Life in the classroom as a TEFL teacher in Spain

So you want to teach cute little Spanish kids, eager Spanish teenagers, and laid back Spanish adults? I’m not saying that isn’t possible, but be warned, life in the classroom as a TEFL teacher in Spain is not a massive fiesta. (This post is as seen on the i-to-i TEFL blog)

Having lived in Seville, the capital of Andalucía, for almost seven years, I’ve had the privilege of teaching a wide range of students. Some have been fun, eager, and appreciative, while others have been smarmy, rude, and patronizing.

View from the top of the new Setas
What is your job?
Before deciding to teach English in Spain, be aware of the following. The level of English in the Spanish state schools is poor so parents send their kids to language academies to improve their level and help them get certificates so they have more chance of getting into university. Adults learn English to improve their chances of getting a job. With the current economic crisis demand for classes is high.

The academy where I work prepares students for Cambridge Certificates: KET, PET, FCE, and CAE. We prep the students for grammar, speaking, listening, reading, and writing activities. It’s not as easy as it sounds and the higher levels take a lot of preparation.

I like the focus of exams and having a text book to follow; it gives each class and term an objective and most of the students seem to enjoy finishing a book and, hopefully, passing the exams. Those who fail have to repeat so they can get nervous around exam time.

As I mentioned in my last blog Why Spain is perfect for first time TEFL travellers, you do get time in class to do non-book based activities. I use ebeam whiteboard technology for every lesson. It takes a lot of prep, but the students appreciate the dynamic way of learning. There are loads of games, songs, and movie clips on the internet which are great for teaching English. (Photo by dellphotos)

Hot tips for the early stages
Learn grammar
If you’re new to TEFL in Spain then study English grammar. When I taught in South America, Australia, and Thailand I didn’t have to worry too much about grammar. I suffered in my first two years in Seville. Many times I was caught out because I didn’t really understand the grammar, or ways to explain the vocabulary. This was especially true teaching adults. It’s a myth that all Spanish adults are laid back and lazy, they work hard and most will expect an explanation for everything.  

No Mr. Nice Guy
Don’t go in too friendly with the kids and teenagers in your first two weeks (some say two months) or they’ll rip you to pieces. You have to be firm but fair. Find a system that keeps the nasty gremlins in order. I use a red and yellow card system with the teenagers and smiley faces with the young ones. I like to throw out a couple of students in the first lesson or two, just to show who is boss. 

Don’t think about June in September
The Spanish term can be long. There are no half terms, just lots of random one day holidays scattered through the year. I try not to think about how long the term is, or even how long my day is when I wake up at 6.30am to get ready for my early morning business class. You normally get two weeks off at Christmas, a week at Easter, and if you’re in Andalucía then a week off for various ferias – fairs. (Photo by crazytales562)

Biggest struggles
How do you say...?
Spanish students don’t have the best pronunciation. There are normally two or three in every class who will always try to speak in non-Spanish accent, but the majority you’ll have to whip into shape. Spanish English teachers in state schools tend to have poor pronunciation and don’t give the students chance to speak in class. This isn’t helped by the fact that a lot of students pronounce the words how they are written. Getting them to think and speak in a decent accent is a constant battle. You really have to push them otherwise they’ll take the easy option. Don’t give up because you can make a difference.

Another massive struggle is getting them to actually speak in English. It’s very rare that students will always speak in English. Every teacher has their own system and is lenient in different ways. The longer I teach, the less tolerable I am of Spanish in class. I tend to ignore students who speak to me in Spanish until they do in English, or if they are speaking Spanish in pairs or groups I stop the class and ask why they are there and get them to start over. Lines are a good option too.

Worst parts
Trouble makers
The majority of students are a good bunch, but nasty ones do exist. The kids and teenagers where I work are pretty good, but I have heard a few horror stories over the years. I think the main problem is that the students have power in the state schools and teachers don’t seem bothered about actually educating the kids (same as in England then?). Smaller classes (average between 10 and 14) in the language academies should mean they are more manageable, but be warned; students can be a handful.

Unsociable hours
Language academies provide classes when the students have finished their normal school day so if you’re teaching kids and teenagers then expect to work late. My first class is at 8am. I have a break until 4pm and finish at 10pm. That means no Champions League football or mid-week beers for me.

Let’s finish on a high note; the best parts
Songs of praise
Every now and then, I’d say about 3 or 4 times a year, a parent will tell you how you’ve inspired their child to learn English and how much they love your classes. Considering I have about 90 students a year and see each parent in February and in June that’s not a high ratio, but those special moments make everything seems worthwhile. Only last week a father told me that I’d inspired his daughter to learn more English and study more; hit my soft spot. (Photo by Herrylawford)

The best aspect of working for an academy is that you get to see your student’s progress over the years. I have 18 year-old students who I started teaching when they were 13 and they have almost achieved their goal of the Cambridge First Certificate. Watching them come through the years and seeing improvements is great job satisfaction.

So now you know what classroom life in Spain is really like, have I put you off? Have you had a different experience? Let me know.

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