I arrived in Málaga, Spain on the 3rd October 2011. Not a perfect time for job hunting, therefore I was over the moon when, just two days later, I got hired in one of local language schools.
As a matter of fact, we had a teacher scheduled for this academic year, but she just disappeared. Was supposed to start classes three days ago and never showed up. Her phone is off, so there´s just no way of contacting her. She was Turkish, came here after her Spanish boyfriend, so maybe they broke up and she went back to her country. Oh, and you´re going to be Agnes around here. I don´t think the students should ask you where you´re from, but if they do, don´t say you´re Polish.
Why was there no alarm going off in my head? I should have known from the beginning the school was a funny business. Soon I realized my employer was a real con artist, who made me work overtime promising extra pay, which, of course, I never laid my eyes (or hands) on. At least it was pretty clear why the previous teacher suddenly vanished into thin air. Looking at the labour market situation in Spain at that time (not that it got any better) and the fact we were in the middle of the school year, my chances of changing the employer were really slim, so I decided to endure it and start another job hunt in May.
That’s when a real nightmare began.
Since I was going door to door offering my CV around, it wasn’t until much later that I learned almost all languages schools had the following information on their webpages – profesores nativos con titulación – and by titulación they usually meant TEFL or CELTA, which they would often specify in the ‘work with us’ section. Apart from that, a lot of those websites were available in Spanish only, so to apply, you would actually need to know Spanish or have someone translate the offer to you. I keep wondering why they didn’t even bother to put the info in English, since they were looking for native speakers.
The heat was growing stronger, my contract was close to expire, and the things I was being told at the schools were getting more and more bizarre. School by school, everyone was turning me down because of their natives-only policy. Yet, there were also other cases.
To tell you the truth, we normally accept only native speakers, considering our clients’ demands, and even if got the job, you musn’t tell anyone where you’re from. They won’t notice.
– said the school head who didn’t even speak English herself (I’m sorry, what?).
Same thing happened in a few more places.
Coast in high season, tourists in high spirits, temperatures were also high, obviously. The only thing that wasn’t high, was the demand for non-native speakers. I was trying my best to make the ends meet, but still, if it wasn’t for the unemployment benefit, I wouldn’t have made it through the summer. I did find some part-time jobs, eventually. Not in language schools per se, but in two centers offering tutoring mainly in school subjects, one of them being English, that children had failed and needed to pass in September. What is essential to mention, is that in one of them I was explicitly told to teach English in Spanish. Yes, exactly.
You can’t speak English to them, because they won’t understand you. What they need is the knowledge of grammar sufficient to make it to the next grade. That’s why it must be explained in Spanish.
I got mixed abilities classes of 7-11 and 12-17 year olds, some of the latter preparing for the baccalaureate. The only thing I could, and was required to do, was to give them tests and grammar exercises adjusted to their level, while explaining topics on the board. First, for two front rows, while the others were working on some revision, then for the two following ones, and so on. Never have I felt worse as a teacher. It all seemed pointless and somewhat humiliating. No wonder they couldn’t get a native speaker to do it.
That summer I began asking myself a lot of questions about my life choices. What was the use of studying to become an English teacher if you weren’t a native? OK, so you could work in your own country, but that’s not what I had been told during my university years. English is spoken and learned worldwide, which means an English teacher can work anywhere. Wrong. Have they lied to me? Should I have chosen a different career path?
I was on the edge of giving up. I searched the web for start-up assistance and grants possibilities for establishing my own school, started taking up some professional courses to retrain, and was even considering going back to Poland. Finally, my degree in education came to the rescue, as at the very end of July, I was offered a lower primary form tutor position in a private international school. No one questioned my qualifications just because I wasn’t a native speaker. Even though I had no experience apart from practicum period during my studies, the mere fact I had a master in primary education with early English teaching, was enough to hire me.
As we all know, every cloud has a silver lining and the fact I was somehow forced to take up primary school teaching, opened a whole new world for me, with lots of exciting possibilities. I discovered CLIL, bilingual teaching and the pride of being a form tutor. All this inevitably inspired me to share my new experience and all the overwhelming things I had learnt about YL classroom management. Soon came the IATEFL, conferences, workshops, my own presentations and publications, meeting other teachers from all over the world, and a huge appetite for further development. Nowadays, I still collaborate with some language schools in Poland from time to time and meet more and more NNST working outside of their countries.
Yet, a recent look at Spanish labour market has only proven that the situation hasn’t changed much since my last job interview there. Hopefully, the non-discriminatory employment policy will finally reach also this part of Europe, and no one will have to use a false name or lie to their students.
Agnieszka Kruszyńska graduated from Primary Education with Early English Teaching (Pedagogy) and Iberian Studies at Warsaw University. After six years of working in language schools with various age groups and levels, she became a lower primary form tutor at Colegio Internacional Torrequebrada in Benalmádena, south of Spain, and has since worked in international or bilingual schools. Currently based in Warsaw, a proud primary years (1-3) teacher, with a bunch of wonderful kids from various countries under her wings.