Teaching English abroad wasn’t all I thought it would be
You could live in an English-speaking bubble for years without ever feeling you belong
Joshua Burns: ‘I was besotted with the place from the very beginning.’
For many Irish people the lure of good work has drawn them away from the homeland, where they might well have been very happy; for me it was the opposite. The idea of just getting away overrode any semblance of career ambition or long-term satisfaction and so I settled on the job that was easiest to find - English language teaching.
I had a choice of countries - Greece, Poland, Slovakia or Spain - and after six months working in a café in Liverpool the idea that so many places wanted you was thrilling.As long as you were a native English speaker, you were in demand. One week after doing the interview, I found myself in Salamanca in Spain.
I was besotted with the place from the very beginning. When people would ask me about the difference between Spain and Ireland, I would always say we do countryside better but they have us on the cities. The late September sun was the perfect temperature for an Irishman fresh off the plane, and the picturesque scenes of vinos y tapas being enjoyed outside on the golden-hued streets had me felling like I had wandered into a film.
Teaching English as a foreign language is a strange job. At first, it’s a lot like having all the answers to the questions from your Leaving Cert maths paper in your head but not necessarily knowing how you got them. You’re both an expert and a novice; you’re a teacher but also not quite.
On my first flight home I was talking to a lady who asked me what I was doing. I proudly said I was a teacher - teaching English to Spanish people. And she replied, “Oh, you mean you’re a Tefl teacher.”
You are paid just about enough to live comfortably as a single person with no dependants, and if people cancel one-to-one classes you are expected to make up the hours, even though you are technically on a contract. In the place I work at now in Madrid, we are all officially autónomo (self-employed), which means we could be fired at any time.
There’s also the problem with the summers, as all the contracts are from September to June. If you want to survive you have to take a job at one of the highly stressful summer camps, which are often just like glorified crèches managed through English.You better hope they pay well, because when September comes round again you have to cough up the rent for your new place alongside the deposit, while also coping with the fact that, as a business that gears up and down, you’ll likely only make half the money in September that you would in October.
You are living and working in Spain, all your students are Spanish and yet you could quite easily live in an English-speaking bubble with no more Spanish than, “una caña, por favor”. You aren’t a tourist or an Erasmus student, but you definitely aren’t part of Spanish society either. You could live here for years without ever feeling you belong.
I left Ireland because I’m a malcontent, and now I find myself in the purgatory of the malcontents. I’ve built enough of a life here that I don’t want to return home, yet to be stuck in this half-job doesn’t seem feasible either. I obviously don’t have the passion required to be a teacher, but the “native-English” card doesn’t carry much currency in other jobs.
It is definitely an incredible experience and the people you meet are very interesting but, while resolutely plugging my ears with my fingers to the call of home, I sit in the eerie silence and think: “what next”?