The Ultimate A to Z Guide to Teaching English in Spain

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The Ultimate A to Z Guide to Teaching English in Spain
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New to the English Teaching game? Well, I'd love to say “there's no need to worry”, but that would be foolish.


Fear not! Khephra C White has produced a few tips of the trade that will help you on your way.

Kick back, relax, and get ready to face your new students with a smile. Or a smirk. It's all up to you. Willkommen, Bienvenue, welcome to the ABCs of teaching English! (Caution: there's sarcasm afoot!).

A is for “Auxiliar” which you just might be. Every year thousands of wide-eyed newbies flock to Spain with dreams of sun, tapas, and sangria, only to watch helplessly as their hopes are dashed by language barriers, culture clashes, finding apartments, indifferent students, fear of leaving the city center, endless red tape, and banks that close at 2pm (dear God, why?). Oh, my sweet summer children. Not every day is a breeze when you're a language assistant, but there's always a silver lining. You get to live in another country, learn a language, and maybe find a new place to call home.

B is for “Bilingual” and how you'll quickly wish that you were. When getting the bright idea to move to a country after only two semesters of language class, you quickly find that you'll have to communicate better and faster than expected. Overwhelmed new students can't understand you and guess what -  interpretive dance is not an option (… well, not every time)! Leave new learners to the professionals. You can't teach an absolute beginner your language if you can't order a cup of coffee in theirs.

C is for “Cambridge” the most well-known of our English language overlords. They may be revered in public circles, but trust me: The mere mention of their name can make the most stoic English learner tremble with fear. Don't let the change in weather fool you: Spring is Cambridge season. As the end of the school year approaches, you'll have a front-row seat watching your students go from relaxation to blind panic. Get your popcorn ready and enjoy!

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D is for “Drinking” which usually happens after class. Though you may find older students have no problem with learning (I' m using that word lightly here) at the local pub. It's a known fact that tongues get looser after a caña or three. Hey, don't just take my word for it. Two out of three taxi drivers agree that there's nothing like some liquid courage to make you damn near fluent!

E is for “Exhausted” and that's just what you'll be, after riding all over the Comunidad trying hard to make that money. I know that bills won't pay themselves, but pace yourself. Did you really move here to spend all your time working? I think not. Take some time to rest, meditate, or just take a nap. Don't get me wrong: I like money. But self-care is important. Find a way to relax, or you'll burn out faster than you think.

F is for “Fun” which you'll quickly learn is subjective as hell. Is there a greater feeling than putting together a class that you just know will knock 'em dead, only to be met with yawns and crickets chirping in the background? Unmotivated kids got you down? Nothing says “get the lead out” like an exhilarating round of high knees, jumping jacks, and running in place. That's right, make them burn off that boredom until you feel tired. Now everyone is refreshed and ready for... you guessed it... that fun-filled lesson you planned. You're welcome!

G is for “Germs” and if you work in a school you'll find them everywhere you turn. Consider your classroom a live-action petri dish. When the kiddies are sick, profe (that's you) is the first one they'll turn to for cuddles. With coughs, sniffles, sneezes, and not a Kleenex in sight. Honestly, all you can do is watch them drop like flies until your time comes [and it will]. But while you're waiting: Keep your hand sanitizer game strong.

Photo: hjlmeida/Depositphotos

H is for “...the Hell is that?” which usually comes with differences in American English and British English (looking at you, fellow citizens of Trumplandia). It'll come in handy to learn terms in both languages. That way when little Álvaro tells you he's taking a 'torch' on his camping trip, you'll know he isn't planning on burning any villages upon arrival. You'll also avoid awkward situations like complimenting a man on his 'pants' and wondering why he's suddenly too flustered to say thank you.

I is for “Idioms” and how much fun they can be. Personally, I swell with pride when an advanced student tells me they're “madder than a wet panther” or that they plan to watch Netflix “'til the cows come home”. Roar with delight (okay, maybe wait until after class to roar. Seriously.) when a student tells their seatmate they're “dumb as a bag of hammers”, or even “as useful as a screen door on a submarine”. Get creative with your idioms. The possibilities are endless!

J is for “Jaws” which always drop when I speak on the first day of class.  (I don't know about you but I cackle with glee at the thought of unleashing my rapid fire deep-South accent on an unsuspecting victim.)  No matter how modern the textbook, I can never find anyone who sounds like me in the audio files. I prefer to think of myself as a listening exercise with feet. You'll never be tested on my vernacular, but trust me: when you visit my neck of the woods (look, another idiom!), you'll be just fine. 

K is for “Kids” and they come in every shape and size. You'll get to know your babies more and more as the days go by. The little ones are are fun, and the things that leave their mouths! If they think you've gained weight, look old, or have terrible hair, don't worry – they'll tell you. Bring loads of stickers or gold stars, and you'll have friends for life... or until the next class.

L is for “Listening” and the complacency it brings. Sure, your students are just fine with their regularly scheduled audio. They're confident in their skills and get high scores on every listening test. Therein lies the problem: they're too comfortable. There's no fear anymore. That's why you have to turn on them: “Oh, you're ready for listening? You're advanced, huh? Cool, here's a woman with a Cajun French accent reciting chapter one of Moby Dick. Now write a paragraph explaining the plot progression leading into chapter two. You have five minutes.” Watch the magic happen, with YouTube as your guide. Cackle with glee as their faces fall while watching a scene from Taxi Driver! One recording of Snoop Dogg reciting Shakespeare, and they'll never dare to challenge you again. Remember: Comprehension is key. So make the learning process enjoyable... for yourself.

M is for “Metro” - which is where you'll be spending a good amount of your time. Your classes will have you traveling to and fro. You'll change trains in stations you never heard of, to lines of the Madrid Metro you never knew existed. Bring books, podcasts, and maybe a pillow. Don't forget to leave early so when you get lost, and you will get lost, you'll have plenty of time to double back and find the right way to class.

Photo: ventanamedia/Depositphotos

N is for “Nouns” - and more importantly the knowledge that no matter how many degrees you have, you still have to recite “person, place, or thing” in your head to make sure you're not screwing up. Everything you learned (or didn't) in grammar class will come back to haunt you.  Brush up on your adverbs, and prepositions, and phrasal verbs (oh my!) before you live to regret it.

O is for “Online classes” and they're getting more popular by the day. If hours on the Metro aren't your thing, there are tons of sites just waiting for you to hop on. It's not for everyone though. Turns out: flashers love online teachers too! Use that webcam with caution. For every class or conversation, there's someone in the dark just waiting to bless(?) you with a shot of their naughty bits.

P is for “Play” because sometimes learning is a bore. It's easy to stop children from tearing the place apart if you entertain them with puppets! From theatre days to dance breaks, there's always some way to switch things up. Never underestimate the power of a game during a group class. Competition is key. Just watch: when bragging rights are on the line, the knives come out faster than you can blink!

Q is for “Questions”, also verbalized as “doubts”. Of course, there will be many, so get ready to start searching for answers. Just knowing English won't prepare you to explain grammar. The language has so many nuances, you'll want to tear your hair out. It's okay to say “I don't know” but if that's always your answer: Do you even grammar, bro??

R is for the “Relationships” you're bound to form. You'll meet kids, their parents, and members of the family you never imagined. Some students will become friends, some will become family. You should treat them as such. Real talk, some of the most loving and generous people I've met here are the ones who welcomed me into their homes once or twice a week. Have some tea and get to know them. You'll gain some insight into local life and it helps beat homesickness as well.

S is for “Slang” which will never be in a textbook. Students want real English, so make sure that's what they get. Dialects are a sight to behold, and this is where Black Americans have the upper hand. AAVE (African-American Vernacular English) is widespread, and you'll hear it in the most unlikely places. The delight that comes when explaining to a student when a party is or is not “lit” or that “what's good” is both a question and a challenge, is beyond compare.

T is for “Translating” and you'll do it all the time. Be it words or phrases, there will be something you just can't define. Some things just don't exist in Spanish, and even if they do: the connotation may not be a good one. Keep those translation apps handy and get ready to use them when you're lost.

Photo: eikotsuttiy/Depositphotos

U is for “Unorthodox”, my favorite way to teach. In case you didn't know, students, especially young ones get bored easily when you're just reading from a book. But they'll never forget what you're saying if you're sitting on their desk. Need to teach them placement? Don't just make them say “it's under the table”. Get down there and show them! Use different character voices for dialogue, chase them around the room! Will they think you're out of your mind? Yes. Will they forget that day's lesson? HELL no!

V is for “Verbs” and how simple English can be. While Spanish has more (insert series of expletives here) verbs than you can shake a stick at, you'll be relieved to know that conjugations are much easier on our side of things.

W is for “Wing it” and you'll do it more than you think! From internet outages to broken printers, there's always something just waiting to go wrong. Some of your best classes will be Murphy's Law (look it up) in action if you don't have a meltdown. So when your projector starts smoking and the power goes out, you'd better have a bag of tricks ready and waiting.

X is for “eXpletives” (Yes, I cheated. You're not so perfect, either.) and how you'll want to let them fly. From metro delays to computer crashes, sometimes it's hard to hold your tongue. Embrace the pain, find your inner peace, and hey: use it! For an advanced class, with adults, of course, you can have a blast showing students the best way to unleash their frustrations like a native. And if they're really receptive, they'll teach you some colorful phrases in return. I mean, let's face it: these are the words people want to learn anyway.

Photo: tobkatrina/Depositphotos

Y is for “Young learners” who are usually brand new. English is in high demand and the little ones want to play too! You'll spend the days surrounded by the young'uns, teaching all kinds of classics like “Old McDonald had a Farm (E-I-E-I-OOOO)”, “I'm a Little Teapot” and some song about baby sharks that I've still managed to learn even though my oldest students are 13. Brush off your flash cards and board games, and take comfort in the fact that none of these babies have the slightest idea what you're saying. Every day is a blank slate. No, seriously. Every. DAY.

Z is for “Zed”. If you're from the States you may not know this one, but you better get used to hearing it! Again: British English is everywhere here and you'll have to learn it too. Embrace the 'ur' in colours and neighbours, and let the “lorries” roll off your tongue. If nothing else: realize that just because you don't know it, doesn't mean it's wrong.

Khephra C. White is a comedian, actress, writer, and English teacher from New Orleans, LA making her way in Madrid, Spain. You can find her performing stand-up comedy in Madrid, and follow her blog 'Misadventures en España'


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