Wrapped Up for Christmas

The end is nigh. I woke up nice and early this morning for one final lukewarm Spanish shower, shaved and set out in perfect time to make my 9am class… Only to find it empty. It must be Christmas.

I’m not really complaining. I’ve only had a few dud lessons like this over the course of the first term and they’ve all been in the last few weeks, when you can see them coming a mile off. I’ve heard plenty more horror stories from other assistants finding themselves with nothing to do all too often. That doesn’t stop the professional in me going in to school regardless. Hey, there’s free internet there – that’s as good a reason as any.

I should point out that today is my last full day in Spain… for a fortnight. In fourteen days exactly I’ll be back for Reyes Magos and the Cabalgata parade in Olvera, but primarily for Ali’s birthday and our weekend together in Madrid to see El Rey León. Before all that, I’ve a grace period I hadn’t planned on to see my brother, my parents and a cavalcade of old friends, most of whom were under the impression (as I was) that they wouldn’t be seeing me until September 2016. And, of course, to work on the drawing.

I’m sticking to my guns, though. Next year I’m in it for the long haul, in every sense. In truth, Christmas in Spain was never a certainty, but Easter most certainly is. Ain’t no way I’m spending even a second away from this country when it’s at its most beautiful.

I promised you all a summary, didn’t I? I’ll doubtless have a grand old 2015 review penned as the year draws to a close, but for now, I’ll stick to summing up the ups and downs of my first year-long stint as a teacher:

  • Improvised lessons are the best

Fail to plan, plan to fail, right? Wrong. Expect, and expect to be disappointed, as me mam would say. Some of my best lessons so far have been the ones where I’ve gone in with an idea on the day and simply improvised. By the end of the week, it’s usually matured into a fully-fledged lesson in its own right. By contrast, lessons where I’ve gone in with every minute blocked out with various exercises tend to fall dead in the water when one little aspect derails the entire flow, be it because the students were too quick – or, as is more often the case, too chatty.

  • Spanish seven to eight year olds are (mostly) demons

I didn’t sign up for primary teaching. I nearly did, but I didn’t. When my colegio scheduled me for two hours of primary a week and my instituto stepped in to reshuffle my timetable to their favour, I thought I’d dodged a bullet. A second reshuffle landed me back in the hot seat. I mostly look at teaching as something fun that I’d happily do for free, but at least one of those two hours a week is definitely a test of endurance that I only submit to for the cash. It’s not as bad as that one time I tried looking after those Iraqi children, but… I’ll put it this way. Given that Monday, a three hour day (less than a third of my usual workload), is nonetheless my least favourite day of the week is testament to the raw power of those kids. Without them, I dare say there’d be almost no catch at all to this post.

  • Speak up

If you aren’t comfortable with something, say it. That’s something I’ve never been very good at. I’d never describe myself as proud – if I once was, that side of me was mauled seven years ago – but I’d still rather soldier on on my own. That’s not the way to do it. Regular feedback is a good thing, especially as far as teaching is concerned, as you’re there for the kids’ benefit and not your own.

  • More money, more problems

I budgeted on maybe two hours of private lessons a week on top of my earnings from my instituto posting; a reasonably paid, casual fourteen-hour week. Instead, I’m burning the candle at both ends on a thirty-hour week, working two schools, two bi-weekly private groups and three one-to-ones, also bi-weekly. It takes in the dollar, no doubt, but it doesn’t half make for an intense four-day week. And to think that I’d originally planned on working evening shifts at a third school.. Coming back alive from this year abroad could well be a priority.

  •  You’re an assistant, not a teacher…

So says my instituto. Sure, most of them are happy to take a back seat and let me have the run of the place for an hour every time, but rarely on my own. That they’ve never bolstered me with the assistance of a guardia (supply teacher) means I must be doing a good job, which is reassuring, but the support network is very real. I never have to worry about discipline, grammar or marking, for one, which means all I have to do is the teaching itself; all the pros and none of the cons.

  •  …unless you’ve been told otherwise

That’s all well and good at the instituto. Elsewhere, I’m expected to take classes alone, and to cover everything besides: full explanation of grammar, discipline and the occasional bit of homework. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great practice, but as I’ve mentioned before, there’s at least one class where I could really do with a little help. There’s a reason people train as teachers.

  • Keep your personal and professional life separate

When you work in a town as small as Villafranca – especially if it’s as fond of gossip as this lot are – it’s easy to feel like the eyes of the world are on your every move. And they are. As my colleagues put it, I’m “controlado”. You won’t have to think too hard about that one. I’ve split mine down the middle, going out in Cadiz and working in Badajoz, with all of Sevilla as a buffer zone. It works. It doesn’t stop my kids hunting me down on Instagram, though. How they found me in the first place is quite beyond me.

  • Knowing their names is the key

Alright, so when you’re dealing with ten classes averaging twenty-five to thirty in number, putting names to faces is a Herculean task. I think I know the three or four best and worst kids in each one, and the others tend to blur into one. But at my second school, thanks partly to the register and mainly to the smaller classes (six to fifteen a throw), I’ve memorized almost all of them by name – and boy, does it pay dividends. It may only be a small move, but it means the world to them when they realize you’ve taken the trouble to remember. That, and it beats pointing and saying ‘uh… You’ twenty odd times an hour.

  • Sacrifice is only worth it if you’re prepared to bargain

I had to give up my day off on Friday to rehearse a Christmas number with two of my younger groups and then to see it carried out in the concert that night, scuppering any plans I’d had to explore Plasencia with my mum, who’d come to visit. It’s a testament to how much I’ve improved in this profession that I didn’t simply take it lying down as I might have done before; I had the sense to negotiate, as it were, for a day off of my choosing at some point next year. I’ve been collecting favors by working overtime at my other school with the aim of visiting Olvera a day early to make good on an invitation to spend a day working at my former primary school. It should be obvious, but don’t make sacrifices unless there’s something to be gained.

  • Spanish living is ridiculously cheap

Seriously. 150€ a month on rent. 25€ a fortnight on food (and that’s splashing out). Eating out well for 10€ a throw. And all that for the luxury of living out in the sticks. I don’t know how I’m ever going to readjust to English pricing…

Who knows what the new year will bring? With any luck, a new camera… it’s time I got back into my SLR game. Until then, I’ll be taking a well-earned break from teaching for a good three weeks. Hasta enero, España. You’ve been good to me. I mean that x

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