summer tefl teaching adventures on the costa dorada
Where: Barcelona, Tarragona & Tamarit. Spain, Europe
When: August 2003
What: La Sagrada Familia, Place D’Espagne, Gaudi Museum, First Solo Trip Abroad, First Time Working Abroad, Teaching English as a Foreign Language.
Counter: 1 country
Illnesses or mishaps: Being squashed into a small dormitory of bunkbeds with smelly lads and intense heat - I didn't sleep properly for weeks; Having a close shave with a squid which was doing an excellent impersonation of an egg-based dish; Fending off a bag thief in my underpants outside Barcelona airport; Being left stranded at a rural train station.
I'd been to Spain many times before as a child holidaying with my family (so unlike a British family, I know) but this was my first time abroad on my own as an independent adult. It was also my first time working abroad, too. For these two reasons this trip abroad was doubly daunting and has been, ever since, a key punctuation mark of my career as a part-time globe trotting, worldly wanabe.
My reasons for being a teacher were two fold: building a career which allowed me to use both my academic qualifications and my creativity but, of course, teaching had the potential to open up international job opportunities in the future. Indeed, thirteen years after this, my first stint as a teacher abroad, I was to use my experience as an educator to start a whole new life Down Under in Australia (check out my Australia Blog). A PGCE really does open doors.
Flush with success from my teacher training qualification, and keen to do something dynamic with my newly-acquired Qualified Teacher Status, I looked for opportunities abroad. I looked seriously at Camp America but, alas, the dates did not match those of my return to work after the summer recess. This burning desire to teach abroad led me to English Summer International Schools - an organisation with a network of five residential school campuses where students, mostly Spanish and aged between 7 and 17, were sent by their well-to-do parents to have fun in the countryside but also to brush up on their English (and, cynically, perhaps to get rid of the kids for a few weeks). I sent off my CV and, after a flurry of emails back and forth, I was given the job of teacher at the organisation's finca Tamarit.
I set about studying the English language from a new, theoretical perspective: conjugations, masculine and feminine, present and past participles, infinitives, determiners and pronouns... I built up a sizeable debt on my dial-up internet account, scouring the internet and researching. As a fully paid up member of English through Literature, with virtually no knowledge of linguistics and having learnt my language, like many, through maturation rather than through formal study, this was a whole new and intimidating side to English. Having just completed my first full year of teaching in a tough inner city comprehensive (and which had just been plunged into Special Measures - but rightly so) this was probably foolhardy. I really needed a physical and psychological rest over the summer holiday. Nevertheless, armed with an out-of-date copy of the Rough Guide to Spain, an old-style 35mm film camera (all the rage back then), and a few weightless resources which could fit easily into my baggage, I headed out into the unknown, on my own, for the first time in my life. Naive? Yes. Optimistic? Certainly. Ambitious for new experiences and achievements? Definitely.
tamarit & tarragona
I'd made it to Barcelona airport having spent much of the flight speaking to a kind elderly couple about the fact that I was travelling on my own and was not exactly a fan of flying. The next hurdle was getting the train out to Altafulla station where I would, I was un/reliably told, meet a member of staff from the school who would complete the journey for me. I arrived at a very empty Altafulla station...with no member of staff to meet me. A kind local woman, who I'd asked for directions and then pretty much begged for help from, took pity on me and drove me the five kilometres to the school's campus at Tamarit in Tarragona. I arrived a bit frazzled and was beginning to wonder what I'd let myself in for.
Tarragona is a small port city one hundred kilometres from the regional capital, and Spain's second city, Barcelona. It was also home to a small place called Tamarit, one of five school campuses run by English Summer International Schools. The campus itself was populated by a series of solid wooden huts which comprised the education buildings (classrooms, staff room etc) and larger, more permanent affairs which comprised the medical room, the dining room and administration. It all seemed to hover somewhere between a Spanish Butlin's and an episode of 'Hi De Hi'.
My classroom was, in effect, a well-built shed with a single power point (which I used for the cassette player for Speaking and Listening) and an essential air conditioning unit. Students' desks and seats consisted of two large benches set either side of a large plank table. On one wall I created a Leeds display consisting of photographs, maps and flyers from the city so that students could appreciate where I was heralding from. I was assigned Class 14, populated by teenagers from Germany, Spain and Italy, because I knew very little Spanish (so unlike a Brit, I know). They were more advanced in English and between us we got along fine. I found myself clearing my mish-mash of an accent, using images and role-play to relay meaning. Amongst other things I deployed in class was a song by rap star Eminem, editions of local news programmes 'Look North' and 'Calendar', which I'd recorded back home in Yorkshire, as well as an episode of 'The Simpsons' around which I framed comprehension-style questions.
Any spare time we had during evenings and weekends were used to explore the surrounding area like Barcelona and Tarragona. Tamarit beach was the place to go to when we'd finished teaching for the day (often around 2pm). Some evenings would be spent with some 'Don Simon' sangria down at the beach - where invariably we'd all fall asleep (one of the gang describing it as a "narcolepsy convention"), or camping out in the staff room where we'd whack on an old VHS tape with a film on it, which some other teacher-traveller had bequeathed on their departure, and enjoyed a bit of kick-back with the lights dimmed.
Apart from a bed-bug scare, working in the blistering heat, having real trouble sleeping in the smallest of dormitories on the bunk beds with three other blokes and nearly eating a squid which I naively thought was an egg-based dish, my month at English Summer was a breeze...It was, of course, an experience. And that's all any traveller can wish for. For good or bad, it is a memory nonetheless; one where I cut my travel teeth and learnt a few lessons in life and travel.
The group photo of all students and teachers involved at La Finca Tamarit's fourth Term for August 2003.
The August sunrise over English Summer International School's Tamarit site just before breakfast - the sound of crickets and birds a peaceful start to sometimes tiring days in the Spanish heat.
The students from my 'Class 14', and I, gather outside our classroom.
Teachers get a group photograph outside the staff room as part of the package. These were official photos which were posted out to my Leeds address (which I'd written out wrongly), were returned to Spain and then correctly posted out again to my correct Leeds address. Thanks to Priscilla for getting these to me in the end!
Photographs from the last day in Class 14: a silly goodbye to the camera.
Photographs from the last day in Class 14: chalked good luck messages on the board.
a weekend in the catalan capital
Tarragona's proximity to Barcelona meant that a weekend jaunt there was inevitable. We took the train from Tarragona into tourist-crazy Barcelona, kipped overnight at a friend of a friend's apartment in the city, and saw some of the sights on foot in a bid to keep costs down (quite a few of us were on a budget and keen not to spend our salaries before we'd even earned them). Owing to the vintage technology of my 35mm camera the photographs which are passable for display in this section are few and far between. Those I took of Gaudi's house are so abysmal as to warrant their omission. I also didn't really know what to look for and so missed some of Barcelona's most impressive landmarks - oversights which I went some way to correcting during my visit to Barcelona over a decade later on my journey to the micronation of Andorra. You'll be glad to hear that on my second trip to Barcelona I went fully armed with a digital camera (click here to sample my journey to Barcelona in Spain and the capital of Andorra) and an improved approach to travel.
The giant brick towers of La Place D'Espagne.
In Parc de Ciutadella, central Barcelona.
La Sagrada Familia.
travel tips, links & resources
- English Summer International Schools runs school centres at Tamarit, Poblet, Vallclara, Prades and Cerdanya and are regularly recruiting teachers. Their website is englishsummer.com.
- You pay for your flights but I found my salary, paid in cash in Euros, generally covered these costs. Accommodation and food were included, as were little extras like group photographs, staff uniforms (a polo top with school logo) and, err, a key ring.
- Take a few resources with you. Some basic display material to give students an idea of where you're from (I took a map of the British Isles and some postcards of Leeds where I was living at the time). All of this took up virtually no space in my luggage and went some way to helping a foreigner bond with his class.
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