5 things I learned from teaching English in Spain

Being a native English speaker is a bit of a blessing, perhaps most of all due to the guarantee of finding employment in so many foreign lands teaching your native tongue. After travelling out east for so long and having run into so many making a living this way, I was anxious to give it a go myself, so last September I returned to Spain.

After almost completing the academic year, here are the top 5 things which the experience has taught me. Bear in mind I teach adults, not kids. There is a big difference as I came to realise.


You need to be a part of something bigger than yourself

The more you lose yourself in something bigger than yourself, the more energy you will have – Norman Vincent Peale

I used to work in engineering. What I was doing had little meaning for me, and I was spending 40+ hours per week doing it. It was insanity.

Fast forward a bit, and rather than dread, there’s a sense of excitement at the beginning of each day. The feeling of actually being useful and having a positive impact on people’s lives allows me to derive levels of energy I could never have previously attained. The overall mood benefits from working directly with people whose lives you can directly affect in a positive way are immense.

Neurochemically, something very different happens in your brain when you have a job that makes it easy for you to provide value to other people. We are altruistic social creatures sculpted by evolution to thrive in an environment where we directly care for the welfare of those around us. When your job gives you an easily measurable way to have a direct positive impact on others, it ends up being one great happiness hack.

I’m not saying that as an engineer you can’t achieve this. I just didn’t have the skills at the time. I was great technically, but an absolute disaster when it came to every other aspect of what was required to be fulfilled in that environment. I never had the social skills, the emotional control, the self-awareness, nor the raw knowledge of what was necessary. Sometimes doing something entirely different coupled with intervening lessons and experiences, and you realise that the potential was there all along, but that your were in some way chained down by an inability to join the dots.

The Art of Teaching is Seduction

The biggest mistake that most teachers make is that they assume that their students are interested in what they have to say, when really, the art of teaching is seduction. – Lawrence Krauss

This struck a chord with me, and it turns out to be actually quite true I’ve come to learn. During my own education, I only had two teachers who were able to see this. I still think of both of them regularly to this day. Not that I hold a grudge, but I would have loved every teacher I ever had to have had this mindset.

Most held an outdated mindset, and seemed to think they were still training people to work in a factory production line. I remember one teacher at secondary school who once washed his hands of the whole matter when he pompously proclaimed “you can take the horse to the water, but you can’t make him drink!” The tragedy in this was his inability to see that we’d find it and happily drink it if he just made us thirsty….

I’ve come to learn that you have to use whatever aspects of your personality are best suited to seducing the minds of your students. Not everyone is the same, and just because you don’t fit the mould of certain high energy teachers you come across on YouTube, doesn’t mean you can’t be effective. For some it’s high energy antics, for others it’s comedy, for others it’s sharing stories, experiences and lessons learned.

Personally I have found that jokes along with storytelling have been an invaluable tool for me. I also found myself on many occasions telling stories to classes, deeply personal experiences, about things I could never have imagined myself talking about to anyone not so long ago. People seem interested and engaged, and so long as the input is provided in a comprehensible manner, people are acquiring the language.

There might be something in the Neil Gaimon quote: “The moment that you feel, just possibly, you are walking down the street naked, exposing too much of your heart and your mind, and what exists on the inside, showing too much of yourself…That is the moment, you might be starting to get it right”.

The Power of Story

Story as it turns out was crucial to our evolution – more so than opposable thumbs. Opposable thumbs let us hang on, story told us what hang on to – Lisa Cron, Wired for Story

I have had students come up to me in fits of laughter months after I told stories in class asking about a lactose intolerant crocodile that went to China to look for a wife or the night Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un had to share a bed during a state visit in Korea. The content of the stories don’t really matter, in fact the more ridiculous the better, and the more entertaining too. It doesn’t seem to matter if you are 5 or 55, your brain is just as engaged in story.

I became interested in story long before reading the aforementioned book while exploring alternative language learning techniques. It really is such a powerful medium through which to teach just about anything, perhaps nothing more so than language.

Here are the advantages:

  • Comprehensible input – Based on Krashan’s techniques, input is provided which is about 90% comprehensible to the student, slightly above their current level.
  • A story invokes emotion – It’s vital for forming and retaining new memories. Without emotion you don’t retain.
  • Associations with pre-existing memories – Neurons that fire together, wire together.
  • The ability of story to generate complex images in the learner’s mind to further reinforce memory.
  • A well-told story is entertaining and enjoyable to listen to.

In short it seems to work, and it’s a lot more fun than boring grammar. Having ventured down this storytelling path, it does bring home all the more, the tragedy of the reality back home in Ireland, where students are forced to study the Irish language via traditional methods for 14 years. A significant majority end up detesting the language never being able to speak it. Regretfully, that was my case. With a storytelling culture a rich as that of Ireland, it truly is a tragedy that no one has had the foresight to change things up.

The Power of the Pause

The right word may be effective, but no word was ever as effective as a rightly timed pause – Mark Twain

I have forest gumped my way into quite a few situations in recent years. I oftentimes find myself in situations where I am out of my depth. Teaching English for example, with fairly limited experience.

A common occurrence is someone throwing a curve ball in the form of some question around an esoteric grammar concept that I have no idea how to answer. My former self would enter a state of intense inner panic, neurons misfiring, face blushing, trying to think of some response to satisfy the ego. Then I’d stutter out some crap, feel myself almost becoming aggressive if I picked up on an unbelieving look in an effort to convince them I’m actually intelligent.

What I’ve learned to do is pause. Pause to the point where it is uncomfortable and allow the inevitable natural smile to come across my face while I think. As students look on, wondering what I’m going to come back with, they unavoidably mirror the behavior and their smiling too becomes inescapable. Sometimes I’ll come back with an interesting thought-provoking response after a substantial pause, but oftentimes it’s generally, “I actually have no idea”.

It can be a slippery slope, when in your arrogance you think you must have an answer for everything in order to avoid appearing the fool. How many times in the past did I find myself in this situation, defending ideas and opinions I had little knowledge about, and doing so merely for the sake of trying to appear smarter than I really am.

It’s liberating to have had this insight, to be able to relax, and realise that…no one gives a fuck, it’s just you.

The Power of Laughter

Adults laugh on average 5 times per day, children 300. Tragically I was probably well below the 5 for a long time in my life.

Although I’m not quite back to the 300 mark, the frequency is on the rise. It only takes one person to make a funny comment or a stupid mistake to get everyone started again on some old joke from a class 3 months ago, and suddenly you’re hunched over in a fit of laughter worried you’re going to damage something in your abdomen from laughing so hard.

It’s infectious and therapeutic. The idea that we stop playing after childhood is one which has driven many to a life of unfulfillment.

I don’t ever intend to  going back to wastefully staring at cubicle walls for 8 hours whiling away my days in a serious environment. I intend to play like a well-intentioned clown.

When all is said and done

When all is said and done, you won’t remember much about the large paychecks which made their way into your bank account throughout your working life. What is more likely to linger is the influence others have had on you, and any small way that you have been able to positively affect others.

I think each of us have the moral responsibility to find something we enjoy, find whatever gift or talent we may have no matter how meager, and find a way to enhance the lives of others in whatever small way we can. Understanding what makes humans happy, accepting that you’ll never have the answers, sharing those lessons that you have learned on your own personal journey, by being vulnerable and empathetic. Finding out what others need and how your passion or limited talents may provide value for them. And to give without expecting anything in return. I’ve come to realise that the world does seem to have a way of repaying you, and it may just be as simple as someone who comes up to you after class, touches you on the elbow, looks you in the eye with a look of sincere gratitude and thanks you for sharing a story.

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