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Reflections On Life As A Language Assistant

16 Oct

As many of you are starting your time as a language assistant in Spain I offer some reflections on my own past experience. The views I share are entirely my own and are meant to serve as a creative way to express myself as well as being a subtle criticism of the North American Language Assistant program in general. I don’t claim to have all the answers on how to improve the program (although I do have many suggestions), nor do I want to start blaming specific people for my experiences because the program’s weaknesses spread from the top down.

I encourage readers to comment about their own experiences (good and bad) to give a more accurate feel for the program. What has surprised you these first few weeks? Do you think your school was well prepared to receive you?

Welcome to Carmona

The explicit graffiti and prison like gates throw me off a bit. I’m looking for a small town’s high school and this isn’t quite what I expected. It takes me a good ten minutes to figure out how to get inside the building—I’m from a small town where people keep their doors unlocked and this buzzer/intercom system is foreign looking and intimidating. Finally, someone rings the buzzer and I sketchily follow him inside.

School or Prison?

I’m greeted by the conserje who, only after two years of working there, I understand to be a mix of doorman, janitor, and office assistant… a jack-of-all-trades. I communicate who I am, thinking that perhaps someone is expecting me on my first day. It’s not the case but he hands me off to the English department with a smile.

Don’t Run For Cover (Yet)

A wailing sound comes out of the loud speakers. I jump and cover my ears. I’m pretty sure the fire alarm is going off but no one seems concerned. After thirty seconds of deafening noise it stops. As I see students and teachers rushing around I realize the horrible sound was just the bell, a signal to change classes. Why it has to sound like a bomb warning is a question I still have.

Students sprint through the small halls to let off energy. The majority of them don’t actually have to change classrooms (the teachers are usually the ones who change) but they aren’t allowed to stay in the classroom alone between periods. So they run, jump, wrestle, and flip while others eat chips, candy, donuts, and sandwiches from the school cafe. They shriek and scream and make passing through a living nightmare, complete with shoves, flying food particles, spilled liquids, and body odors. What should only last three minutes is often drawn out to ten or fifteen, as many teachers arrive considerably late to class. After unlocking the door, taking attendance, checking homework, and quieting the students it’s not unusual to have only thirty minutes left of the hour-long period.

Feeling Useless

The students are talking over me, again. I try to reel them in—“Please, listen! Be respectful!” I ask. But they don’t understand me. The few students that want to listen give me an embarrassed smile of apology on behalf of their classmates. They accept that the majority rules and unfortunately the majority do not want to learn English; they’d rather study for their chemistry test next period. Meanwhile, I’m stuck in front of a class of thirty teenagers, prohibited from addressing them in Spanish, and basically talking to myself. On the verge of a nervous breakdown, I try to make eye contact with the classroom teacher. No such luck, she’s too busy correcting exams in the back of the classroom. The buzz grows louder and I stop trying. Perhaps finally realizing that I am no longer talking, the teacher bangs loudly on a desk and shouts, “Quiet please! Prestad atención!” There is a thirty-second lull in the various conversations and study sessions, and I am suddenly being grilled by thirty sets of eyes that read annoyance. And they told me teaching would be rewarding…

Redemption: The Small Things

It’s 11:00– break time. Call me antisocial but I prefer not to go to breakfast with the other teachers. I use my thirty minutes to disconnect a bit from the chaos and enjoy some fresh air. Carmona is a beautiful town for a walk.

A Beautiful Place to Take a Stroll

It’s a week before the town fair and a woman approaches me. I recognize her as a teacher here, but I don’t remember meeting her. “Lorén!” she shouts, “I hear you don’t have a flamenco dress for the fair so I made you this!” She gives me a handmade pin, a flamenco dancer in a vibrant blue dress. It’s beautiful and unexpected. I wish I could express how much her kindness has impacted me, but I make due with a “Muchisimas gracias! Qué bonito!”

It’s my last week of being a language assistant and after each lesson I explain to the students that my time with them has come to an end. Some look disappointed, others could care less, and the majority is just anxious for the bell to ring (or wail). Occasionally, I get a few questions about what I’ll do next, if I’m going back to the US, and if I’ll ever come back to Carmona. After one class two girls approach me. They thank me profusely for my time with them (which, by the way, was only one hour every two or three weeks) and they apologize for their inattentive classmates. They ask for my email and I give it to them. They express their desire to visit the US one day and I encourage them to immerse themselves in English TV, books, and music. When I say goodbye they start to cry, they are thirteen after all, and it’s touching to see I’ve made some sort of impact.

How To Make Extra Money While Living In Spain: 7 Tips For Giving Private Classes

18 Sep

If you guys are anything like I was two years ago you have spent the last six months (or longer) waiting eagerly to find out your placements, painstakingly waiting for your visas, and all the while dreaming about finally getting on the plane and arriving at your destination. For most of you the dream has already become reality (you’re in Spain!) and I’m sure you are all exhausted from looking for apartments and trying to get someone from your school to actually answer a question or two. And after the initial excitement wears away there comes the realization that you are earning 700€ a month… not exactly enough for those glamorous weekend getaways to Paris and Amsterdam.

I haven't made it to Paris (yet) but the private classes did get me to Amsterdam!

When I lived in Seville 700€ was definitely enough to live on and enjoy your free time. I can’t speak personally for other cities, but many have told me that they agree (especially in Andalucía!). To give you an idea, my budget was more or less the following:

Rent: 220€

Bills (My share of electricity and internet): 30€

Prepaid Orange Phone: 40€/month (and I hardly used it other than text messages)

Groceries: 120€/month including a few bottles of inexpensive wine here and there

Transportation to and from Carmona: 40€ (counting on the bus card discount and that I’d carpool a few times a week)

Eating out: 120€ (Going for tapas and drinks three times a week)

Going out: 100€ (This really depends on how often you go out, how much and what you drink, and if you go to places that charge a cover)

Total: ~ 670€

As you can see it is cutting it close, but you can definitely live in Seville with the grant money alone. However, I’m sure you haven’t accepted this job without contemplating traveling through Spain and other parts of Europe on your vacations or maybe you plan to take some classes or join a gym. Extra money is always appreciated and easily spent! Luckily it’s really easy to make extra money in Spain using little more than your good fortune of being a native English speaker.

A very common, in demand, and easy way to make extra money in Spain is by offering private English classes, or clases particulares as the Spaniards call them. This will make you more money than almost any other side job you have the luck of finding. But, as with any service you offer, it is essential to know how to connect with potential clients and market your services.

When I first arrived I had no idea how to find students. I was lucky to meet some veterans of the program who gave me some great advice and I had also just completed a TESOL course from SIT prior to arriving in Spain that really boosted my confidence in teaching. Before long I was swimming in clients, working too much, and eventually had to give away or refuse new students. Here I’ve summarized my advice for giving private classes in Spain. Hope it helps!

1. Decide what types of classes you will offer. Conversation? Grammar? Test Preparation? Business English? What do you know how to teach? If you haven’t studied grammar for years, perhaps you shouldn’t offer grammar classes right away. If you’ve never heard of the First Certificate don’t accept a student who needs help preparing for it! You will be doing your students a disservice and I believe it is unethical. Be honest with yourself and if you only want to offer conversation classes or pronunciation correction at the beginning make that clear to your students.

2. Sell yourself! There is a large demand for private English classes in Spain but no one can find you if you don’t advertise your services. Place advertisements on popular Spanish websites like loquo and mundoanuncio. They should introduce you and describe your experience and geographical availability. Don’t offer to give classes too far outside of your neighborhood because you will lose half of your pay in transportation and lost time. Remember that if you include your phone number people will call you… at all times of the day and they’ll start speaking to you in very fast Spanish. If your Spanish isn’t up to par consider including an email contact only. In addition to advertising on websites you should print out flyers to post around your neighborhood and at nearby universities, libraries, etc. It sounds a bit old fashioned but I got at least half of my students this way, and they all lived close by since I only put the flyers in my neighborhood!

*** I will send a copy of my own fantastic flyer to all who subscribe to Spanish Sabores this week (and if you’ve already subscribed just let me know that you want a copy of my template in the comments below!) ***

3. Screen potential students. This is important. If someone sounds very strange by phone or email they probably are. Use caution when agreeing to meet someone for the first time and don’t meet at their home unless you are positive of their identity and reputation. I usually meet my students in a café for the first class but then I do give the majority of my classes in the student’s home. I still think that it is risky that way, but my roommates, boyfriend, etc. always know where I am and when I should be home. If you start classes with someone and you just don’t feel comfortable, apologize and explain that you’d be happy to recommend another teacher. There is no reason to suffer when you are your own boss!

4. Network with past and current auxiliars in your city. Like I said previously, I had so many classes at some points that I had to give them away. I searched for willing teachers on facebook or through friends. I also got many offers from friends who couldn’t give a class or who had moved out of Seville and had a student to pass on. These classes are usually great because you know what to expect of the student, what they were already paying, and their level of English based on what their previous teacher tells you.

The first year I networked with many other auxiliars-- it was fun!

5. Know what to charge and be firm with your price. Ask other teachers in your city what they charge to get a general idea of what people in your region are willing to pay. Then, evaluate yourself as a teacher. Are you TESOL certified? Did you study English or Education in college? Are you a super talented teacher? Only you can self-assess yourself and put a price on your time. But don’t undercharge just to get some students quickly. Most people understand that price reflects quality and having 2 good students at 20€/hour is much better than 4 flaky students at 10€/hr. People will always try to negotiate with you, but stay strong and don’t sell yourself short; students will come eventually!

6. Don’t become a workaholic. Soon enough your afternoons will be filled with private classes and your 700€ will become 1200€ in a flash. It’s tempting to keep accepting classes, but remember that you are abroad to enjoy the experience too. Having money is great, but if you don’t have the time to take a flamenco class or go to a concert it’s not worth it. Leave yourself some free evenings and have a clear cancellation and make up policy with your students.

7. Embrace a relationship with your students but don’t become unprofessional. Some of my students have become great friends and others are like family. I’ve been invited to Christmas dinners and been given movie tickets and bottles of wine. You should embrace having a good relationship with students, as they provide a real glimpse at Spanish life and can offer you advice, experiences, and connections that you wouldn’t otherwise have. But be careful of becoming unprofessional. Class time should be serious and a friendship shouldn’t mean that a student starts canceling whenever they want or that you do the same. If you get to a point where class time isn’t spent on anything productive you have a responsibility to end the professional relationship and just stay friends.

Hopefully this helps everyone who would like to teach private classes this year. I honestly think that they are a great experience for teaching, getting to know Spanish culture, and meeting some interesting people. Does anyone have any personal advice to add? Or maybe a funny story about a past student (no names!)?

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