Working as an English teacher in the state schools system of a foreign country is the holy grail to many ESL and language teachers. What does it take to get into the system, and what are the benefits? Here's what you should know...
We have the pleasure of talking to Andy, an Englishman in Spain who managed to enter the world of teaching English in the Spanish state school system.
Hi Andy! What brought you to Spain? Fun in the sun or serious career development?
After finishing University I took a TEFL course down in Brighton and then embarked on an epic round-the-world tour of Spanish speaking countries. Fully inspired, my goal was to spend a few years travelling and learning Spanish whilst teaching English to pay my way. It's the sort of thing that undergraduates spend ages talking about after a few beers but I was the one who actually got up and went for it.
Sounds great, how far did this epic tour take you?
There's just something about Barcelona that captures so many people and they just want to stay.
What happens when an English teacher turns up in Barcelona looking for work?
Most (like me!) first relax, have fun and party quite a bit! Somewhere in the middle of all of that you eventually realise that you have to start sending CVs around the language schools, knocking on doors and network in order to land a job.
Some teachers tend to party too much at the start so when they're finally out of cash necessity kicks in and they progress to the job hunting.
I found work very quickly, settled in and managed to find the balance between taking my work seriously yet living the Barcelona lifestyle to the max.
That was 15 years ago. Few English teachers stay in one location for so long, not even in the seductive city of Barcelona. Why did you decide to stay?
Like many people the time just flew by and I kept on finding good reasons to delay the next leg of my 'epic tour' until the end of term, for another few months, until next year and so on.
I slipped into a really comfortable lifestyle and had plenty of work although I must admit it took a while to find the better schools.
Many of them in Barcelona rely on the high turn over of 'backpack teachers' to fill their classes at an undignified rate of pay and have massive attrition rates in their teaching staff. These places may serve a purpose to the short term visitor but not for more than a few months. I gained respect within the teaching community, got connected and managed to find some very good teaching jobs. Good because they're either well paid, because they're really good classes to teach or good because you're in a school where you're respected and looked after.
How did your career develop during that time?
After quite a few years when the lifestyle was no longer the dominating factor for me I started to review my career development and saw that I'd hit a ceiling working within the private language academies of Barcelona. At that point I was in a long term relationship with plans to settle down, have kids and live happily ever after so the long term prospects in the state education system became appealing.
So how does the state education system work in Spain?
Basically you have 3 types of school. State schools, private schools and another type which is literally in the middle of those two.
Most English teachers in Spain end up in private language academies which could be a small office in an apartment block or a big setup with many classrooms, media labs and young learners play rooms. Here it's simply an agreement between the school and the parents or student about what teaching services will be provided with zero regulation.
A more developed version of that are the private schools which are registered and audited as places of learning although what is taught and how is between the school and the parents. Being private means that no state funding is provided. Examples of these are foreign schools, like an American Academy where American ex-pats send their kids to study for qualifications which are awarded from the US education system or religious schools. In the case of the latter they can also be registered to teach and grade students withing the framework of the Spanish education system with normal Spanish qualifications being earned, despite their 'private' status.
State schools are a legal obligation of the state but the financing and management gets delegated to local governments who become the employer.
So that explains state schools and private schools, what's the third type?
In the middle of these two types of school are the "Escuelas Concertadas", which receive state money, comply to most state requirements but then control the entry of students by requiring top-up payments from the parents. These payments are usually described as being for materials, uniforms and extras rather than the education itself but it can still be a good few hundred Euros a month and as a consequence these schools are often viewed as a better place to send your kids.
Is it easy to get employed into the Spanish state school system?
In an attempt to avoid the traditional corruption, nepotism and the like from entering into the selection process, an administrative process is used to make sure that the best candidate for the job is employed. Well that's if the best candidate for the job is measured by how well they can score on exams!
As well as the correct qualifications (described in a moment) you have to study for exams...in Spanish. "Oposiciones" require the study of maybe 100 topics of which maybe you're only tested on 3 or 4 on the day. These exams are massive with hundreds, sometimes thousands of applicants sat in huge exam halls all trying to gain one of a few open jobs.
It's understandable though, you become a state employee, gain a job for life, a pension, are pretty much un-sackable and have massive amounts of holiday and sick leave at your leisure.
Not a casual process at all. Is it easier to get employed in an Escuela Concertada than a regular state school?
The qualifications needed on paper to become employed in one of these schools is the same as the state schools. You need to have a QTS (Qualified Teacher Status) certificate. A UK QTS is instantly recognized in Spain. Typically to gain QTS the usual path would be a one year PGCE (Post Graduate Certificate of Education) followed by one year on-the-job teacher training to validate the theory.
The big difference with this type of school is the selection process. Basically an Escuela Concertada can employ anyone they like using any fair selection process as so long as they have the qualifications decided by the state. The key thing here is that there are no "Oposiciones" to sit which makes the whole thing more realistic to a native English speaker.
So which path did you take?
Not wanting to spend crazy amounts of time studying for "Oposiciones" I applied for jobs in Escuelas Concertadas and landed one. My Spanish friends were saying how lucky I was as the contracts offered are extremely good by Spanish standards but to be honest, by UK standards you would still get the same, if not a better contract, working in a supermarket in the UK.
How was it working in an Escuela Concertada?
It's the best job in the world if you love kids. As a native English teacher I wasn't expected to speak Spanish in class but I often did especially when the kids would play up. I'd have to go between classes of all ages which, regardless of subject or language is always a challenge for any teacher. But the best part is that it was a 'proper job', something stable and secure, something you can take a mortgage on, a job where you're catagorised as a teaching specialist in fact, beyond that of the rank and file teachers.
Andy, we're talking in the past tense here. What changed?
Health problems. Something quite unexpected happened and I was off work for some time with quite a serious condition. Having a good job with a proper contract and all the protection of the Spanish social security system meant I was well looked after and my salary still hit the account at the end of the month regardless, so I didn't have that weighing on me and my family. Everything was fixed and put back into place and I'm pretty much fine now, however on paper, according to the Doctors, I shouldn't return to work and have been laid off work as being disabled.
Ouch, sorry to hear it!
Well it's not that bad. Due to the good contract I had and the social security system I receive a healthy deposit every month form the social security, based on my old, rather good salary.
What are you up to these days now you have hung up your whiteboard marker and have stepped out of teaching?
I try and help my wife with our business which brings in foreigners who want to learn Spanish. Many people need not only Spanish classes but also total immersion in a Spanish environment to back up and reinforce those classes.
The business my Spanish wife has set up combines all of that so a student is collected at the airport and introduced into the home of a Spanish teacher for daily classes and the total immersion experience. Living in a Spanish household with Spanish TV and radio on the go, Spanish people all around and trips, meals and excursions to meet more people and get the inside track on how things really are is far more use that staying in a hostel and doing Spanish classes for 5 hours a day which tends to be the norm.
This combination works really well with those who are coming to Spain to work as they get immediate orientation, a major boost to their Spanish and a few friends along the way who can help them settle in to Spain, before starting the challenge of a new career here.