Ramblings of an ESL Teacher: Day One: Apparently, You Can Pay Me to Go Back to High School

I used to say “you couldn’t pay me to go back to high school.” All the time. Okay not all the time. I wasn’t harboring some five year old grudge against my high school (there were and still are some amazing people in my life that wouldn’t be there had I not gone through my public school system) just that when anyone mentioned high school or high school problems I thought about how going back to high school could easily be placed on any of Dante’s rings of hell and I would have found it aptly placed. This was also my general response when talking about teaching. Over the years many people have told me that I would make a great teacher, granted some were more blunt than others by supplementing that suggestion with “only high school though” comment. People have not only suggested being a teacher but also a guidance counselor and I have always disliked these ideas for two reasons 1) you couldn’t pay me to go back to high school and 2) the monotonous repetition of repeating the same lecture five times a day year after year to a bunch of kids that could not possibly care less about the subject would be utterly mind numbing to me.

Then I became an English teacher in Spain. For some reason the limits you place on yourself in the US (or your respective home country) compared to those you place on yourself in another country are vastly different. Kinda like the limits you put on yourself at summer camp or the limits (or lack there of) you put on yourself your freshman year in college/university. They are just different. Can’t explain it, well I could but I’m not going to, you can figure it out. For example, living in another country with a family and taking care of children five days a week would sound like a jail sentence in America but place me in Europe near a Ryanair accessible airport and I’m all yours! Or place me in front of a classroom of stinking teenagers (and I do literally mean stinking, deodorant people!) in the United States where 90% of the students would be donned in a combination of any or all brands including Abercrombie & Fitch, Hollister, American Eagle, Coach, Michael Kors, Ugg, Northface, Victoria’s Secret, etc… and I would laugh in your face. But, put me in front of teenagers that are learning English as a second language because they have a desire to move outside of Spain or simply want to go to London and it’s worlds different (not that I have actually taught in the United States but just based on my very limited exposure to the teaching atmosphere). And I obviously know all of this because I have taught English for all of one whole day!

Today was my first day of teaching, incase you didn’t guess. This is a huge feat in of itself because the Spanish government, no surprise, decided to screw me over at the last minute. Now it wasn’t exactly the Spanish government that screwed me over as it was the agency that writes the contracts for my school. You see this whole idea about teaching English this year was spawned last year when my host mom decided that she wanted to convince me to stay longer and I decided it was going to take more than five months to master the Spanish language (surprise, surprise). At last that led me to decide to spend another year as an au pair with the added bonus of also being an English teacher. Being me I, of course, planned out exactly how I could get my Spanish visa and my working permit before last summer so that I could go on a wonderful summer vacation and spend all my money knowing that I would have a nice pay check and job waiting for me when I got back to Vigo. Several different Spanish entities decided to put a stake in this plan.

The first was my Spanish school. They refused to give me paperwork saying I would be a student this year before I passed my exam (second week of June) and got my grades (third week of June). Thus I needed to wait until August to apply for my visa and thus would have to come back right after getting my visa to apply for a work permit. This was all very squishy because I had heard the visa process could take anywhere from 2-6 weeks and the work permit required 3 months. With a potential October 1st start date this was not really going to work. But then some fabulous news came; I didn’t need the work permit! The agency (damn them!) told me that as long as I had a visa I wouldn’t need a permit. Perfect! This works perfectly. I could go home in August apply for the visa allow for the 2-6 week process and come back to Vigo and not have to worry about the 3 month-long waiting period for the working permit. Wahoo! This was made even better when my visa process went as smooth as tequila running down a spring breaker’s throat. (While I’m here I would like to send a shout out to all of those who listened to me vent, stress, and FREAK OUT about my visa process. In the end you were right and it was easy.)

With my visa in hand I headed back to Vigo and sat in ignorant bliss until one week before my anticipated start date when my principal/ landlord/ fair host mother/ co-English teacher/ food provider came in and asked me for my NIE number, my work permit number, and social security number. I stared at her. Had I been a cartoon my eyes would have been the size of my face and wide open with only two quick deliberate blinks to the *tink tink* sound blinks only make in cartoons or my head would have simply just popped straight off as many heads did on Tuesday night’s episode of NCIS. Neither of these happened, nor did I scream, “You told me I didn’t need it!” Instead I slowly, figuring out what I was going to say word-by-word, said, “I have my NIE, but I don’t not have the other two because the agency told me last year that I wouldn’t need it.” She looked at me and calmly said, “ahuh” and turned and walked out of the room.

To make a long story shorter I had to apply for the work permit which required me to find two different parking spots, speak Spanish to an umpteenth amount of Spanish speakers and go to two different offices of the Spanish government. I was able to get the information I needed. After a run around town, a test of my Spanish proficiency, lighting a firecracker under the agency’s butt, returning to one of the said offices, going on an emotional rollercoaster ride, and waiting 4 business days I received my work permit. Three-month waiting period be damned! Turns out that agency had a few connections with the work office and after they sent in the big guns, since they realized they had royally screwed up, and pushed the right buttons they made this go a lot more quickly than usually. In turn I only started two days later than I was supposed to! Which is why I started today with my 8th, 9th, and 10th grade students rather than my 3,4, and 5 year old students on Monday. I jumped in headfirst. Little kids are easy. You give them candy, let them jump around, sing, and scream and they love you; high school students are the hardest on teachers, I should know because I was once one.

I was fine with this because I was actually super excited to teach these grades because, like many people had told me before, I believed these grades would be my strengths. That is why I was totally fine all morning and wasn’t worried at all about teaching. I had this in the bag! I had my PowerPoint explaining how I am in fact from New York but I do not live in New York City because, get this, New York City is just an “itty bitty” piece of the entire state of New York.

(Now I actually described New York City as “itty bitty” to every class in Robin William’s Genie voice quoting “itty bitty living space” when he was referring to the fact that his lamp/living space was in no way proportional to his “phenomenal cosmic power.” If you’re still not picking up what I’m putting down watch this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SfTfXLLJlzM . Unfortunately, no one got the movie quote but they did find me entertaining. It’s fine I suffer from this problem when speaking with some native English speakers too. It truly takes a certain type of introvert and/or couch potato to have watched the number of movies and TV series I have watched.)

Moving on to the entire point of this blog post… Today after teaching six different classes (one advanced and one not advanced class of each grade 8th -10th) I realized that going back to high school now would be AWESOME! 1) Smart phones are fabulous! (Though the tells for students being on a smart phone are way more obvious than texted one handed under a desk by feeling the keypad I would have figured something out.) 2) While my hair and dermatological issues have not changed much over the past five years I have one thing that I didn’t have back in high school and that in confidence! Dear lord has it changed since high school! I stepped into that classroom and I could instantly tell who was popular, who was smoking something, who was dating whom, who the braniacs were, and who the soon-to-be drops out were. While I could do this all in high school I had to adhere to the rules of these social parameters, meanwhile, as a teacher, I hold all the power. Mwahahahah! Just kidding. Not really. And this is what made me feel like I could take on this year of teaching 26 lessons a week spanning 13 grade levels.

Some other random things I learned my first day:

  1. Advanced kids separate themselves like boys and girls at a middle school dance while non-advanced kids tend to intermingle. More pondering theories on why this is to come in the future.
  2. My psychology major will not only help me understand these kids, but it also has an unknown-to-me intimidation factor. Cool.
  3. I was made to be the fly on the wall, observing human behavior is absolutely fascinating!
  4. “Has got/Have got/hasn’t got/haven’t got” make my ears bleed. Has/Have and DOESN’T/DON’T have. Done.
  5. Being a T-Rex must have been excruciatingly difficult. While I did say I was the picture of calm cool and collect before my classes started I was fighting some typical fight or flight emotions once students actually entered the classroom and all eyes were on me. Especially when I handed the class over to the students and allowed them to collectively ask me five (yes! only five) questions about myself. Since I refused to be dubbed “the teacher with sweat stains,” because, let’s be honest, we all remember at least that one teacher/professor that had the most horrible sweat stains. Mine: Mr. O’toole 7th grade Language Arts and Biology for Jocks professor who’s name I have since forgotten but his pit stains will live on forever in my memory – as will his subconscious cursing. So with this in mind once my sympathetic nervous system decided to betray me I kept my arms from my elbows up glued to my sides. This made doing my this-is-how-big-New-York-State-is and this-is-how-big-NYC-is gestures very difficult. And for my third and final TV/ Movie reference please refer to the following link to understand what was going through my head, aside from Mr. O’toole and forgotten professor’s name’s sweaty pits.