Friday, September 26, 2008

The greener grass

I know people who teach or have taught English in China, Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Spain, Germany, Switzerland... and while every country has its positives and negatives for English teachers, the one thing that really stands out is how much more English teachers in Spain have to struggle to stay afloat.

Is it because of Spanish labor laws that (supposedly) make it fiscally impossible for academies to hire English teachers for a full 12-month year? Is it because of clients who refuse to pay up for their English classes and thus force academies to offer crap pay to their teachers? Is it because there are so many transient English teachers in Spain that the overall quality of teaching is low and thus not valued and thus results in low pay? Is it because English teachers in Spain are bad at managing their money? Maybe all of these reasons, maybe none of these reasons... I don't know.

All I know is this: My recently departed friend was offered an EFL job in another European country after undergoing more than 2 1/2 hours of in-person and phone interviews and providing three previous students as references. That alone made him feel more confident about what lay ahead -- in Madrid, the average interviews we had for EFL jobs consisted of three questions: "Have you taught kids?", "Have you taught adults?", and "When are you available?" I did have one academy (Transfer, which I considered the most professional of the ones I knew) that asked me what materials I had used and what relevant non-teaching work experience I had. But nobody ever asked me for references or proof of being TEFL-certified or even university-educated, which I always found amazing. Any yokel could walk in with a completely fabricated CV and work history... I met plenty of teachers who lied about having a TEFL certificate, since they knew that they would never have to provide the proof.

Now, since my friend has arrived in his new destination, the academy has assisted him in finding a place to live (they even put him up in a hotel while he looked) and opening a bank account; they arranged for some of the other teachers to take him out for dinner on the first night and help him settle in; they provided him with a mentor to help him with any issues that might come up in his first few weeks as he learns the way the school works and how to navigate the local transportation system, since he doesn't speak the language; they pay for his transportation pass, something I've never had in Madrid, even though a monthly metro pass is essential for any English teacher; they reprimanded him on day one for showing up in a nice shirt and jeans -- because in this place, jeans are not acceptable, even if you're only popping in to make a photocopy; and they expect their teachers to come to the main office at least once a day to check in.

What does all of this mean? For one thing, they create a professional atmosphere that makes the teachers feel like professionals and look like professionals, so they get more respect from their students. In Spain, I've seen so many teachers show up to teach business classes in a t-shirt and jeans, and either nobody reprimands them or nobody knows, because in some places you can get by with only a weekly or bi-weekly visit to the academy. They also make the teacher feel like he/she is part of an organization that has high expectations but is also willing to assist and support the teacher however needed. The teacher is not just one of many faces that the academy hopes to keep around through the end of the schoolyear, as it seems to be in Madrid. Rather, the teacher is hired with an eye to staying with the academy for a very long time.

The upshot is that, after several years of feeling like he was in a dead-end job that could never really be a career in Spain, my friend is now in a place where he feels respected and appreciated and, most importantly, that he can finally make English teaching a real career.

It doesn't hurt that he's got a 12-month contract with almost double the monthly salary as well...


Troy said...

The terrible situation that English teachers face here in Spain has many causes, but maybe the most overlooked one is the Spaniards' view of education. Specifically, how they see learning and how they see teachers and their memories of being educated and the rote learning they experienced. Memories of nasty nuns are very fresh in many minds.

ElPais just published an article saying that there has NEVER been a consensus here between the 2 main political parties when making laws regarding Education in the 30+ years of the democracy. Not once.

You have two basic camps. Those who desperately want Education reform (but unfortunately have no clue how to go about it) and those on the far Right who still are still smarting from the fact that the Church is loosing more and more power over education everyday.

This conflict has left people somewhat bewildered and perhaps ambivalent towards education. Sure, it is mentioned in the run up to elections, but it is never really a main issue. The fact that Spain consistently scores near last in the PISA tests year after year only ever scores a blip on the media/national interest radar. If it ever does spark minor debate, both sides chase their own tails but never bother to touch on the REAL problem, that is regarding the teachers and HOW they themselves are taught and then chosen.

Primary teachers are looked down upon as are Secondary teachers. Studying for an Education degree is considered inferior to other degrees. All of this leads to a general apathy towards everything related to learning.

This of course spills over to language teaching. Take a bad situation and worsen it with the army of backpackers that arrive every year to and you get the current situation.

Without a society-level change in how learning is seen and a clampdown on what passes for teachers and language academies, 9 month pittance contracts will be the norm for a long time to come.

Janice said...

For a long time companies have tried to get as much as they can out of service providers without being interested in the fact that beating them down on price ultimately leads to a poor service as schools then look for cheaper teachers. This downward spiral however is no good to anyone, client, teacher or academy and the sooner everyone does their bit to fight it the better.

Janice said...

Something strange happened and the first part of my comment didn't get published. I meant to say that I agree with Troy regarding the educational situation. In general the Spanish culture hasn't supported personal development as people have been discouraged to grow and advance, what was the point when the government and business owners were corrupt anyway. Hence we have the "funcionario" mentality and Spain still has low standards when it comes to service standards. The view expressed in the first comment should go here now, "Ah qué lío!"

eslhell said...

Thanks for your comments, Troy and Janice. I hope for your sakes, and for those who will come, that the Spanish attitude towards education will change. I started my TEFL career with idealistic visions of enthusiastic students who would share my own love of languages. After nearly four years of battling with apathetic business students, parents who cared more about having someone keep their kids busy rather than actually teaching them anything, and students who doubted everything I said because they were used to have English teachers who knew nothing about the language, grammar, or teaching... I gave up. I was too frustrated, too disillusioned, and, quite frankly, too pissed off. These people don't know how lucky they are -- in America, I would never have an employee offer me free private language classes. Here, many of them get free classes, and many of them don't show up for classes or don't take them seriously. As a lover of languages and learning in general, I was annoyed, insulted, and angry.

But I digress. Anyways, it's good to vent a bit... :)

I encourage everyone to keep an eye on Janice and Troy's blogs (links on the left-hand side of the page) for up-to-date views on the Spanish EFL world.

Janice said...

I agree Spain can be frustrating at times particularly if you're passionate about something that others have little respect for. Due to the culture, Spain isn't for everyone, although for many, the good things outweigh the bad. After nearly 20 years here I've learnt to accept what can't be changed, but continue to do my bit to improve professional standards where I can. One advantage is that if you ARE very professional and go the extra mile, you stand out which I would say is never a bad thing if you want to move on in life.
Thanks a lot for your support for my blog.