Emma, English Teacher in Spain

Teaching English as a foreign language is an attractive prospect for many young English native speakers. It can be a rewarding career, or fulfilling gap year. However, the work circumstances are often far from ideal. We spoke to Emma, an English teacher from the U.S. and two of her former colleagues, to find out more about temporary contracts, under-the-table pay, and being forced to work extra unpaid hours.

I worked as an English Language Assistant in a state high school in Spain from September 2015 to May 2016. I worked 18 hours of class time a week – not including approximately 15 to 20 hours of unpaid preparation time – teaching 12 to 18 year-old students in the school’s bilingual program. These hours were spread over five days, Monday to Friday, with classes at varying times. I also had to attend a regular one-hour meeting on a Wednesday afternoon, in which I was expected to practice English speaking with the bilingual teaching staff. This meeting was unpaid. I supported a range of subjects in the school’s bilingual program, including Philosophy, P.E., Technology, ICTm , Art, and Music, acting as assistant teacher in these classes. I was expected to prepare presentations, encourage the students to speak, or present any other activities the main teacher had prepared. In English Language classes I was the principal teacher and had to devise and organize my own classes and accompanying activities for the pupils that incorporated reading, writing, listening and speaking skills.

People find themselves working as English teachers in Spain for many reasons. For some, it is a necessary requirement in our studies. For others, a desire to improve education standards for the next generation. Sometimes we fall into it because we are in love with Spanish culture and the language, and it allows us to live and work in a Spanish-speaking country. But we all were interested in teaching, and we were learning from the students too!

The work of English teachers varies from school to school. My classes were split into morning and afternoon classes, sometimes giving lessons to school students, or to small groups of adults. I taught extra-curricular, English language classes, and even science, sports, art, philosophy or more to children in English. I spent my free hours attending to meetings preparing activities and presentations.

It is easy to find work as an American, as schools are often desperate for English native speakers. Natives are usually asked to stay for a longer term. This does not mean you will be paid what you are worth though, or always have long-term work contracts, which can make planning for the future difficult. A possible side-effect of being a millennial though.

Having the right to work, or a decent contract, can be tricky. If you’re an EU citizen, you can look for help from your national government to find you a placement. But many teachers are American, and without residency, they don’t have the right to work. If they want to make more money they have to teach informally and be paid under the table. In the U.S., permanent contracts are the norm, whereas Spain has some of the least permanent contracts in the EU. The way of life feels very distinct here – so many young people still live with their families and because the job market is so dismal, young Spaniards often have multiple masters – but not necessarily experience in their field. Compared to the U.S., however, the worker in Spain has more rights, and universal healthcare is a plus.

As a young person, especially when just arriving in Spain, you are vulnerable to exploitation. You can be forced to work at multiple schools, with last minute schedule changes, arranging your free time around the company’s needs, and some teachers don’t receive pay for months. Once, the local authorities threatened to withhold one of my colleague’s Erasmus grant if she did not work an extra 6 unpaid hours at another school. As young people in a foreign country, we can be overwhelmed and forced to swallow our pride without knowing our rights, or having support from our own governments.

It would save some tears if we, the English teachers in Spain, were made aware of our rights, or had a union or network of support behind us. Local authorities need to be correctly informed of the Erasmus process too. Native speakers are invaluable for students who cannot immerse themselves abroad. The sooner the child is exposed to the language, the more of a chance they have of becoming bilingual. We help with pronunciation, colloquialisms, nuances, and exposing students to our cultures to better understand the language. But if we do not have our rights protected, it will make teaching a less attractive prospect.

In this article a fictional name is used in order to safeguard privacy

This text was collected by Eleanor from the Social Europe Working Group of FYEG. 

Europeans at work is a weekly blog initiated by the Social Europe Working Group about work circumstances in Europe. We research structural problems through personal stories.

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