Monday, 20 June 2016

Euro Trip part 1

It has been about ten years since I travelled around Europe, so I thought it was time to see some more of my home continent. I had almost forgotten how easy backpacking can be when public transport works like a dream and everyone speaks English. I have to say, it feels a little more familiar and a little less exciting than Latin America or Asia, but it has been fun. Here's the story so far:

With two large bags, a guitar and a ukulele I said goodbye to Baena, and took the train to Zaragoza, north east of Madrid. Yes, the train was expensive, but it's was hours quicker, way more comfortable than a bus and meant I didn't have to change stations (with all of that pesky luggage).

Zaragoza was scalding hot but surprisingly nice for a place most famous for the being the home of the Spanish inquisition.

The next stop was Pamplona which will serve as home when I start my new job there in September.

Pamplona is the capital of Navarre province in the Basque country. It is home to about 200,000 people, a newly promoted premier league football team, is on the Camino de Satiago hiking trail, and is known for the world's most famous bull running and fighting festival in July. And yes, I have read The Sun Also Rises.

I met my future coworkers for a morning glass of wine (a good sign), and blissfully dropped of some bags and musical instruments so I had less to carry.

The next day I flew business class to Brussels. Well, Ryanair business . . . which gives you a 'free checked bag' and 5cm more of leg room. Whoopee.

Brussels is the first place I have been to in a while where Spanish or English aren't the official languages so I was a little bemused by the mix of Flemish, French and English I encountered. I eventually found my hostel after mistakenly entering a nearby mosque.

Brussels was quite a lively place, especially with the start of the Euro championships. I discovered that someone from Brussels is called a Brusselois although the city seemed to be full of tourists and foreign businessmen.

After a walkabout with my new Colombian hostel pal Alejandro we were lured into a casino by pretty girls and the offer of prize draws for Euros tickets.

We left full of champagne but predictably without any winnings. An unimpressed octogenarian won the football finals tickets, and quickly resumed her place at the fruit machines.

The next day I checked out the musical instrument museum in the Belgian capital. The old building with its ten floors was almost as interesting as the thousands of 17th century mechanical organs, harpsichords, sitars and hurdy-gurdies.

My next stop was Menen (yes I had never heard of it either). I met up with Stijn, I guy who I shared a house with briefly in Buenos Aires.

He showed me around the town, which is regularly invaded by the French, who live two kilometres away, to buy cheap tobacco and petrol.

We also headed out to see Ypres (or Wipers as an old history professor used to call it) and Kortrijk which were both full of football fans. 

Stijn and his immaculate bachelor pad were both very hospitable and we even made vague plans to do the Trans Siberian railway next summer. I will have to fit that in with the 18 other trips I've got planned.

Next came Beer Bruges. I spent two days cruising the canals, eating chips and mayonnaise, and drinking an array of wine strength beers.

The hostel was full of Aussie drongos and nervy American iPhone junkies. I saw more than one traveller scraped off the floor after too many lunchtime beers, but it's to be expected in a city that is a must see for most backpackers.

After placating my hangover with more chips I had an extra day to kill and spent it in Gent. I had no expectations, but liked the place even more than Bruges! It felt like more of a real town (less tourists and more locals) and is slightly bigger too. It certainly has all of the usuals in this part of the world - canals, beer, windmills and castles. I did a cool walking tour which passed the world's biggest cannon (never fired but regularly loaded with drunken students), and ended in the most famous brothel in Flanders (now the Marriott Hotel).

I stayed in a fantastic hostel housed in one of the oldest buildings in Gent. I feel like most backpackers pass by the old Flemish capital but if you have the chance it is well worth it.

I left Belgium and took an accidental detour to south Holland (wrong train) before finally arriving in Leiden, between Rotterdam and Amsterdam.

I came to the relatively unknown 'little Amsterdam' to stay with Richard, a friend I met on the Micamale boat trip in Panama last year. He definitely deserves a mention on Tall Travels as he stands a towering two meters.

Leiden is exactly how I imagined Holland - flowers, bikes, cheese, windmills, canals and old brick houses. It's got a great market, an old university and plenty of night life too.

We went to the opening of the city festival space which turned out to be a 'beach bar' on a building site and a cabaret show about goats. I met all of Richard's mates who were cool (about 90% of Dutch people seem to wear leather jackets now).

Other than sampling Dutch beer, I have been hanging out with Gino the cross-eyed cat. He is a 14lb savage who destroyed my left hand by 'play fighting'. I also took a day trip to Rotterdam which has a nice mix of commercial buildings, maritime history and sushi restaurants. I luckily arrived the day that the city opened a hotel roof terrace to the public. Enjoy the views below.

That's all for part 1. On the final part of my Euro trip I'll be visiting Amsterdam, Hamburg, Copenhagen and going to the Roskilde music festival.

Monday, 30 May 2016

5 lessons I've learned in my 5 years of TEFL


It all started five years ago.

In May 2011 I quit my job in London and completed my English teaching CELTA certificate.

Since then I have:
  • Spent a year living in Buenos Aires, three in Mexico and 2016 in Spain. 
  • Taught personal classes, in company classes, in schools, academies and in universities.
  • Given classes to 6 year olds and 76 year olds.
  • Dealt with near-illiterate adults and 9 year olds who can hold a conversation.
  • Taught students from as far afield as Botswana, Hungary and Thailand.
  • Helped students improve career prospects by passing English exams.
. . . and I've probably put some people off English for life. 

Here are five important lessons I have learned in my five years teaching:


1. Get to the heart of the matter:

It is important to know what is central to the job, as there are so many different types of jobs within TEFL. What can you bring to the job, and what will you get out of it?

We can all get carried away with the conditions of each job - the pay, the hours, the paperwork, but the best package doesn't always make for the most rewarding job.

It is common to hear about teachers going to Saudi for the money, or because they pay for your Masters Degree, but I have yet to meet or even read about one single teacher who enjoyed it. If you are going to spend two years of your life in a desert for an extra $15k a year, then you value your time very cheaply.

At the core of each teaching post are the students' goals and motivations, and understanding what you can bring to the table will help you to select a role right for you.

  • Shaping a small part of the development of a significant number of students is best done in a school classroom.
  • If you want a mentoring type role, then one to one classes are a great option.
  • If you want a support network of teachers to bounce ideas off which can help you improve, then working in a bigger department is essential.
  • Helping disadvantaged students can be rewarding even though they show slower progress.
  • And if you want to see fast progress, challenge yourself and work with advanced levels, then teaching adults is for you.

I pride myself on being adaptable, but the jobs I have enjoyed most were not necessarily the best looking on paper.


2. Countries are complex:

Countries are different, areas within countries are different and above all, jobs are different.

I often get questions like "What is teaching English like?" as if one person's experience can sum up a whole industry. It is a bit like being asked "What is Italian food like?"

Well, there is a huge difference between ordering fresh pasta prepared in Florence and eating Heinz ravioli from a tin.

Whilst you can categorize TEFL markets to some extent (Spain is mostly kids and teens preparing for Cambridge exams), countries are too complicated to talk about as whole entities.

Schedules, facilities, attitudes, people, cost of living and the culture of places are so different in different part of each country, you just can't generalise. The UK is linguistically, ethnically and religiously quite homogeneous. Working in countries where this is not the case will challenge your perception of nationality.

People always want the simple answer . . . "How's Spain?", well it depends where you are!

Spain has five languages, two independence seeking states, islands and enclaves across two continents and is one of Europe's largest countries. It is quite varied!

It is of course important to do as much research as possible before taking the plunge, but there is no substitute to being on the ground and getting to know a place. Here are my thoughts on getting into the profession.


3. Career or career break?

In short, it depends what you want it to be. While I think TEFL probably starts out as a career break for most people, employers in other sectors probably won't value the time you spend abroad teaching, so get busy teaching, or get off the bandwagon!

With such a high turnover of staff many English teaching jobs are not aimed at enticing good professionals to develop their skills and stick around for a number of years. The nature of work abroad means that the droves of college graduates and career-breakers are willing to take up short term posts and companies are keen on keeping wages low and continuing the recruiting cycle rather than creating a more stable industry. This article offers an interesting viewpoint.

Like any career, TEFL is something that you have to throw yourself into if you want to progress. There are plenty of opportunities to network at events, and take courses for professional development. I have dabbled in publishing and translation as an way to make extra money, and these are just some of the paths you can take to branch out of the TEFL tree. Unfortunately, blogging hasn't turned out to be too profitable yet!

Many teachers worry about getting 'trapped' in TEFL. This is the situation where you lack the experience to do anything else but can't change jobs due to low wages and living costs. I would say that you are responsible for managing your own career development and finance. It is possible to comfortably support yourself as a teacher, and even save, but it is certainly not a career for making a lot of money.


4. The highs and the lows:

Living and working abroad without a large support network will provide you with the highest highs and the lowest lows.

In the last five years I have probably met triple the number of people that I had in the 25 years before that. 

You can build up a group of wonderful friends all over the world, and your outlook and personality will undoubtedly be positively affected by these people. It is immensely gratifying to share experiences and your culture with others, but you have to be wary that you feel more open to different mindsets, you might find those at home become more closed.

The downside can be that your acquaintances are fleeting and you can't connect in your relationships as deeply as you can with those who know every line from Alan Partridge or who the hell Rick Waller is.

Another high for me has been overcoming the challenge of living abroad. Whether you are learning the language, trying to socialise or just getting through the paperwork, making it work in another country will make you feel like you are capable of anything.

Teaching pupils (those not learning through choice), can be difficult. I certainly don't blame teenagers for wanting to be outside kicking a football around rather than practising listening exams in a classroom. Teaching will certainly test your patience, especially in those jobs where you are effectively a badly paid babysitter. Parents seem much more willing to pay others to bring up their children and the children nowadays have a greater awareness of their own power. I have read about many teachers who struggle with problem students because parents act solely like customers and push all of the blame back onto the school.

Some low points for me have been seeing how unjust the world can be. If you are born a white English speaking male, you have won the life lottery. Being English natives allows us the opportunity to travel and soak up the world, but I have encountered so many good people whose situation at birth have taken their options away. Sitting through 100 presentations about Mexican students' dream lives brought me to tears because they were all incapable of wanting more than they had. Ignorance is not always bliss.


There is one thing that makes all of this worthwhile. The students of course! They can drive you mad but I do genuinely get a great satisfaction from affecting these little buggers' lives, I can tell you.

I feel like I have more impact on the world every day, than I did in all of my years crunching advertising research numbers.

Students progress slowly when learning a foreign language. However, English is taught through games, dynamic class activities and through a huge variety of topics. As an English teacher, you have a unique opportunity to teach life lessons to your students.

Teaching about history, different cultures and problems they might encounter will give you the feeling that you're really helping these little people develop their minds. And they will teach you plenty too.

Some of my ex students are starting new lives in other countries, speaking to foreigners for the first time and some are even the first family member to graduate university.


The future: 

This summer I will be working in the UK, then heading back to Spain in September to start  a new job in Pamplona.

I can't say if I'll still be teaching in five years, but I have no plans to stop just yet. Next year I'll be taking a Spanish qualification as another string to my bow and may look to take a further English teaching qualification after that.

My next stop will be a trip through Belgium, Holland and Denmark to see some friends before heading back to England for the summer.

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Spainwise recruitment fair 2016

Good morning job seekers!

May brings about the mad recruitment rush as academies and schools look to lock down teachers for next academic year. As my current job is maternity cover and ends soon, I decided to visit the Spainwise TEFL jobs fair which it was conveniently being held in Cordoba.

I really had no idea what to expect from the event. I wasn't sure if jobs would be offered on the spot to the few grizzled teachers that turned up, or if thousands of fresh faced CELTA graduates would come through the doors.

Anyway, these types of industry events are always good to attend, especially as it is free for teachers. Life is all about who you know, so I went to shake hands and make nice with the Spanish TEFL elite.

The event:

The event was well attended as Spainwise had promoted the fair well online, and provided everything you would need to get there (including a free bus!). There were around 50 exhibitors ranging from academies as far away as Bilbao to language industry bodies.

Everyone on the stands was really helpful and friendly and conducted pre-interviews as there was a large number of candidates. I got some really useful information about becoming a Cambridge oral examiner and spoke to several of the schools about September too.

Candidates could complete an online CV before arriving so that the recruiters could see all of their information on the day. However, this didn't always work perfectly as some of the academies wanted you to fill in questionnaires and sheets which contained mostly the same information.

I felt that some of the academies gave you a clear indication of action (for example a Skype interview next week), and others wanted more time to process candidates. It was a shame when stalls simply took your information as I felt this could have all been done online rather than in person.

After a busy week at work in the middle of the exam period, all of these on-the-spot interviews felt a little full on. I think the event was geared more toward those new to TEFL in Spain. The candidates who want tons of information and plenty of interview practice. By the afternoon, I was worn out and decided to skip the seminar I had booked into (although it sounded interesting).

The location:

Although Baena is under an hour away, I haven't written much about Cordoba (apart from my visits to its theatre of disappointment). That's because my trips there for visa purposes have felt rather business like.

The mid sized city is one of Andalucía's must see locations. It has the typical narrow white streets with colourful ceramics, good restaurants and the possibly the most famous cathedral and mosque in the country.

We had a look around the city centre and then stopped in a taberna for some typical salmorejo (a cold tomato cream dish served with bread).

After a week of rain, we got some much needed sun. The weather has been surprisingly cool up until this point. Temperatures in Cordoba can reach 50 degrees in summer!

Spainwise 2016:

Overall, I thought the event was well planned and organised. I found it useful to speak to everyone there and would go again.

I hope to update you soon about where I will be working in September 2016.

The tall job hunter.

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