As we enter into February, I reach the mid-point of my year abroad working as an English Language Assistant for the British Council. I am living in Bilbao and working in a rural Basque primary school a train ride commute through the mountains to Gernika. Although I have previously written about my experience teaching English in Spain, this was mainly in a positive light and this post aims to expose the wider picture of the job.
A typical week in the life of an ELA
Contracts for the British Council are a 12-hour working week (up to 16 for those in Madrid), so this gives us a great opportunity to explore our new home city and travel – or pop home for a weekend trip! On the surface this seems fantastic, but sometimes there are weeks when 12 hours at work can seem like nothing at all, and days off might seem a little lonely if you don’t have plans.
Roles and responsibilities vary greatly depending on the host school. On paper the position is a back-seat role in the classroom, assisting the teachers. However you may be asked to lead activities, sessions or even full classes. My role is on the more independent end of the spectrum, which I love as this gives me the opportunity to lead whole sessions with large groups whilst the teacher takes the other half of the class. This is giving me a great chance to develop my own classroom activities, games and engage with the children.
Recently I stepped up to a slightly different role, choreographing and teaching the dances for a whole-school performance during the week of El Carnaval. This added a twist to my job and a challenge: managing classroom behaviour of a group of 20 children, whilst taking part in a practical dance session proved to be fairly difficult. This was an even bigger step up when the dress rehearsals took place with 60-80 children on stage at one time. I am back to English teaching next week and am looking forward to a calmer classroom setting, involving actual desks and worksheets!
Pressure vs. Positivity
With any job there are of course good days and the not-so-good days, and the role of an ELA is no different. Working with children often means that no two days are the same, and their mood can have a big impact on your mind set for the day. There are classes where I have such a good laugh with the children that I leave the school beaming with positivity, but there are also those when facing a challenge at work means the pressure is on and a misbehaving child can bring you down for the whole evening. My colleagues are fantastic and always step in if there is difficult behaviour in the classroom, but teaching a group on my own often means I am tasked with dispersing a difficult situation on the spot, sometimes in a foreign language.
Working in a rural school in the Basque Country can often mean the first language is not Spanish, but Euskara. The children converse in the local language and the staff room is a buzz of Euskara, which can often leave me feeling a little left out or alone during the day.
If you are considering working for the British Council it is a fantastic opportunity and a choice I don’t regret making! But of course as with any job there are the positive moments and challenges too, and as I reach the half-way mark it seems like a good time to evaluate the bigger picture of my time here so far: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.
Head over to my personal blog here.