. I didn’t leave the comfort of the known to get bogged down in a static job for life. It’s time to diversify and uncover new adventures in a land I had begun to think that I really knew. Who writes those materials that the first-year teacher prints off before covering a class with 7 minutes notice? Don’t I have folders full of material that I have created? All those years struggling with the Present Perfect may have gained me few points when applying for a job with a university but active teachers thirsting for new ideas may want to hear things at conferences and workshops that they can take straight into their classrooms. And what about those hundreds of thousands of candidates taking exams every year? They need to be examined by someone, don’t they?
A day in the life of a post-academy teacher here in this mostly sunny corner of Europe means a little more hustle and a bit of imagination but if you’re willing to look and work for it, combined with a little luck, those short-sleeved shirts will continue to serve for some time to come.