Here’s to the Crazy Ones: Teaching English in Spain

Last year (well, last school year), I thought I found the perfect job:

  • I was working in a primary school.
  • The school was bilingual, and the kids could understand me.
  • The kids were mainly wonderful, and I loved working with them.
  • The school was fairly close to my house. (For Madrid standards)
  • I felt confident and happy.

Too good to be true? In my experience here in Spain, yes. Way too good to be true. I wasn’t waiting for the other shoe to drop, but when it did … it made a bang!

About a month after I started working, my co-teacher disappeared. I was working with sexto de primaria, the last year of Spanish elementary school. The kids in sexto take an English exam (Cambridge), and they are very serious about it. Thus, I was working with only two classes, which is rather unusual for an English assistant. It didn’t bother me, though, because I really enjoyed them. The teacher, however, was quite another story. Let’s call her Teresa. (Helpful hint: Her name wasn’t Teresa.)

Teresa was an odd bird. She didn’t know much English, which is perplexing, since she taught English. Afterwards I would learn that she used to be a Spanish-language teacher, a fact that cleared things up. Every day, upon entering the classroom, she would bark, “Raise the blinds!” to the children. There was just one problem: she pronounced blinds as “bleends,” with a long /iː/ sound. Thick of the word bleeds, and add an N. Many of the kids knew this proununciation was incorrect and would ask me why I didn’t correct her. (“Because she’s bat-shit crazy, that’s why!” I said in my mind as I just smiled vaguely back at them. She also told them shooting stars were rockets, another thing they approached me about.) After the ceremonial blind-raising ceremony, I would take a group of students with me. The students were divided up into groups based on level, A to D. The A students were my favorites (I know, I know, I’m biased) because we could have actual conversations, and they were mostly well behaved.

Well, one day Teresa fell or something and hurt her knee. She wasn’t elderly, so I didn’t expect this to keep her out for more than a few days. NOPE.

Teresa was gone for a month!

She left no notes or lesson plans. She never really told the directora, the principal, when she would be returning. So they never got a substitute. May I repeat? They never got a sub. They just left me there to my own devices. Sometimes a teacher who was de guardia(on call, so to speak) would show up and observe, as though I were running a mildly-interesting clinic on the English language. But mostly I taught the class by myself. For a month.

It helps to keep in mind that I am not a certified teacher—not in Spain nor in the U.S. I did have experience, but still—this crap isn’t supposed to be allowed. I made the best of it. We did lesson after lesson. We played “Around the World” with past-perfect verbs. We did a few science experiments with magnets. I taught the class. Me. And I did a good job! The principal (who in Spain also teaches) observed the class and told me what a great job I was doing. Other teachers remarked that I seemed to be handling myself well.

One day a substitute finally came. He seemed sweaty and nervous, and he asked me what he was supposed to do. The certified, qualified, Spanish teacher of English asked me. “Um, teach?” was what I wanted to tell him. But instead I showed him what we had been doing. And then I led the class as he watched from the back of the room.

The next day Teresa returned, in all her glory. By glory I mean terror. Teresa stood about 5’7” tall and was constantly moving her legs, as though she couldn’t help herself. I don’t know why, but it seemed like a nervous tic that, in turn, unsettled me. The electric-blue eyeliner she wore day after day served to accentuate her face, caked with ghost-white foundation. (Do they sell that? It seems that she found the whitest shade possible.) I admit to being relieved that the real teacher was back, even if she did scare me.

Soon after, Teresa got crazier. One day I was on a break and popped a piece of gum in my mouth. Teresa barged in the room and berated me for chewing gum, because the kids aren’t allowed. I happened to be using my phone to look up some exam-prep questions. She told me in no uncertain terms that I damn well better have been using that for schoolwork. Not that I had anything to prove to her, but I told her that I indeed was using it for work. Harrumphing, she left. There were several more instances of her making me feel uncomfortable and unwelcome, including making me teach in front of her so she could criticize my every move.

Then one day a student’s parent came to pay her a visit. The parent was angry because Teresa wasn’t including students from groups C and D in the exam-preparation sessions. Quite reasonably, the parent thought her child should be allowed to at least try. Well, Teresa and the mother got into an angry shouting match, and Teresa said the mother followed her down the street, yelling all the while. Her story didn’t quite add up. This led to Teresa having a time out in the principal’s office.

After all this controversy (and the sharp reprimand from the principal!), Teresa decided that I was out for her job, that I wanted her fired. Ridiculous! I couldn’t care less about her employment status so long as she left me alone. She told me she wanted to work with some other auxiliar, one with more empuje (drive). This enraged me. I don’t have DRIVE? After teaching the class by myself and preparing all the lessons? That was a bit rich. The principal didn’t want this. So I wrote the principal an email expressing my feelings and saying I wished to work with another teacher, that I couldn’t work with Teresa anymore. Teresa found out about this email and sent me to the computer lab, so I could print it out—so she would “know what had been said.” I felt so nervous, almost sick to my stomach. Again I talked with the principal, who insisted I didn’t have to do anything of the kind. So I told Teresa that I wouldn’t be doing it.

Wrong answer! Her eyes were like daggers as she stared me down at the break table.

I ended up going to the Madrid education office on Gran Vía to complain. They tried to work it out, but nothing could be done. Curiously enough, they told me that, because of what Teresa had done to me, they were looking into getting her removed from the school. This was of little comfort to me, but I appreciated the effort.

This year, I am working at another school—this time a high school. The students have a bit more of an attitude, but the teachers make all the difference. So far no crazy. So far so good.

If you’re an auxiliar, have you had any unpleasant experiences at your school or past schools?

21 thoughts on “Here’s to the Crazy Ones: Teaching English in Spain

  1. Oh my gosh, this sounds hideous. What a horrible experience. I’m an auxiliare now, and am lucky that the main teacher i work with is great – its only the payroll lady that doesnt like me! (but that doesnt stop me nagging about my pay cheque every month!)

  2. I understand Teresa was probably miffed over teaching English when that isn’t her subject, but…damn. Talk about extremes.

    Almost all of the staff are nice to me, especially the 13 teachers I work with, but I’m pretty sure one of the receptionists hates me. I’m going to be honest, I think it’s a race thing, because I’ve heard her talking about one of my black students in a very derogatory manner (She’s three!) as well as yelling at one of the Chinese students (He’s also three!) when he looked a little lost. She’s walked other kids directly to their class, and she knows his teacher, but he didn’t get that luxury. At least I don’t have to share a classroom with her!

      1. Bahaha yup, 13 different classes. And they’re all infantil! My school is enormous. I also work with a co-teacher, but she’s adorable and her English is amazing.

  3. There’s weird and crazy people everywhere, so unfortunate of you to have come across one of these at your job. I had a so-so situation while I was an assistant in France, both the teachers I had to work with had lots of personal problems, one of them was sick most of the year, the other one thought I was a muppet or something. I did teach on my own though, it happens depending on the teacher or school, and I was not always told when I shoudln’t go to work… which infuriated me for wasting my time. But in the other school (I had one day at another place) the teacher treated me so well, she invited me over for dinner and was very nice. The other Spanish teacher didn’t even want to talk with me and never requested an assistant because, apparently, she was scared I’d criticise her work. As if I cared!

    1. Ah in my school now the teachers are all really nice and welcoming! So I’m finally seeing that. Which makes me realize that my bad experience was just that: my bad experience.

  4. I laughed out loud at teachers coming to watch you running a “mildly interesting clinic on the English language.” Oh yes. My “profes de guardia” were very similar.

    And your classes sound fun! Mad props to you for successfully running the class for a month!

  5. Wow! Seriously you deserve an award for running that classroom by yourself. This experience probably tops my own experience with UCETAM. This teacher just seriously was out to get you! I’m glad your new school is a lot better.

    I had a horrible experience with my first school. They just left us alone in the classroom because they thought having another teacher present would “distract” the students. We were treated like we were full teachers, had to assign homework, and were even told something about filling out evaluations for students (I left before that happened). The profesora de estudios called me into her office a few times to tell me I was doing a crappy job and reduced me to tears once, blaming me for things I was not even responsible for. When I and the other auxiliar (who also happened to be my roommate) complained, the school was none too happy and we both ended up switching schools.

    My second school is another story… things were better, but just slightly. Not enough that I wanted to stay another year to teach.

  6. That sounds terrible! I’ll be an auxiliar next year and hope I don’t have an experience like this. I’m glad you are somewhere else now. How do you like working in a high school versus an elementary? I said i had no preference on my application.

    1. I prefer the high school for one big reason: jornada continua. Meaning: no two-hour break in the day. I finish at 2:30 at the latest and I don’t have to wait around for two hours with nothing to do. Sure, I have “huecos” where I don’t work for an hour sometimes, but I fill those with planning/prep. Also, at a high school, the teachers are more likely to have a high English level and feel confident, because they’ve done their degrees in English, whereas elementary teachers do their degree in education and English is sometimes an afterthought.

      I do prefer primary students, but to be honest it’s not that bad. They have attitudes, but it also means we can have conversations and debates. If you get an elementary (a bilingual one), sexto or quinto are best for having more conversations. In first and second, you may be forbidden to speak Spanish with them, which makes it almost impossible to bond with them.

  7. Oh man, horror stories like these continue to make me feel super lucky at my old and current school. Sorry you had to go through all that crap, Kaley! It sounds like you ran into a rotten apple but thankfully got out before it spoiled your whole Spain bunch.

    1. Yeah, and this year I’ve got a good one! The teachers (todas profesoras) are all nice and understanding, and they speak excellent English. It’s been a breath of fresh air. Now the students have a bit of attitude and dirty minds, but hey … it’s normal.

  8. My main co-teacher went on maternity leave for nearly two weeks. Luckily her leave was foreseeable (she DID know she was pregnant!) and she prepared all the lessons. Still this created a lot more work for me and I found it unfair. Finally the sub arrived after about 12 days of me trying to calm the group of rowdy 2nd graders with the profe that was on guardia doing little to help. Very unfortunately this sub was AWFUL and obviously hated teaching. Like Teresa, she didn’t speak English well and tried to do whatever she could to avoid doing her job. Some days she’d turn to me and say, “ummm can you do Trinity with the students? I have a lot of things to correct.” Trinity?? With the whole class?? With no material besides the printout of questions I already drill into their tiny skulls nearly every day? Yep. Needless to say, I quit my last auxiliar job and hightailed it to Brazil to work freelance privates only!

  9. Ahhhh this is what scares me when I go back to Spain. When I was there the first time, I was luckily assigned to a great school. From the first day till the last, there wasn’t any horror story. All the teachers and staff were nice. And my old school didn’t have the weird 2-hour break so I was done by 2, sometimes 1:15. Crossing my fingers for my next school if ever!

  10. Hi Kaley,
    While this article is entertaining, it is also quite terrifying for a girl obsessively awaiting her assignment in Spain. I was just wondering, did you get paid any more for the extra hours you spent while the teacher was gone?

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