Monday, June 16, 2008

What Madrid English schools can do to improve EFL jobs for teachers

So the other day I received a comment from the owner of an English academy in Madrid asking for ways to improve things for the teachers. I decided to make a list of general suggestions for all English academies in Madrid, based on common complaints I’ve heard (or had myself) from English teachers in Madrid. Some of these are easier than others, but most of them, ultimately, would not be that hard to implement. And having happy teachers who feel appreciated and respected should lead to happier students as well…

The problem is that I was going to try to limit myself to just a few suggestions, but once I got started, I just couldn’t stop! So here’s my list of 13 ways English academies can make life better for their EFL teachers in Madrid.

1) Listen to the teacher when it comes to choosing their classes. If a teacher tells you that they don’t particularly like children, DON’T give them classes with kids! It may sound obvious, but I can’t tell you how many times I told academies I wasn’t good with kids (not that I don’t like them, just that I didn’t think I was an effective teacher for Spanish kids) – and they still gave me tons of kids classes! While I understand that there may be scheduling issues, with so many EFL teachers roaming around Madrid looking for work, I find it hard to believe there’s not a single other teacher available at those times. Other teachers might not feel comfortable teaching in banks – so don’t send them there. By trying to match teachers with classes that they feel are better suited to their abilities, you can avoid having unhappy students or overly stressed out teachers.

2) Read our CVs and try to match teachers to classes that fit their background. This kind of goes hand in hand with the first point. I worked at one academy with a girl from my TEFL course. She had significant experience babysitting and working with kids, but no experience in the corporate world. I, on the other hand, had spent several years working for banks and other corporations. Guess who got the classes at businesses and who got the kids classes? Does that make any sense to anyone??? Wouldn’t business students rather have a teacher who might actually understand the business vocabulary they are teaching?

3) Look at where we live. If a teacher lives in Avenida de America, they can easily get to many locations in Madrid. But if a teacher lives in Vallecas, it’s not only a pain but also very time-consuming to get to classes in the north of Madrid. Of course, most business classes are somewhere north of Gregorio MaraƱon, so all teachers end up traveling north, but try to take into account where people live and which Metro lines are closest to them. One of the worst parts about teaching English in Madrid is having to spend several hours in the Metro each day. I appreciated it GREATLY when an academy offered me a class that was convenient to where I lived – and when they pointed that out when offering the class to me. Even if the rest of my classes with them were not conveniently located near my house or Metro line, it made me believe that they at least tried to make my life a little better.

4) Don’t force teachers to take classes they don’t want. Some academies are pretty good about this – they’ll “offer” a class to a teacher and give them the chance to say “yes” or “no”, no questions asked. But other academies will threaten teachers if they try to reject a class. One academy threatened to take away all of my other classes if I didn’t do a nighttime class with kids – when I had said from the beginning that I didn’t want any classes after 8 pm or any classes with children! Of course, I knew they wouldn’t take away all of my classes – if they were that desperate to fill one class, imagine how desperate they would be to fill another 10 classes! A lot of teachers will eventually cave in if an academy asks NICELY and explains that they really are in a spot and can’t find someone else. But threatening a teacher – when they know there are plenty of other academies they can go to in Madrid – is not a useful tactic.

5) Don’t expect us to reject or change private classes – unless you want to fork out the same kind of pay. If a teacher is on a full contract that specifies their work hours and says they must be available to work during those hours, fine. But how many English teachers have a contract like that in Madrid? Me and everyone else I’ve known has either had no contract or a contract that just specified specific classes. So as far as we’re concerned, the rest of our time is free. If we’re lucky enough to find good-paying private classes, we’re not going to drop them for lower-paid academy classes. And we’re certainly not going to jerk around our private students by constantly changing times or canceling classes – unless the academy can meet the terms.

6) Provide complete and correct information on classes. So many academies send their teachers out with limited or incorrect information on their classes and students. I’ve been sent to the wrong addresses, at the wrong times, and with the wrong level information! It makes the teacher look stupid, but it also reflects badly on the academy. My favorite academy used to create a thorough file on each new class – including a photocopied street map that had the path from the Metro to the company or apartment building highlighted. Any additional instructions (e.g., second door on the left) were also included.

7) Communicate cancellations immediately! Going back to the whole spending-hours-and-hours-on-the-Metro thing… The only worse than spending an hour in the Metro to get to class is spending an hour in the Metro to get to a class that was already cancelled. Calling the teacher 30 minutes before the class is not sufficient to save them from wasting time on the Metro. Call the teacher as soon as the student calls the academy to cancel the class. (Of course, sometimes the students don’t cancel until moments before – but other times they call hours before, and the academy forgets to tell the teacher or waits until just before class to tell them.)

8) Show us the feedback from students! In all of my academies, we had to give the students feedback forms at the end of the year and sometimes throughout the year. I never once saw any of the feedback students had provided for me! How is a teacher supposed to improve their classes if they don’t know what the students want? We can ask our students until we’re blue in the face, but many of them don’t feel comfortable telling us directly.

9) Reward the teachers who are responsible, loyal, and liked by their students. A lot of EFL teachers in Spain aren’t really that interested in the job – they’re just here for a year to learn Spanish or have some fun, and they view TEFL as an easy way to make extra cash. So they show up to class late, tired, or even hungover – if they show up at all. But those of us who show up on-time and sober are treated no differently by the academies. I’m not saying to give teachers a bonus for having a perfect attendance record (though I don’t think anyone would be against it) – even just a simple “well done” at the end of the year would be nice.

10) Organize get-togethers for the teachers. You don’t even have to pay for them – just encourage the teachers to meet each other and make friends by arranging a monthly (bimonthly, whatever) night out at the bar down the street. Most English teachers come to Madrid on their own and may have trouble meeting people if they’re spending most of their time in class or on the Metro. Even those who do have a lot of friends in Madrid would enjoy meeting more people and talking to teachers who are dealing with the same issues and experiences. Given the hectic schedules of English teachers, it's often difficult to meet the other teachers in the academy -- everyone's always just popping in to make photocopies and then taking off for their next class.

11) Don’t force teachers to go to mandatory training sessions – unless they have no TEFL certificate or teaching experience. There’s nothing more annoying than spending one or two grand on a TEFL course and then being told that you have to go to little training sessions at your academy to learn how to teach English! Teachers would much rather have you dedicate those training sessions to free Spanish classes!

12) Give teachers a copy of their contract at the beginning of the year and answer any questions they have. Believe it or not, a friend of mine just got a copy of his contract last week – even though he’d been asking for it all year.

13) If you’re going to have a complicated payment system (breaking up monthly pay into extras, transportation subs, etc.), sit down with the teachers and let them know how it works. Otherwise it just looks fishy and the teachers are convinced they’re getting ripped off somehow – which leads to resentment and discontent, of course.

So there you have it, a few humble suggestions from a former Madrid English teacher. I could go on -- pay teachers for all cancelled classes, not just day-of cancellations; give legal teachers a 12-month contract with paid holidays; etc. -- but I know that would be pushing my luck. :)

The upshot of my suggestions is this: Those EFL teachers who take the job seriously get frustrated by academies who don't seem to take it too seriously; who don't recognize that English teachers are individuals with different strengths, weaknesses, and interests; and who don't reward teachers for doing a good job.


Janice said...


Great post and I'm flattered that my comment contributed in part to this posting.
At the end of the day isn't it obvious that we're working in a people's industry and we ALL want to be treated fairly and respectfully. Ok, we have different pressures depending on whether you're a teacher or an academy owner, but with a little bit of integrity, lots of communication and a consistent dose of coherency we should all end up winning. Often it's the CLIENTS who aren't the serious ones in the game, but that's a another area for another post/comment another day!
Janice, Windsor Idiomas said...

I agree with Janice that there are several, at least three, sides in this game: the teachers, the DOSes (and managment) and the clients. There are all sorts of problems, for example, the clients trickle in at different times and days and all want their teachers yesterday and the schools often have to give them whoever they can contact first with the time-slot available. DOSes are overwhelmed with work and information and don't always have time or know who wants what, when, how and where. On the other hand, I've had a few Machiavellian bosses like you (to put it mildly), which is the main reason why I'm a total freelance now. Really, if it weren't for the shenanigans, I'd still be teaching in academies and agencies. Theoretically, it should be better than what I have to go through as a freelancer, but it ain't! said...

By the way, by "like you" I mean to say that the blogger of the article has had some bad bosses.

eslhell said...

I agree that going with an academy does save a lot of hassle, in terms of not having to find classes on your own or deal with clients that don't want to pay on time or pay for classes canceled at the last minute. And if you're new to Madrid, working for an academy is pretty much your only option until you make enough connections to build up a good client base as a freelancer. But if the academies want to keep dedicated teachers like you and others, they need to make some changes. I understand that life is not easy for the academies either, but I still think there are a lot of ways in which they can make the job better for teachers (shenanigans and all)! said...

I agree. I wish it were different. DOSes don't have it easy. I wouldn't want a "responsible" DOSes' job without the corresponding authority and salary, for example. The funny thing is that besides directing studies and juggling a million other things, they have to be nice to teachers and organize fun get togethers with them. Sometimes, they even have to teach on top of that. It's no wonder some schools have a hard time finding a new DOS. I'm not saying there aren't total incompetents out there, but the job ain't easy. No, sir!