EFL Interviews- The questions I like to ask

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The classic tête-à-tête. The first formal meeting between employer and potential employee. They are a fundamental part of the recruitment process for any EFL teacher and can also be quite nerve-racking. Especially when the job is in a place you really want to go. Through my experiences of doing interviews for positions in Spain, Italy, Malta and England I hope to put together some questions that you should definitely ask during the interview. And I’ve had it all, from why are you asking so many questions, to why aren’t you asking enough, to even… I don’t want to answer that. Well, with some decorum and respect you can ask these questions below and, hopefully, it will help you get a better picture of what you are stepping into and, like the once bitten twice shy teacher that I am, you can avoid the trap of working for the kings of this pyramid scheme we call EFL. (a term from a comment on a previous blog I wrote that still makes me chuckle)

Some of these are obvious, I KNOW, but they are nonetheless important and worth a little explanation too.

Replacement- Am I replacing another teacher and why? (phrased in a more polite way, obviously)

When applying for a job in the darkest depths of winter. I always cast an eye of suspicion on any advert I see. The reason for this is that most of the time you are replacing someone and I think it is reasonable to want to know why. Now, prying into some poor teacher’s reasons for leaving is of course not on ,but you have to ask yourself why they left and in my experience they did so because they weren’t happy with/at the school. A school with a high turnover is something to be wary of and a school that loses teachers after 3 months is also a worry. However, there are multiple reasons for why one might leave, so asking this question might get you an honest answer or more than likely a cryptic answer, filled with buzzwords, that only cause alarm bells to ring out even more.

Should you simply not accept any position in January? No, of course not, but it is important to have as much information at your disposal before you make a decision and from the behaviour of the interviewer, in response to your question, you can get a good gauge of the situation and the type of person you are dealing with. When I ask this question I find out a lot. A lot from what is said and even more from how they handle the question and what they don’t say. A case in point: I once applied for a job in January and it turned out that I was replacing a man who had quit due to stress and another woman had been fired because they didn’t like her. If I’d asked them during the interview this question perhaps they wouldn’t have told me anything and lied or perhaps I would have found out just enough to not accept the job and in turn leave 4 months later. If you don’t ask; you don’t get.

How many teachers are there and how many schools?

I always ask this question in any interview. Knowing the size and number of teachers can give you a great idea of what kind of school you will find yourself in and what kind of school you like. The hustle and bustle of a large school can be a new teacher’s nightmare and a lot of the large chain schools in Spain have a somewhat questionable relationship between teachers and bosses. On the other hand, you may absolutely hate a small school where you are all on top of each other or you might love the cosy “family-like” environment. Either way it is a good question to ask and can really help you make a choice between a big school in a big city or a big school in a small town or etc etc.

Where will I be put?

A follow up question would be, If you have more than one school, where will I be put? I worked for an academy with three schools and was told I would move from one to the other every three months. A great proposition, however, I ended up in the smallest school in a small village which required me to get a 55-minute bus every day and I was never moved I just stayed there, in this tiny village, for 5 hrs every day. So perhaps the question should be where are your schools and how will I get to them? So many interviewers say “we are based in this city” but actually you will end up working far far away from there. Don’t fall for this one.

Pay, accommodation, hours in contract (a tricky one as British people don’t like to talk about pay…but ask about it anyway!)

A real no-brainer this one and one that everyone asks anyway but I cannot stress the importance of it. Even if it looks like a good deal, always reference it against the price of a flat in that area. I applied for a job in a wealthy town in northern Spain and couldn’t accept the position as the pay wasn’t enough for me to cover my rent or bills. The haters will say “well you should go with your own money to set yourself up,” which I agree with, but eventually if the pay doesn’t cover the costs then you will have to leave. All in all no one gets paid that much anyway but this “no-brainer” of a question is a serious deal-breaker. For example 1000 Euros in Madrid doesn’t go as far as 1000 Euros in a smaller city. Always ask and always check the local prices for flats, if the numbers don’t add up then don’t take the job.

Also make sure you double check your hours, a lot of the time the hours can be “flexible”. One week you can be working 25 and then another you can suddenly be working 30. You can’t guarantee this won’t happen during the interview but you need a clear idea of what you will be doing so that if they screw you over you know what you agreed on when you first spoke. Furthermore are the hours morning, afternoon or evening. You would be surprised how many people don’t ask this and suddenly realise that they are driving to business at 8 in the morning and not finishing until 10 in the evening.

What Methodology do you use?

You need to know how they work and operate before you can do your job successfully, it is as simple as that. Some academies are hands-off some are hands-on and some follow strict methods that are inflexible and, quite frankly, don’t suit everyone. Every school does things differently and you need to know this before you start. It is always good to know whether you will be observed and how many times this will take place, also what support they offer to teachers who need help following the methodology in place. People in Spain either quit or lose their jobs because they didn’t/don’t follow a methodology they were offered no help on in the first place.

What age ranges will I be working with?

This is usually specified in the job description but what you need to know is how often you will be working with certain age ranges… and ask yourself; is the advert being cryptic about who exactly you will be working with? A lot of academies say YL (young learners) and then stick you with 4 year olds all week. It is not for everyone, trust me. Always ask how the hours break down and what a typical week for a teacher looks like. The bulk of Spanish work in academies comes from kids from 3 upwards and of course a lot of teenagers so don’t expect to be working with competent, well-behaved adults all week.

Do your research before the interview

This is not a question to ask but, make sure you scour the Internet for reviews of the academy. There are even blacklists out there to help you. Check out their Facebook and ask on forums for any help you can get. Don’t be afraid to investigate and ask around and do your research on the town or city you might go to. Try to find out the things that they won’t tell you in an interview so when you do go into the interview you are prepared and don’t just lap up whatever they say.

But let’s face it, during the interview they may well bend the truth, to get you there, or sugar coat it or maybe that is how they actually see it but by asking the questions above and of course some of your own, then you might just find a place you want to go back to and you might just cut through some of the bullshit that comes out of some of these peoples’ mouths.

This is not a definitive guide to what you should and shouldn’t do in an interview but it does contain some questions that I have learnt I NEED to ask in order to get the maximum information I can about an academy.

Also what I really want, is to start a discussion about what questions you should always ask in an interview. I am not the “be-all and and end-all” of questions to ask in an interview but if you agree with me or disagree with me, put it in the comments and wherever you see this, add some more tips and questions so we can (hopefully) save anyone the potential disaster of choosing an academy that screws them.

Part 2: Going Private in Spain

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Part 2- Going private

Well, after receiving some very positive feedback from people and after also being told we are academy bots writing with the sole purpose of promoting academies in Spain, I guess it is time for part two where we discuss the benefits and drawbacks of going private in Spain.

Firstly going private can be tough, a friend of mine was fired from his academy for being ill and was left with an apartment to pay for and a sudden lack of money to pay for it. Ultimately he stayed the academic year and did quite well for himself with private work and a few small contracts from academies but it was an uphill struggle to create something from nothing and that is what many will face.

One of the first major hurdles people face in Spain as well as in other places is the initial start up period.You may be thinking, I’ve just arrived now let’s get this show on the road in my new Spanish town. Luckily for any wannabe private teacher there are many ways and means of getting your name out there and finding some work. Facebook groups as crude as it sounds, are actually great ways of getting yourself off the ground and picking up classes with all sorts of different people from kids to adults to exam preparation. One can advertise themselves on websites designed for advertising your services and we have even seen flyers posted around town for English classes which are promptly taken down by the owners of the building you’ve ‘vandalised’. With some start-up money to get an apartment and some shrewd business sense you can really make a go of it. I can’t give any advice on small towns but I know people who do just fine in cities of all sizes from the lowly Teruel (population-35,000 and a must visit) to the grand delights of Madrid (population=look it up). To break even or even make some profit requires time and patience but that is the same with any enterprise and should not deter anyone.

So we know it is a risk but we also know it is possible so what follows are some specific problems you might face then eventually some good things.

Some may say if you can’t build rapport then don’t teach at all and if you can’t build rapport in Spain then you won’t last long in general. If you want to go private you need to be prepared to speak to all sorts of people and be able to establish relationships fast. In our experience the line between business and friendship can get blurred here, real fast, so making sure you keep that student coming back is important. Also you’ll probably be teaching kids in their homes without supervision, a child safety nightmare by English standards so creating welcoming environments and building up strong bonds with parents and students over time really helps, but isn’t for everyone, and can be a real mental strain at times. A major plus side is that word of mouth is a fine form of advertising in Spain: I know of a teacher who teaches almost every kid in an apartment block, the word travelled round and it now adds a hefty amount to their overall earnings. Rapport is important in an academy, of course, but you always have someone backing you up, but when you go private it is you and that is where the buck stops.

Classes and students can be unreliable, people cancel, it is a fact of life, but in Spain it seems like a very important fact of life that leave you with a free hour and also feeling frustrated. Young students seem to be more reliable, their parents generally set aside a time for their child to learn English and they want you there as often as possible, but with adults, well, they’ll give you any excuse whenever they feel like it, it is no skin off their nose. However, there are various methods to implement in order to guarantee payment, a common one is to receive payment for, say 4 classes a month, and if one is missed then a catch-up class is organised at a later date. OK, you end up doing 2 classes in a week but a lesson cancelled is a potential waste and this method does work.

Do you need to speak Spanish to do the lessons? Speaking some Spanish never hurt anyone ( I think) so when you get a message from someone to organise classes, unless that person is fluent, they will do it in Spanish. I don’t get this national lack of confidence in speaking English, I know you can do it! If you get it wrong then I will still understand, you can communicate. But, alas, you will receive many offers in Spanish, so knowing how to reply and what to say, can be helpful and, of course, learned very quickly when a potential class is on the line.

Most teachers in Spain tend to do private classes on the side whilst paying taxes from what they earn from their academy contracts( whether these are short ones, which if you are going to do then I advise having them with multiple establishments and try to avoid long soul sucking ones) but if you want to go full time private and be legit then paying your taxes is something you’ll end up doing, or not…. I am not the tax man and the choice is yours, this is just a passing comment on the fact that you should. Doing so is a frustrating process but that is for another post and for another time when I am really bored.

With regards to resources you get some flexibility with this, you can suit classes to each student, use books, photocopies, online resources; the sky is the limit. Students come to you with a level and an idea of what they want, what they like and what they need to improve on. It can be a very interesting part of a teacher’s development but not without difficulty; the expectation of seeing improvement plagues everybody and it can cause frustration afterall, what are they paying for private classes for? Unrealistic expectations can cause problems, if they don’t want to do grammar but they sorely need it,then well…. you have to use your intuition and teaching/people skills and try and sort the problem out. Don’t bow to the pressure, do it your way, and if people don’t like it that is a risk you have to take. You are the teacher you are supposed to know best…. and another point to finish this matter is that everybody wants conversation classes. What you think of them is a moot point you’ll probably have to give them and it can be an interesting experience.

Interestingly I have heard several stories of people looking for jobs in academies after working privately and the work they’ve done has not been counted as experience. Why is beyond me but if it is all legitimate I see no reason why it can’t be considered and even if it’s not then it is EXPERIENCE! (not bitter)

If you’ve made it this far then congrats! Let’s finish on a high. You can earn a pretty penny from teaching privately, you can control your timetable so no more early mornings if you don’t want them. You won’t earn mega bucks but in the, as one comment suggested, ‘pyramid scheme’ that is EFL teaching, nobody does (pretty pennies are relative by the way). No boss to shout out at you just’ angry’ mothers and a sense of independence and pride when you can look back and say ‘Vine, vi, conquisté’ ( or however they say it here!).

Academies or going private- Which one to choose when teaching in Spain?

Part 1: Academies

To go private, or not to go private; that is the question. Despite the obvious Shakespeare hijack this is an issue that interests a few and scares many. The decision can determine how your academic year will play out, whether you will make money or not, and at times truly push you to the limits of your teaching and the limits of your sanity. From grumpy bosses to unrealistic students and from a comfy classroom to a busy rush hour bus, desperately trying to get from class to class. Both choices have big effects on your time, social life and enjoyment of, wherever you happen to be, in the land of opportunity, more commonly known as… Spain.

When one is browsing their computer looking for jobs, thinking merrily of jetting off to Spain to live in the sun, academies and their advertisements can offer you a great way of achieving this and can get you easy access to Spain as well as acting as a great foot in the door with whatever you want to do next. The finer points of the academy advertisement will be looked at in another blog but what is certain is that once you have jumped through the various hoops, ranging from having an arbitrary amount of experience and whether said experience is actually deemed relevant to the benevolent boss; you will have a perfect safety net for when you arrive in your new town and hopefully you will be able to build up connections from the day you arrive.

Decent academies will also offer to help you find accommodation and some might even have an apartment available either from teachers that have left, or it could be as simple as a phone number of a friend, who will offer you a ‘great deal’ which you in turn can’t refuse or else you’ve already insulted someone on your first day. Furthermore instead of having to struggle through the bureaucratic system of Spain alone, you may receive help from the academy in getting all your documents, which of course can vary from someone coming along with you to ‘here is the form, go there, do this’ either way it may just save you some hassle.

One thing you will have is guaranteed hours and thus guaranteed pay with a contract in place to ensure this. From my experience a contract is better than no contract after all everything is legitimate even if half your pay is under the table, but and it is a big but, a lot of the contracts really screw you over, even if I do think it is better to have one than not. They are so flexible that hours can be added or taken away willy nilly and there is nothing you can do or at least you feel like there is nothing you can do and although it offers some protection from firing most contracts have a 3 month probation period in them where the boss can fire you for any reason he wants. I have seen people get fired because the bosses didn’t like them personally also I have heard of teachers failing ‘class surveys’ and then instantly let go with no teacher support available to them at all. Depending on the type of contract you get, a temporary or permanent one then if you want to leave you have to give either 2 weeks notice or a months notice depending on the contract, so if this is ever an issue remember to try and make it amicable or else you’ll be stuck there for a minimum of 2 weeks.

Another point to add is that if you want to do some work on the side then check your contract for a non compete, they love to put these in and it can get you really tied down and reliant on them. Most if not all the contracts will be in Spanish so you can either ask them to explain it to you and take their word for it or get them to translate it or learn formal Spanish contractual vocabulary that may help too. It never ceases to amaze me how many people in Spain and everywhere in the world for that matter don’t read the contract before they sign it, me included, and the consequences can be far reaching, however if you refuse to sign or want to renegotiate then good luck as new teachers are ten a penny and they will just hire someone more complacent. However ‘replaceable’ you are remember that academies do not want to lose teachers just after Christmas or in the middle of the term and especially after Easter for the last push to the exams. Knowledge is power and don’t let anyone tell you that you are ‘replaceable’ it may just be a way of keeping you in your place.

In terms of teaching methodology some academies are more than happy for you to do what you want as long as you follow the curriculum and use a course book, which is reasonable, unless you don’t like the course book or you find it useless and then you have to take it upon yourself to address this issue and well… see what happens. Other academies will be more strict, I myself have experienced a situation where every Friday morning a 4 hr ‘planning period’ was put aside, whereby all teachers had to come in for 4 hrs (unpaid) and discuss with the assistant director what they were going to do during the following week. Nothing wrong with this, except when every choice you made had to then be taken upstairs to the boss, who decided if that was what he wanted or not. As you can imagine 4hrs went by quite fast and nothing got planned per se but the page number did get decided on in the end. But for every bad academy there is a good one and of course my experiences are only as a guide and not the rule. There are some truly awful academies out there and some honest good ones and on how to find them I may write another post and hope that some sort of compendium of information can be arranged so that the bad ones are never again responsible for another persons’ misery.

A benefit of working for an academy, and be under no illusion you work for them not with them, is that many offer career development opportunities. Such things can include workshops, meetings, observations/ feedback, paid online courses and you can work alongside teachers with more experience and use this to your full advantage. Promotional prospects are only available for those who really have a desire to stick around and love the place; most of these people will have some sort of vested interest in the town and have been there several years.

Teacher support is of course offered by most academies and by teacher support I mean personal support and professional support. This, as in most cases, depends entirely on your boss. I knew a girl who was living in an awful shared flat with people extorting her for money every month and after telling one boss, nothing at all happened, partly because he was friends with the land lord, then after telling another boss (top heavy academy) the matter was resolved promptly, she moved out the next day and was from then on in an all together better situation. If you go private then of course you will have to rely on a different network of people to resolve these issues, and owners, director of studies etc will have more experience of living in the country so therefore are more capable of sorting things out. Furthermore if you have a professional problem, you don’t know where to go with the class or how to help then an experienced and helpful boss can make all the difference and really takes a load off your shoulders.

There are other practical things working in an academy can give you that going private cannot; you don’t have to deal with the parents of spoiled kids, you don’t have to do your own taxes and you may just get your holidays paid for too. So working for an academy in Spain can be a roll of the dice in many regards but it can also offer you certain benefits that are unobtainable when working for yourself. Whether the things mentioned are good or bad, that is for the reader to decide.

Part 2 about going private and its benefits and draw backs is under way!