Can you teach English?
Carlos the city electrician was on the phone.
Me…, I asked
Yes. You do speak English, don’t you, he continued, in Spanish of course.
Yes, that was the case. But… I was not able to complete my argument before he rambled on. The centre where his daughter took classes was looking for an English teacher for their infantile group. They were desperate for help.
Before I knew it I had agreed to see them and the following day I walked into their teaching centre, dressed for a proper work interview. This was actually something I had never done before, as in my former or actual profession, the film industry, you get jobs based on your last shoot and whether producers or directors like your work. It kind of happens by osmosis, but this is not how things happen in the real world. So there I was with my resume of double masters, decades of design experience, film awards and half a dozen languages hoping to get a job teaching ABC to toddlers. Anyhow, I reminded myself. We all have to start somewhere and this, should all go well, would be my first official job in Spain.
The friendly staff didn’t seem too concerned with my diplomas or my past (Not even a criminal check? I could have been a paedophile freak). They were content knowing that I spoke English, and since nobody else spoke it, nobody could verify my skills. I made it perfectly clear that I had never taught anything before, short of teaching my son how to ride a bike a decade ago. No worries, they said. I would do fine. There surely would be many expats here in Ronda who would be much more qualified to teach English than I, I said, really trying to not get the job, but there seemed to be no way of persuading them of my inadequacy to the task. Since I was able to communicate with them in Spanish and furthermore had been recommended by Carlos the electrician, the staff felt that I was just the person for the job.
How are the students, I inquired, imagining a group of wide eyes little angels. They could be a little bit difficult, they admitted. In fact, it came out in our talk that the last teacher had lasted a mere two hours and the one before… How much trouble can a group of kids be, I thought. OK, I’ll do it, I said, always one to face a challenge straight on. I was given my timetable and shown the room with cute baby sized tables, mini stools, toys, alphabet blocks and a small squeaky clean white board. When they finally told me about the remuneration, I calculated that it would come out to a few cents above minimum wage. But who cared, I would be working teaching young Andalucians the language of Shakespeare.
At this point it would be appropriate for me to make an aside on Spanish ESL education. Why, you may wonder, would parents in rural Andalucía bring their beloved offspring to private English classes, especially at such an early age? There might be several reasons for this. First and foremost most adults in Ronda, or certainly the ones we know, say that they have forgotten what little English they once learned, so helping their kids with homework becomes difficult and often requires outside help. Secondly, as our town and Spain in general live largely of tourism the need for speaking foreign languages have become more widely accepted. Though this might have been viewed as unnecessary in the past, even the most rustic Andalu’ farmer might today recognize the need for his children to speak English simply to get a job. Both university degrees and professional training courses have begun to demand what they call level B2 in English, which also is required to enter almost any profession, such as the police force. Thirdly, though most schools teach English from preschool age on, many local primary-school teachers speak poor English and do not know how to pronounce even basic words, like bag or leg. The teaching-staff is lagging behind, as many primary and secondary schools has been required to become bilingual from one year to the next. This has created great difficulties for both the students and teachers, and indirectly therefore for the parents. English is everywhere, on TV, in advertising, in gaming and all over social media, so even here in our small town the kids will need the language, whether they like it or not.
How did one teach kids in a foreign language when they could neither read, nor write, I wondered. Since I hadn’t done this type of job before, I spent the next couple of days glued to my computer doing Internet searches, bookmarking online songs and games, printing out fun worksheets, investing in class supplies and generally getting ready to impersonate a teacher. I planned my first class down to the last minute, with ample spare activities in case of possible meltdowns. Including my hours of research and supply purchases, my salary would average about two euros per hour, but who was counting? I dressed what I considered teacher-like (whatever that meant) and packed up my bag of newfound and newly purchased tricks. Like a kid off to first day at school I arrived at the centre early. Of course none of my little angels or angelitos were there yet, so I had time to plug my laptop and sort work sheets, feeling ready to face the music.
A few minutes before the class officially began my first students arrived. Holding the hands of their devoted parents, they looked cute, momentary shy and most of all, tiny. I had forgotten how small 3-year-olds could be. The moms and dads took the jackets off these miniature humans and sat down chatting with other parents. Meanwhile their little angels proceeded to run up and down the hall screaming at the top of their lunges. None of the parents even noticed the ruckus, which didn’t actually surprise me. The children on our street yell at top volume all evening long and often past our bedtime, and nobody tells them to keep it down, other than us, who are probably seen as the old ogres of the neighbourhood. Actually, I am yet to discover if Andalucían kids have a volume dial. I can assure you that they do not have a ‘mute’ button.
The receptionist eventually came out from behind her desk asking the kids to calm down. She had promised to help me bring my class into the room (no biggie, I had thought, but that was before I met my creatures). One by one we got them shuffled inside, some fighting, some painfully shy and some girls like Siamese twins, desperate not to be separated from their sworn best girlfriends. I told the kids my name, which of course nobody heard above the deafening noise. Sit down please, I urged to no effect. I repeated the instruction with visual aid of my hands. No luck. Finally I proceeded to lift and plop each child down on a mini seat. Nobody approved of their placement and all immediately got up and changed spots, elbowing anyone who came in their way in the process. After a flurry of activity, almost all were seated. Still, all were talking at the same time, none seemingly listening to the others, certainly not to me. In that way these three and four-year-olds were rather like adult Andalucians, often preferring to talk than to listen.
There was a knock on the door. A far to sweetly smiling mother peaked in, pushing her mini-me daughter into the classroom. The latter was crying so loud that even some of the screaming kids stopped their ruckus for a blessed moment. Silvia as the girl was called grasped after her mama, who kept smiling as if to distract from the fact that she had disrupted my already easily disrupt-able bunch. I said that the daughter would be fine, but the mother insisted that she had to remain inside in the classroom or her daughter would not agree to stay. Parents were supposed to leave their children outside the room, though of course they were also supposed to bring their kids on time. But then again, what could I say? This was my first fifteen minutes of teaching, ever.
At regular intervals the mom got up to leave and Silvia would start howling as though the world was about to end. I promised in English/Spanish that she would be my helper for today’s class if she stopped crying and finally managed to trick her into sitting between two surprisingly well-behaved students. Suddenly her mom was forgotten and Silvia was all smiles. However, unbeknown to me I had said the magic word and as if on cue all the little kids swarmed around me also wanting to be my helper. It will be your turn next class, I said, attempting a multi-armed crowd control. This would of course have been the perfect time for the overprotective mom to get lost, but she was not the sharpest knife in the drawer, so instead of sneaking out the door at this most opportune moment, she ruined it all by coming up and giving her princess a good-bye kiss. The desperate crying stated all over again. Rule number one I decided would be NO parents allowed inside the classroom, without exceptions.
While the latecomer drama had been going on, three of my young lads had climbed up onto one of the mini tables and were now throwing their stools with the aim of their mates’ still unformed sculls. I got there in time to pull them off the table without anyone loosing an eye, though by then little Paco was weeping and pointing to his invisible battle wounds, while Tony and Sergio (all, by the way, made-up names to protect the innocent) had their hands firmly around each others throats, their little angry faces blood read. I separated the miniature gladiators and forced them with much protest to sit on different tables, making sure there were girls in between the unruly boys. No dead bodies yet, thankfully. But when would I have time to start my teaching? Half the class was gone and I had not started a single one of my carefully researched infantile ESL exercises.
Lets sing a song, I roared, seeming like the students having lost my ability to speak at a normal volume. I sprang up to the teacher’s desk and pushed the first link on my laptop, barely managing to rescue it from the mob of children who followed me. All seemed to know more about computers than I and wanted to choose the song. Back to your seats, I insisted, wondering when I had become such a militant bitch. Old Mac Donald had a farm blasted through the speakers of my poor old Macbook. Some of the girls even sang along, though the future hackers were getting dangerously close to my computer again. Sit down! I yelled. The kids mocked me calling out the same words. Sit down! In a flash of brilliance I fell down onto one of the spare small stools and repeated Sit down! The kids thought this was funny and snickered. They coped me, falling to their seats while mimicking my words. I stood up again, calling Stand up. They kids miraculously did the same. We did this game for about half a dozen times or 25 seconds of the 60 long minute class before half the boys were on the ground trashing stools about. The pandemonium reigned again among my young troops. Well, at least they will come home having learned a few English words, I thought.
At this point even the little girls were starting to show their naughty sides. Two pretty little things in bubble gum pink outfits, including runners that lit up, were refusing to sit beside a certain girl who was not as pinkly and costly outfitted, saying she was not their friend. (What? Did they think we were in kindergarten?) Trying to physically force the students back in their assigned seats (Next class, that is IF I survived the hour, I would label their desks to prevent me dislocating my back), I noticed another girl with snot hanging down in two rows from her nose. Where was that Kleenex box they had shown me, and would I be able to reach it before someone else would try a Kamakaze dive off the table and split the head of their buddy with their stool? I found the box at the same time a boy named Diego came running up to me, holding the front of his trousers, feet stepping quickly up and down like drumsticks. Pipi, he squeaked. Oh god, not here!, I begged. I stuffed him under one arm, grabbed some Kleenex for the girl’s nose, wiped her in passing as I rushed to the door, quickly blocking it for others who tried to escape and called out to the front desk. Baño! All that in one breath, I must be getting pro. Talk about baptism by fire. Thankfully the helpful staff had promised to take the kids to the bathroom, so I would not have to wipe any tiny bums, nor leave the classroom for more than a split second, to avoid a total disaster.
As soon as Diego had gone and the door was safely shut, I had five other boys also tripping about holding their fronts. Pipi. Seño. Pipi. (I later realized Seño was a shortened version or Señora/Señorita) It was only the boys who seemed to have this communal weak bladder syndrome, for some reason. Do you really all have to pee at the same time, I asked, and was met with blank stares. Of course they did not understand, though they knew perfectly well how to manipulate teachers and any adults, like children usually do from about the age of nine days old… I lined the allegedly pee-needy boys up by the door, hoping no puddle would appear before it would be their turn. Rule number two I decided would be to always have the students visit the washroom before class, whether they needed it or not.
And a hee haa here and a ghee haa there I heard as I ran back to my desk and grabbed the clammy hand of a girl whom I seemed to recall was called Alicia (names on the desks and tags on the children next class!) seconds before my computer was floor-bound. When would the class end, I wondered. having never in my long life experienced such an endless hour.
I am bored! said an angry little boy, and more followed suit. Before yet another mutiny broke up, I reached for backup activity number seven. Who can help me, I asked? Wrong question. A mob of a dozen little demons clawed at my legs, yelling Seño, Seño wanting my attention. Silvia, whose mother finally had left, squeaked the loudest, so remembering my promise to her, I let her be the chosen one. While the boys one by one were brought to and retuned from the bathroom, (Remember to wash your hands after, I futilely called after the kids) Silvia and I and a few more helping and disturbing hands tried to put down a straight line of cheap, red imitation duct tape on the floor. Please, line up, I said. Nobody listened. Line up, I called louder and a couple of the kids looked up at me in surprise. The rest were wrestling on the ground, climbing the walls, or dismantling the toy shelf. Finally I grabbed the students and slammed them down one behind the other in a perfect line, sort of. Everybody wanted to be first, of course, so the orderly line instantly disintegrated. Before I knew it I had a fistfight at my hands. Locking the contestants down to the floor, I held Pedro (or was his name Paco?) with one hand and Sergio with the other. Both were frothing at the mouth, hurling course Andalu’ insults at each other, which boys their age only could have learned at home. Either was accusing the other of having taken his place at the front of the line-up. There was a knock on the door and the receptionist peaked in. The kids magically silenced. Everything OK here, she asked, seeing me spread eagle on the floor with one monster in each hand. Oh, yes, all under control, I answered sheepishly.
In all honesty, I was dead beat, my back hurting from lifting kicking boys and my throat feeling worse than after a three-day rave. How in heavens name did I end up here, I wondered, looking down at the struggling boys trapped under my firm grip. I used to be a professional. I coordinated paint and construction department, oversaw the preparation of sets in multiple locations while organizing teams of buyers, drivers and set dressers, and raising thousands of dollars to deserving charities in my spare time. believe it or not, I actually used to be good at my job. And here I was in rural Spain pinning snotty kids to the floor…
Alone again with my class, I placed the fighting boys at the very end of the line up as they surely deserved and showed the kids the game of how to balance on the line. This, according to some wise ESL Internet site, was supposed to be good for teaching group play, early childhood concentration and collaboration. Collaboration, my ass… I would be grateful if they learned important expressions such as Don’t step on Lucia’s foot! and No hair pulling! Why did boys enjoy pulling girls braids so much?
By a miracle, all the kids walked the line, most laughing hysterically as if it was the most hilarious game they had ever played. Just as I was about to do a retake, the class was suddenly over. I had forgotten to check the clock on the wall, which miraculously was still hanging in place, not having fallen down by any of the projectile missiles launched its way. With my very last bit of raunchy voice I told the kids to line up (none did…) and opened the door. Loving parents scooped their suddenly angelic children into their arms, asking if they had had a good time, and all said yes. I mean, what would be more fun than abusing a completely green, utterly untrained teacher. The kids and parents left, all except poor Silvia, whose mother after coming late and barely being able to leave her little darling, now had abandoned her offspring for a late afternoon shopping spree. So Silvia, my selected helper and myself cleaned up the carnage and tried to peel the red tape off the floor, though in the end it didn’t come off and became a permanent installation in our classroom.
How did it go, the receptionist asked, and I could barely whisper that I suppose it had gone Ok, seeing that no arms or legs were missing and only one child was left unclaimed. I wasn’t sure what English they had learned, other than imperatives such as NO, Stop That and Sit down, but I supposed that was a good start. It will get easier, the receptionist promised me. I strongly doubted it, though I felt I could not give up after a single class. After all, the last teacher survived two, so I have to do better than that.
See you on Thursday, I said, having no idea that a couple of years later I would still be wrangling those same kids, having become their very own crazy ‘la teacher’.