I am a planner. Always have been, always will be, which is surprising considering the idea of knowing exactly where I’ll be next year (or in 10 years) is terrifying to me. I wanted to break free from the normality of life and its expectations. The normal progression we are expected to follow in order to become a ‘proper adult’. I knew for a while that I needed a big change in my life, particularly the opportunity to experience a new culture and a new language. My friend had completed a TEFL course and lived in Barcelona for a year. I saw how happy living in Spain for a year had made her, how much she had learnt and experienced, I started to think, ‘maybe I could do this too?’ I’d been to Barcelona on holiday before and fell completely in love, always wishing to return. So when it came to choosing a TEFL course, it was only natural to investigate Barcelona and my friend’s recommendation, TEFL Barcelona. I knew immediately this was the course I wanted. The offer of practical experience was exactly what I was looking for, and the beautiful building the school is housed in was definitely another draw! From the moment I applied I was made welcome and provided with plenty of information and book recommendations to start preparing for the course. As the months flew by, I grew more and more excited (and nervous, let’s be honest), to start.
So on one bright, beautiful day in July I took my one way ticket and boarded the plane for Barcelona. The flight felt surreal, as if I had somehow stepped in to an alternate reality. I’d never flown on a plane by myself before so the experience, whilst terrifying, felt surprisingly empowering. The ham & cheese toastie I ordered certainly helped. (Sidenote: Brits- get used to a look of confusion on any Americans face when you bring up cheese toasties. They are adamant “grilled cheese” is the better term. Secretly, we all know the truth.) I had assumed there would be a mix of British and American students on the course, but this course was overwhelmingly American. I’ve made some fantastic friends and it’s been interesting to discover the small quirks and differences in our cultures and our shared language. Cheese toasties vs grilled cheese being one of them, I’ve also had to explain what a jumper is (sweater), dungarees (overalls), aubergine (eggplant), and courgette (zucchini). But I’ve also learned more about American college culture and the myth of fried sticks of butter has been dispelled (they’re sold only at funfairs, folks, they’re not a common thing.) If I had decided to do a TEFL course back in the UK, as opposed to living in Spain for a year I would never have met such wonderful people who have shared in a mutual broadening of knowledge of experience. A wonderful aspect of the course was the grammar. As a native English speaker, we don’t learn our own grammar at school. It’s a difficult thing to describe, but we grow up hearing the various tenses used and in what context, which leads us to intuitively understand how to use the language. The only thing we can’t do is explain why or how. The Americans had a fantastic advantage over the other British student and me in that regard. For them it was a refresher, for me, it felt like working backwards to unpick everything that felt natural. Yet I’ve grown to truly enjoy grammar and delving in to various engaging methods to teach it. With each practical experience of teaching we did, the more I wanted to understand the grammar points. I loved the collaborative nature of the course, it was really one big group of people working together to learn and help each other. The tutors became part of that group so quickly and I was quite sad when the course finished that we wouldn’t all be going to the school and seeing everyone every day.
One fear of mine was that my style of teaching might not be the ‘right’ way to teach. That there would be a particular recommended style one should mimic. However, through observing both experienced teachers, and my fellow students on the course, there really is a place for everyone’s own style. I’m quite calm and more traditional in my style, it’s what’s natural for me and that’s just as valid as teachers who are very energetic. So no matter your teaching style, there is a place and job for you in Barcelona. A friend contacted me about a possible job at the language school he works at. I emailed the director and we arranged an interview. I’m pleased to say that a week later I started teaching English! It was the most nerve-wracking experience but I enjoyed it so much. The last few months I’ve really grown in to the role, there’s been fantastic support offered by the other teachers.
Despite all the materials available at the school, I couldn’t resist snapping up a few bargains advertised on facebook. One ex-English teacher was selling a National Geographic ‘Life’ book, which looked really interesting. It’s proven invaluable and has come in handy for preparing lessons so many times. What I love about my language school is the flexibility; generally the students will often follow a book, but there are many opportunities to incorporate extra materials or do themed lessons. With my 12 year old’s we did a Halloween theme back in October. We did a spooky story gap fill, word building using themed words and listened to a bit of music too. The past few months have been a real challenge but I’ve discovered things about myself which I didn’t think possible. For one, I have far more patience than I ever thought possible. Teaching feels so normal and natural that even on the occasions when the children aren’t in the mood and act up, I never feel truly irritated or angry. I’m firm but I never lose patience with them. I love teaching them and it undoubtedly sounds cliché, but when they respond and produce the language on their own, it feels so good! I feel so proud and it’s wonderful to see their progress. I teach adult students too and it creates a good balance. Having a mix of ages and abilities allows me to adapt my teaching style and different activities. I’m often asked which age group or which ability I prefer teaching, but I truly have no preference. There are so many benefits to teaching each, and each provides different challenges. Maybe I will feel differently this time next year, but for now, I wouldn’t change my groups for anything.
The most frustrating part was before the job began and that was the time that I look back on with little fondness, and I now fully understand what other English teachers have told me. The dreaded NIE. The thought of applying for a NIE still gives me shivers. It’s worth the hassle because once it’s done with, it’s done. I needed the NIE and social security number in order to be taxed which means no paying for a doctor’s appointment. However, it was quite stressful. Everything shuts down in August and using the website to apply for an appointment took weeks and weeks. There was the consistent message, ‘there are no appointments available’, every single time. Then I heard of a mysterious app to download…..I found it on the google play store and downloaded it to my phone. It still took two weeks of checking every day with the same annoying message ‘there are no appointments available’. Finally, one Monday morning I woke up at 6am and for the next three hours I refreshed the page over and over and over…success at last! I had my choice of not one, but TWO appointment times. I felt ever so special. I chose on for the week after and got started on putting my documents together. I triple checked the website ensuring I had everything I needed. When I turned up to my appointment I was quite excited to finally get the NIE. I waited an hour and a half after my supposed appointment time before my number was called. I was at the desk for only two minutes before they turned me away saying I needed x, y, z. They’d added more things but hadn’t put it on the website. So it meant another trip back the next day. This time the only thing to report was be careful where you walk! Part of the NIE process is to go to a local bank who will stamp your form and you pay your processing fee, then return for your NIE card. A key feature of Barcelona is the numerous trees along the sidewalks. They tend to have either quite shallow or ridiculously deep ditches a few inches around them. I, being the sophisticated person I am, walked one leg in to one of the ridiculously deep ones. It couldn’t bring my mood down though, because at last I had my NIE!
It hasn’t all been work and stress though! I’ve had a lot of fun during my time here so far. The end of September saw the beginning of the festival, La Merce. On the Saturday many of the art galleries are open for free to the public. I went to MACBA, Barcelona’s Museum of Contemporary Art, with a couple of friends. There was an exhibition all about Punk music and it was fascinating to see the various installations. The art scene in Barcelona is so rich in unique history, there are a fantastic number of galleries for any era or form of art you’re interested in. The highlight for me was a free, yes FREE again, gig by well-known artist Manu Chao. I went with a couple of friends and it was the most incredible atmosphere. So much excitement, so much energy and life…..it felt amazing to be there seeing it live. Everyone was just enjoying themselves and dancing. Even a little rain couldn’t stop people from enjoying the party! My favourite fact I’ve learned so far in Barcelona is exactly to do with the rain around the time of La Merce (living up to a British stereotype, I think?) Every year it rains during La Merce because it actually used to be the time of Santa Eulalia, but her festival is now in February. Santa Eulalia was so upset her festival was moved, that every year when La Merce begins, she can’t stop the tears from falling. Despite invoking the emotional turmoil of Santa Eulalia, I admire the local enthusiasm when it comes to festivals and traditions. There is always something happening, no matter the day of the week or the time of year. I follow quite a few Barcelona groups on facebook and there’s always another event to add to the calendar! Even without organised events, there are so many activities and things to see. I live near Parc Ciutadella and there’s a beautiful fountain to visit and a small lake where you can rent a rowing boat.
After a row around the lake, another couple of delights I’ve shared with my friends are discovering the local food and beaches. If you come to Barcelona, you have to have tapas and paella. Fortunately, I don’t think I will ever get sick of tapas. I could eat tapas every day and still want more. I just love it. The variety of foods to choose from, the patatas bravas of course, bacalao (salt cod), and manchego cheese are just a few of the wonderful options. I am quite proud of myself for becoming fluent in ordering tapas and drinks. The downside being the staff think I truly am fluent which is not the case yet! Paella is another favourite of mine, obviously, but there are also a surprising amount of places to get burgers. I’m certainly not complaining but I didn’t realise just how many there would be there. My friends and I have gone on quite the culinary adventure around Barcelona, trying Mexican food, burgers, pizza and tapas. We’ve also found a few gelato places that are lovely too. The food by the beaches tends to be more expensive so for now I haven’t tried them. The beaches themselves, oh this was definitely a huge factor in choosing Barcelona. To be a short metro or train ride away from a beach is just too appealing an opportunity to miss. Coming from Birmingham in the UK, having the choice of beautiful beaches has been wonderful. Now that it’s nearing Christmas, it has been a while since I last went but the temperature stayed delightfully warm for a long time so there was plenty of opportunity to visit. I’m so grateful for the times I’ve shared with the friends I’ve made during my year living in Spain. Simply spending time together at the beach, or on the times where we don’t want to spend money eating out, combining some money to cook a big meal together. I was really excited to be able to share one of my favourite comfort foods from back home with my American friends; the humble Shepherd’s Pie. I moved to Barcelona because I needed a change and I certainly achieved that. What I have found too, is a renewed appreciation for Britain, especially our funny words and phrases, our love of idioms, metaphors, phrasal verbs and collocations. So many students will happily spend time asking you questions about the UK and the little quirks of our culture.
It’s quite funny how being British makes people really want to know more about you. I’ve found no matter where I go, I end up in conversation with someone who, as soon as I say, ‘Soy inglesa’, from then on only wants to talk about Britain. I met a woman at the bus stop after work, who was carrying an enormous suitcase and asked for my help to get it on the bus. I said I would help and once on the bus, we started talking. It turned out she’s French and had just moved to Barcelona that day and was on her way to her apartment. Once she found out I’m a teacher, she wanted me to teach her English! The same thing happened at a language exchange I went to. I went with the hope to practice Spanish and help people with English. However, as soon as people hear English and English teacher, all they want to do is speak English. I went the whole night speaking around 4 sentences in Spanish. Whilst I’m very proud to be an English teacher and to have earned my qualification, it’s a good idea to not always tell people what you do for a living! But in another respect, it is quite nice too. My one student wants her English classes taught in the context of British culture. The classes are relatively new so we haven’t done much but we will be looking at the history of tea soon! Whilst I have this renewed appreciation, I know my time in Barcelona is far from over. There are still so many things to see and do. There is a lot of exploration to do beyond Barcelona too. I have been living in Barcelona for a year, I see myself staying for two years and then who knows? With the TEFL certificate, there are more opportunities available than ever before. I’m thinking of South Korea, or perhaps a Nordic country. What I am most grateful for is that the option is there. The ability to travel and experience new countries is far easier with the TEFL and it’s a decision I’ll never regret.
By Erin Shakespeare
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