Teaching English in Barcelona, Spain

Maria Aguado talks through her the highs and the lows of being a TEFL teacher in Barcelona

Maria moved to Spain in the mid-1990s, originally from the USA she chose to follow her Latino culture of her half-Spanish roots which led her to Seville. Settling there for six months, she then decided to make the brave move and live in Spain permanently.

“While in Seville, I had noticed that EFL was a large, growing business. Given that my Spanish wasn’t yet up to a level that would allow me to do office or other professional work, I decided to train as an EFL tutor.”

It was then she packed up and moved to Barcelona, Catalunya where she was a TEFL teacher for four years.

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For newcomers to TEFL it’s important to “study the local culture in depth before you go.” Maria’s main motivation to move to Barcelona was that Catalunya is bilingual.

“However, I was very naïve about what this meant on a social and political level. Many of the EFL tutors were outright dismissive and scornful of both Catalan and the politics around the language, and this caused a lot of their students to resent their presence.”

When Maria began teaching there were no stringent requirements to become a TEFL teacher. However, fortunately when she worked at Ohio State University she opted to do one or two ESL workshops with a local charity and from these workshops her first TEFL role in Spain emerged.

“It was after a year that I did the Cambridge CTEFLA,” she chimed. “Most language academies in Spain require that as a minimum.”

Maria’s career as a TEFL teacher is arguably a turbulent one. “My training in no way prepared me to teach children,” Maria confessed. Her lowest moment in her teaching career is a stark reminder of this: “I had to take a 10 year-old out of class to tell her off and she broke down in tears and told me how the other kids were bullying her at school as well as in class.” Prior to this, Maria had done a Cambridge course specifically on teaching children, but had no training on how to handle these emotional situations. “I felt helpless,” Maria confided.

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It is from low moments like this that Maria is able to pass on her gems of advice. “Be aware that your students may not actually want to learn English.” When Maria began teaching the mid-1990s English was booming in Spain and for both schools and employers it was a requirement. There was also a surgence of people taking classes as a way to boost their CV. And, it was a lot of these students who had no real interest in the language. “Some of them actively hated having to do it. But try to be understanding about that and not view them as ‘difficult’ students.” This is just one of Maria’s mantras and made Maria into the understanding tutor that she is, which is embodied in one of her highest moments:

“I had one class with only two students: two young men who were good friends and were personally motivated to work. One day, another tutor said she’d overheard them chatting in English and was blown away by how much they’d improved in such a short time.” It’s at that moment for most TEFL teachers were they realised that their hard work has paid off.

However, Maria’s teaching experience comes with a frank warning too in that TESOL is first and foremost a business. “At the time and place that I taught, we referred to all the Cambridge EFL training and language exams as the “Cambridge TEFL Mafia,” because essentially all tutors had to train with them in order to work and all students had to take their exams in order to have a respected qualification.” Maria found that before the huge boom of teaching English in Spain, it was possible to live decently as a teacher. However, now the popularity has increased: “tutors’ contracts were worth the paper they were written on, and even organisations like the British Council dumped their long-term employees in favour of cheaper new hires,” Maria stated.

“Your region may be stable now, but things can change, and you shouldn’t expect any loyalty from your employers if they do.”

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