The Call of the South

South Africa’s calling to me again. Only, this time, in the form of my younger brother, reminding me that he still wants to go. Admittedly I’d shunted it to the back of my mind, but in the sudden economic boom in BB’s world that is the belated arrival (of my own causing) of my Erasmus grant – a full two thousand pounds more than I’d budgeted on earning – it’s come back with a vengeance. It says something about my self-confidence that I’d actually budgeted on missing out on the Erasmus grant entirely through my own uselessness when it comes to paperwork.

I suppose that this is how most British students feel when the Student Loan comes in. Not me. For the last two years I’ve been reeling in the post-debt no-job spendthrift mode that suits me so well. My first year at university saw me so utterly swamped by living costs that my bank account was permanently in the minus figures well into the start of my second year. Every time the loan came in, it was snapped up by the debtors, and somehow I was still in debt after that every time. As a result, I went out a grand total of five times throughout the year, including Fresher’s Week, none of which I paid for, having no disposable money of my own.

My advice? Either get a job before going to university – easier said than done – or, better still, refuse point blank to live in halls. Durham City, bang in the middle of what is supposed to be one of England’s poorer counties, is a viciously expensive place to live, thanks to its students. I won’t get into that debate now. I’ll only state that, in my first year, it cost me upwards of £6,000 a year to live in college. That total is now closer to £7,000. The college system has a lot going for it, and it’s a friendly system too, but the price is simply crippling for most of us. And I’m speaking as one neither poor nor well off, but somewhere in between. Lucky for me, I guess, that one or two bad experiences gave me further justification to avoid living in college, besides being an already justified Scrooge about my limited funds.

The trouble is, as with so many things, it’s all about balance. The rising fees have got a lot to do with bringing the Durham staff onto the living wage, a subject for which the student body actually campaigned back in 2014. It’s truly ironic that the complaints began to resurge just months later when it was revealed that accommodation fees would necessarily have to be raised for this to be at all feasible. In the same light, years of fighting for freedom of speech have resulted in a nation where people are now complaining about the very smallest offence, the increasing access to mobile phones has come at the price of the clandestine employment of child miners in the Congo, and equality in the workplace may or may not have resulted to the splintering of family values. Speculations these may all be, but it’s a world truth that you have to give to get, piece by piece, heart by heart.

Maybe it’s the fact that I’ve spent most of this week listening to Michael Jackson’s Earth Song on a constant repeat that’s made me conscious all of a sudden. It could be that five hour conversation with the gaditano on my way back from Cantabria on Sunday. Either or. I think myself very lucky in many ways, not least of all that, as an Englishman in Spain, I have access to a wealth of opportunities from my birth right as a native English speaker alone that the locals could simply never have, starting with this jammy British Council job. I’m thankful every morning for my good fortune. I really am.

It’s why I teach, and why I believe I always will. Better to earn a modest sum and be eternally grateful for what you have than to climb to the dizzying heights.

Not that I’m saying a little ambition is a bad thing. I’ve just never really had my sights set on a life of fortune and prestige and I don’t think I’d enjoy it if I made it that far. I’ve been writing novels since I was five or so, but if I’m perfectly honest with you, all I want from that is to have them in book format, so that one day, if life should be so kind to me, I might have children to read them to. That’s the greatest dream of all. Sorry, Mum and Dad.

…Jiminy Christmas, did I go off the tracks or what? An hour ago I was trawling South African travel advice and now I’m trying to be socially conscious, as if my last few forays didn’t leave me scarred enough. Time to retreat back into my self-consciously middle-class headphones and dwell on the subject a little more. I’ll get to the bottom of it one day. Before I die, preferably. That’d be nice. Sala kahle. BB x

 

A Step in the Right Direction

I love blackboards. They’re quirky, they’re the very definition of old-school and, more importantly, they’re reliable. Grab yourself some chalk and you’re good to go. The sad thing is, they’re on the way out.

Wait, what? I thought they were done away with years ago, I hear you say? I remember a grand total of two years of blackboards in primary school before whiteboards and whiteboard markers edged them out, to be replaced almost instantly by the firestorm that was the first wave of interactive whiteboards. Well, blackboards are still the status quo here – or rather, they were, until last week. The twenty-first century has arrived in Extremadura, it seems, and the herald is the interactive whiteboard.

It’s been highly interesting to watch the reactions, as my scope as a teacher covers kids from five to eighteen along with several seniors. Unsurprisingly the youngest are the most in awe, and I’ve had to play the fool and feign ignorance, living through the ‘brand new toy’ atmosphere along with the rest so as not to spoil it for them. How are they to know that I was no older than nine years old when I had my first encounter with an interactive whiteboard, some twelve years ago?

As such, I’m long since past the shock-and-awe stage, and I see them as more of a nuisance. Not only have you got to spend time mucking about with the computer and projector, but you’ve got to keep an extra eye open, because kids just love to touch the damn things (I’ve already banned its use in my two primary classes because they just won’t keep their hands off). On top of that, if you’ve planned a lesson that requires the technology and it decides, for whatever reason, to screw you over by playing up, that’s the entire lesson out of the window.

And that’s without mentioning the calibration nonsense. How does one even draw properly on one of those things? As such, I’m definitely in Camp Blackboard.

All I can say is that if my generation made the same fuss over this new technology, I’m truly sorry. The last two weeks have been comparable to trying to plug a burst water main with one’s hands.

So, apart from lapsing into his old Luddite ways, what else has yours truly been up to?

In a complete turn-around from the way things were at the beginning, my state school kids have been nothing less than complete angels of late. Our school hosted a charity event last Friday in aid of the Syrian Refugee crisis, which I agreed to sing for. When my backing singers bottled out, I ended up having to improvise a new number, which was a mish-mash of several of Tolkein’s walking songs set to music, half from the 1981 BBC Radio adaptation (my childhood, right there) and half from the 2003 Return of the King movie – specifically, Billy Boyd’s The Steward of Gondor. And what do you know, it worked! I’ve had people coming up to me all week telling me how it sent shivers up their spine (or the Spanish equivalent, piel de gallina), which has done my crushed ego a world of good.

Alicia of 4º ESO delivers a brilliant monologo

On top of that, I had a wonderful surprise yesterday when I turned up to a class to find four people missing: three students and, crucially, the teacher. Of course, nobody thought to tell me until that moment that she’d be on a school trip. As it turns out, I’d arrived just in time, as most of the kids were on the verge of following their three classmates’ example and doing an early runner. For reasons I still can’t fathom, instead of making a break for it – unwisely, I did give them the opportunity – they stuck around to see what I’d got in store for them, after giving me a demonstration of the songs they’d prepared for this year’s chirigotas (satirical songs, often covers with the lyrics rewritten to local effect).

It was halfway through the second when a cover teacher showed up and tried to take over. I managed to persuade him that I had the situation under control (Nixon never told a bigger lie) and let him have the afternoon off. From the moment he shut the door behind him I had the unwavering attention of the whole class for the presentation I’d prepared, and that in itself was nothing short of a miracle.

But better yet was when I got to school the following morning to be told by their teacher that not only had they enjoyed the lesson, but that they’d told her that they really learned a lot from it. It’s little moments like that that really make teaching worthwhile. It truly is a vocation and I can’t help but feel I was called a long time ago. And so what if it’s a family tradition? I’m a traditional sort of guy. I can handle that.

Not so nice was what came later, when I voluntarily took an hour out of my free time to pay a visit to the Upper Sixth class, which (for reasons beyond my understanding) is the one year group in the school which has no contact with me at all. Most of them were really keen to see me at last, but I also had the first example of hostility I’ve ever faced in a classroom when one of the students, pressed to ask me ‘a question, any question’ by the teacher, said in perfect English that he ‘quite honestly couldn’t care less about [me]’. He shut up pretty quick when I revealed that I was actually part-Spanish myself, but it did sting a little.

It didn’t hurt for long. I had a primary class right after which took my mind off the whole thing, to put it lightly, and for the rest of the afternoon I had my hands full trying to keep the restless upper tiers of my private school kids under control – which came to a head in one of the funnier instances of the year so far.

We were discussing Netflix, illegal downloads and streaming on the internet and, naturally, the subject of porn came up – what do you expect in a Catholic school? Now, one particularly chatty kid always gets that class’s goat and today one of them decided the kid had simply gone too far and brought him down to size royally, joking that he watched porn, but on his Smart Watch, ‘because it’s a lot more practical that way’.

He didn’t need to demonstrate. I couldn’t keep a straight face for ten minutes.

On the whole, there’s been lot of reasons to smile over the last two weeks; ever since I wrote that post on reasons to smile, in fact. Troublesome though they are, I still cherish the hugs I get from my primary kids on a Wednesday. It makes me feel appreciated. So too do I accept the hero worship I get from my cuarto class every time I pass their classroom, because it makes my heart soar when they scoff at my facts, laugh at my jokes and generally get so involved in my classes.

Oh, and the swallows and the martins are here. Already. In January, for Pete’s sake. I’m practically on tip-toes I’m so happy.

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Couldn’t grab the swallows, but the siskins that stopped by the park were pretty obliging

But perhaps the best thing that’s happened over the last two weeks has been the arrival on YouTube – at last – of last summer’s A Night at the Movies concert in Durham Cathedral. I wrote a blog post about it at the time, which you can read here to refresh your memory if you like, but needless to say it was the single best night of my life, and remains so to this day. To have the chance to watch it all over again has had my head spinning. I’ve put a link to the grand finale below. Listen carefully at 3:10 and you might just hear yours truly belting out the Zulu solo, despite having next to voice left by that stage of the night!

It’s been a love-filled few weeks, and I’ve needed it, all of it, as after what was supposed to be the date of the year became the friend-zoning of the century, I’ve not had the easiest start to 2016. As it is, I’m coming out fighting.

I’ll leave you with that Smart Watch image, I think. It stills gives me the giggles, in the most shameless, puerile fashion. But then, I am shameless. You know that. BB x

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

Diamond in the Rough

This week started just about the same way as every week begins, with me waking up to the sound of my seven o’clock alarm, with the morning’s first class just an hour and a quarter away, and finding myself struck with the weekly conundrum that is ‘now, what am I going to teach today?’.

For the first three weeks I had some stellar lesson plans, but we’re filing into my fifth working week here now (I told you before, my observation week became my first teaching week) and my tried-and-true classes have come and gone. Four down, twenty-seven to go. Since in school I teach across the age-groups, from six to twenty-two, I have to split my material in half depending on their ability, which requires two new lesson plans each week. Not exactly a challenge, per se, especially when several of those are shared between groups, meaning it’s possible (and highly recommended) to recycle material; but it’s a weekly problem, after a weekend spent traveling, partying or what have you, that on Sunday night the question is always there on the tip of my tongue as I bed down for the night. What am I going to teach them today?

Today I thought I’d brave it and try literature on the kids. Foolhardy, I know, especially after my last attempt at sparking some creativity amongst the would-be dullards, but I’m not about to give up on them yet. To spark their interest – and since I’ve just spent most of the weekend reading the tale – I kicked things off by drawing a blackboard-sized Moby Dick on the board, complete with scars, harpoons and rigging. Most of them had heard of it, but understandably, none of them had actually read it.

Well, not quite. One of them had.

I did a little double-take at this and made him explain the plot to the class. The way he put it, in English, a language that is not his own, told the tale better than Herman Manville (personally, I found the text hard-going, turgid even, though the story itself was impeccable). Better yet, he beat me to it and cited Manville as the author. I thought I’d let him sit on his laurels for a while and ask the others for any books they’d read recently, but they just stared blankly at me, as though I’d asked them if they’d like to spend the rest of the day doing quadratics. Moby – the pseudonym I shall forthwith use for this very literate kid – had his hand up the whole time and went on to tell me about Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days and Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart. That he had read them in translation is beside the point. This is a boy of fifteen who’s busy working his way through the classics.

As I was struggling to elicit some kind of interest from the rest of the class – who, as you might expect, were getting visibly bothered by Moby’s contributions – my colleague spent the hour taking notes of other writers that he might enjoy, amongst them Arthur Conan Doyle and Charles Dickens. One of Moby’s companions lost it and complained loudly that it was unfair that only Moby was talking. My colleague and I soundly brought him down a size by repeating that all I was asking for was a story any of them had read, and that as Moby was the only one who was willing to talk, they only had themselves to blame for their silence. I opened the floodgates a little by allowing them to tell me about a film or television series they might have seen, but on that inch they took a mile and missed the point completely; three accounts down the line I had to remind them that match reports, game shows and reality TV are not stories, and consequently didn’t count.

Pushed into a corner, one kid looked very chuffed to say he thought his favourite TV show, a Spanish version of Match of the Day, was far better entertainment than any book he’d ever read. Granted, he probably hasn’t read very widely – I hadn’t at his age – but for good measure I told him that a show where two obnoxious early retirees discuss what happened, what might have happened, what should have happened and what might happen next time in a football match for an entire hour could hardly be as entertaining as a decent read. I could have done worse, of course, but I held back. Most of it went over his head anyway, as it was supposed to. I’m not foolhardy enough to let my personal prejudices against the tedium that is the world of football discussion ruin my relationship with my students, who already know I’m none too keen on it.

As you might have guessed, I was getting pretty frustrated by this point. I’ve learned to mask it after a month of teaching these kids, but it’s still pretty galling when you ask a simple question and all you get in return is twenty-three gormless expressions. But Moby came back with the goods, stating that he hadn’t read any books in English yet, but that over Christmas he was going to try with Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings. You’ve got to hand it to the kid; starting to read in a foreign language with Tolkein…? That takes guts. My parents are prolific readers and they can’t stand his writing, and sadly they’re not alone (though I, for one, can’t get enough of the stuff).

In the other establishment I work at there are several kids like Moby in every class; students who are well-read, well-cultured and whose English is streets ahead of their companions. It’s the norm in a private school. And teaching in both private and state has its merits. But kids like Moby make the state school experience so much more worthwhile, for all the challenges. Here is a boy who, despite everything, is working his way through the literary greats for the pure pleasure of it, with his mind bent on attending university in Toronto of all places. It’s kids like Moby who remind me just why it is that I love teaching. Because for all the sour looks, disinterest and gossipping that goes on, when there’s at least one kid who’s shining with promise there’s a reason to go on. Obviously you can’t cater to that one child alone – if it were that simple, everyone would want to be a teacher, I think – but as long as you know that what you’re dealing is going towards somebody’s personal development, that’s reward enough for all your travails.

As for me, I’ve got a fair amount of catching up to do. Moby Dick was this weekend’s read; The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Robinson Crusoe await, along with Allan Quatermain (after a two-month hiatus). Maybe I’ll recommend King Solomon’s Mines to Moby when I next get the chance. It’s certainly one of my favourites. BB x

Creativity in the Classroom: A Step Too Far?

I´m falling into something of a routine out here, now. Three hours with the state school, two hours with the Catholic school, one hour´s private English lesson, one hour´s Spanish conversation with my flatmate, a couple of hour´s reading and then bed. That´s good. I like a routine. It lets me know what I´m doing. I tend to go a bit spare without exact orders.

As I guessed all along, the term ´language assistant´ is a very loose one, interpreted by different schools in different ways. Some of my companions are working as ´classic´ language assistants, taking individuals or small groups for short periods for conversation. Others attend class with an English teacher as a human dictionary, there to lend a hand whenever a native speaker´s touch is needed. In Spanish, the term ´language assistant´ gets shortened down to just one word – auxiliar – which leaves even more room for interpretation. And just as happened in the last two ´language assistant´ jobs I´ve had, I seem to be working a real teacher rota.

Granted, I had prior warning this time. The first time I was promoted, so to speak, I had no idea that I was supposed to be taking full classes on my own until I was told that the diminutive head of the French department had decided to benefit from my presence by taking a month´s holiday at short notice. This time I was given a couple of lessons´ observation to get the feel of it, and even though they mostly left me leading the events – a harbinger, I guess – it was good to know what I was getting myself in for in advance.

So I´m a sub-teacher. That´s not a problem. In fact, it´s exactly what I wanted. It´s just… well, it´s reassuring to know that it doesn´t matter where you go in the world, ´language assistant´ is always a very flexible term.

In one school I take entire classes on my own, from bawling primary level to studious upper sixth. In the other I also prepare an hour´s class for whichever groups of the twelve I have that day – equally widely-spread, but fortunately without the weekly terrors of the primaria – and these are almost always under the supervision and occasional assistance of one of the English staff. The irony there is that they´re probably doing what comes under my job description. The system in place is the one used by bilingual schools nationwide: one class where the language of conversation can only be English, to compliment the others which are spent on writing and grammar. Nobody likes grammar. So that means it´s my class that everyone looks forward to by default, which is something to smile about.

Taking a full class obviously means you need an hour´s worth of material, and with teenagers thrown into the mix, you need to be prepared for all eventualities. I´m learning what to do when they´re tired, and how to calm them down when they´re exciteable, without letting them know there´s a system to it all. I´m learning what ideas students wants to discuss and which ones turn them off, and which games work well, and which ones don´t. And though I should have seen it coming a mile off, I tried this week once again with what is and always has been the greatest stumbling block of all: tapping into the students´ creativity.

Now this is something I feel very strongly about, and I´ve already written one behemoth of a text this week, so I´ll tackle it as lightly as I can. The simple fact of the matter is that there isn´t enough emphasis placed on creativity in schools these days. To tell the truth, I´m not entirely sure there ever has been. One of my English teachers once announced at a parents´ evening that she was ´paid to teach, not to inspire´. I disagree entirely. Inspiration should be right at the front of teaching, if we´re not all to become mindless robots.

Ah, but this is beginning to smack of yesterday´s post. It´s vaguely related, primarily because the game I´ve been ending my technology lessons with – a simplified variation on the British radio show I´m Sorry I Haven´t A Clue´s “Good News, Bad News” – has, time and again, come up dead in the water. The reason? Because nobody´s able to tap into their own creativity. I don´t know whether it got stamped out of the education system in favour of textual comprehension or the study of presentational devices – the kind of stuff that actually comes up in an exam – but the art of coming up with stories seems to disappear once you hit secondary school level.

For a budding author, I find this nothing short of horrifying. I spent most of my school career writing stories, and yes, it probably did affect my grades, but I left with an impressive English mark, and it´s my English that has always saved my neck. I´d have been flat-out rejected from grammar school if it hadn´t been for my English, since my mathematical capability is comparable to that of a wet flannel. The only excuse I can think of is that I´ve never stopped writing: from short stories to novels, diaries to blogs, love letters to newspaper articles. It keeps me alive. More importantly, it keeps my brain alive.

The higher up the education system you go, the less you´re encouraged to think for yourself. At some point you have to start quoting other writers. Then you have to start referencing other texts you´ve read and basing your arguments on the standpoints of extinct luminaries. The result, of course, is that by the time you get to university and you´re suddenly encouraged to come up with your own argument, a lot of people are quite understandably left high and dry, because they haven´t been taught how to think that way.

Here´s the difficulty. Creativity cannot be taught. It can be encouraged, it can be inspired, but it cannot be taught. For starters, how do you mark creativity? This is a regular feature of the arts world, of course, but outside the tripartite kingdom of Art, Music and Drama, creativity doesn´t get all that much of a look-in. In a world where everybody is mark-centric, from pupils to parents to headmasters and the governors to whom they bow, that kind of question gets thrown out early on, and the baby with the bathwater. So me going headlong into a class of fifteen year-olds and expecting them to come up with a story in fifteen minutes of “Good News, Bad News” was the very height of foolishness, especially for somebody with two jobs´ worth of teaching experience under his belt. A different English teacher – one who certainly did know how to inspire – once told us that the truth of the matter is that there are those who can, and those who can´t. I´m still not entirely sure where I stand on that, since I´m none too keen to cut anybody off, but I acknowledge that there´s more than a kernel of truth in that statement.

Creativity, I believe, is something that we´re all born with. We all loved to listen to stories when we were children, and most of us will have tried our hand at making one or two, intentionally or no. Heck, it´s fuelled language growth, all the arts and technology for all human existence. The trouble is that so much of it disappears when we grow up, when we´re told we have to put fiction behind us and focus on the real world. Unless you´re a stubborn little bastard like me, and you decide early on to defy that and to hold on to your creativity and remain a child forever. Like a twenty-first century Peter Pan.

In short, it´s perhaps too much to expect every student to be able to create stories of their own, especially at secondary level. There are a few rogue elements – it´s not difficult to recognise your own characteristics in others – but on the whole it strays much too far into the awkward silence minefield. Well, I´ve learned my lesson (no pun intended). But I´m not about to concede defeat. Never. I doubt I´ll make story-tellers out of the lot of them, but if I can sow the seeds of a budding Cervantes or Lope amongst the drowsy horde, I´ll consider my job accomplished. At the end of the day, we´re all story-tellers in one way or another. All it takes is the courage to leave behind what is real and to dabble with what is not. I said right at the start that I like exact orders. True. But there´s enough of an anarchist in me to want to break free sometimes. I hope there´s a little anarchy in everybody. BB x

Shrinking World

I got my new timetable last night, first from the Carmelitas, then from my own school. The end result, as of a few last-minute additions this afternoon, is a twenty-two-hour working week. Not a truckload by regular working standards, but the longest by a yard in my working life so far, and a world away from the twelve-hour maximum we had dangled in front of our faces at the first British Council meeting. So much for that holy four-day weekend! I’m lucky enough to have clung on to three days of freedom, and I had to stick out my neck for that. At the very least they let me have Friday off instead of Monday, which gives me quite a few more days off in the long run, though navigating back to Villafranca on a Sunday is going to cause some headaches, mark my words. Still, I signed up for the back end of nowhere and that’s where they put me. At the very least I’ll not be getting bored here. I don’t have time to get bored. And I haven’t even started on any of the music groups yet…
But hey, there’s thirty kids who now know what a loon is, what it sounds like, and consequently why we say ‘as mad as a loon’. That was an icebreaker and a half.

Teaching at both a state school and a private school gives me the opportunity to take a look into both worlds, and I’m sure I don’t need to tell you how very different they are. My main obstacle with the state school kids is getting them to be quiet. Their English is good, but they quickly revert to their mother tongue for argument’s sake. Conversely, my private school pupils have a very high level of English, but they just won’t talk. And in primario, it’s every man for himself. I’m expected to take those classes alone, so it’s a biweekly war with a small army of Spaniards in the making, shouting everything and everybody demanding attention at the same time. The one thing they all have in common is the inevitable ‘do you have a girlfriend?’ interrogation, to which the answer has reduced from ‘not anymore’ and ‘not yet’ to a simple ‘no’. It’s easier that way. It doesn’t stop them changing tack and asking ‘what about boyfriend?’, but hey, at least that’s as far they go. One kid in primario had a particularly unfortunate way of phrasing it this afternoon – are you gay or “normal”? – which I tried to rectify as best I could, Catholic school or no, but I guess it went over his head. On the plus side, I haven’t been hit on by a guy for several months now. It must be a new record. Maybe I’m doing something right! That, or I simply haven’t been going out. Probably the latter.

I’m now in the curious position where I find myself teaching across every conceivable age group, from the rowdy little tykes in primario right the way up to people my own age in grado superior; and then, of course, there’s the private classes for adults in the afternoons on top of that. Teaching kids and adults is one thing, but with students your own age it’s an odd feeling. I guess the real catch is that in a town as small as Villafranca (I remind you that, by my standards, it’s still pretty massive) the chance of getting to know anybody on a non-professional basis is rather slim. I bumped into some of the girls I teach whilst out walking last week and they were adamant that they were going to find me a girlfriend in Villafranca. The trouble is, where does one draw the line? Because, like as not, anybody roughly my age in this town who I don’t teach (a number which shrank even more this afternoon) probably has a sibling I do teach, and that makes things rather complicated. I wouldn’t say no to a Spanish girlfriend – sheesh, who would? – but it’s easier said than done. The auxiliares in Almendralejo, the nearest city, don’t have this problem, as there are plenty of young people there for the job prospects on offer, but here it’s a family town, like I said before. And I’m still very much in that mindset of ‘absolutely no fraternization with the students outside of class’, as I had drummed into me in my last teaching job last summer. Which means if I want to meet people my own age, I’d better check out Almendralejo.

Here at least, I’ve had a stroke of luck. There is another auxiliar placed here in Villafranca, though like more rational minds than mine she chose to base herself in Almendralejo. A bright and beaming button of a Texan. I must have gone berserk speaking English with a native speaker at last after almost two weeks without doing so, but she bore it patiently enough and gave me an insight into Almen life. Apparently there’s a nightlife scene. Who knew? I was beginning to forget what nightlife is. And yes, they abide by Spanish hours; ergo, a far more rational 11pm until 6am mentality. That, at least, makes the possibility of a night out in Almendralejo feasible, as far as buses are concerned, though it’d probably knock out a whole weekend in the process.

All in all it’s been a pretty long day at the office. Those 8:15am starts are very hard on the eye but I’m simply going to have to get used to them. It’s largely thanks to them that I have Friday off. Monday isn’t the longest slog – that’s Wednesday, from 8:15am until 6:30pm with one hour for lunch – but it’s certainly one of the more mixed. I teach a bilingual gestión y acogida class in the morning (essentially, life skills: interviews, CVs etc), then a mid-teens 3º ESO, then I have twenty minutes to walk to the other school and mentally prepare for the chaos of a class of six-year olds, after which I get a free lunch from the nuns (probably the best part of the job) and return to take my final class of the day, a private school version of 3º ESO, before hopping down the road to my private class with my lawyer friend. And thus is a light day.

It’s bonkers. Good bonkers, paid bonkers, but bonkers nonetheless. It’s like last year, but without the music. That’ll come, you just watch. It’s the only thing I’m genuinely missing right now (I sang through the entire Northern Lights set when I was home alone yesterday, until the neighbour told me to shut up. Oops.

So there you have it. Busy, busy, busy – but I’m never truly happy if I’m not truly busy, that’s what I always say! Yet another example of yours truly not knowing when to shut up. So here’s BB, shutting up. BB x

Return of the Paperwork Fiend

I’ve been riding on an unfairly long streak of good luck for the last week, as you might have guessed by the cheery tone of the articles. As is to be expected, the honeymoon-period had to come to an abrupt end at some point as the stresses of making one’s own way in the world came to a head, and as usual, it’s the little things that take you by surprise. I managed to dodge the iceberg that was the NIE without even a scratch, only to plough straight into the reef that is trying to open a Spanish bank account.

What have the Romans ever done for us? Administration. You’ll hear a lot of horror stories about foreign administration, especially in France and Spain, where the foul creature was spawned long ago. The Spanish love their paperwork, arming themselves with signed forms, photocopies, rubber stamps and enough identity cards to start a national trading-card game. Obtaining an NIE – a numero de identidad de extranjero – is one of the most important parts of enrolling as an auxiliar de conversacion, as without it you cannot open a bank account or be a legal resident in Spain. Normally it’s this that gives most people a bellyache, when pencil-pushing fiends in the foreign affairs office at the local police station decide to liven up the tedium of their day’s work by sending you on a merry wild goose chase after that form that looks just like the one you brought in, but with one number’s difference, which of course changes everything. And of course, you’re not the only one after one of these precious little commodities.

Right now it’s coming up to harvest season and Extremadura is awash with migrant workers here to reap the benefit of a temporary boom in the job market. This year, the officials in Almendralejo have their hands full with a large group of Romanians, also requiring an NIE to validate their existence in this country. If it hadn’t been for the Director and my mentor in the English department, I honestly think I’d have turned back when they told us to return at nine o’clock the following morning. But the sad fact of the matter is that ‘big old whitie’ always prevails, and I was shunted to the front of the queue so that I could leave that very morning with my NIE stamped, cleared and ready to go. There’s something very sick about that system. Guilt aside, it wasn’t as clear-cut as I’d have liked. My landlord hadn’t thought to give me a contract, so I couldn’t apply for my tarjeta de residencia on the spot. That wasn’t too difficult to achieve, but it would have been handy to know in advance, before attempting to tackle the bank this morning – which, of course, needed that precious tarjeta also. Passport, NIE, proof of address and proof of stable financial employment are all well and good, but if you don’t have that little red card – if you’ll forgive the expression – it don’t mean jack.

Did you know that the United States has a Paperwork Reduction Act, dated from 1980? Spain could sure do with something like that.

Following on from this trend, today’s been a bit of a bad luck day all around. My timetable’s still in flux because of the absence of any bachillerato classes, which the authorities decree needs changing. And until that’s done, I can’t clarify the timetable of my second job with the Order of the Carmelites. And since both of those are paid affairs, this bank situation needs clearing up fast, or I’m going to end up high and dry soon enough, Erasmus grant or no Erasmus grant. Don’t even get me started on that.

As a final hurdle, I stumbled just short of the fence over the Jornadas de Formacion in Caceres this morning. My BlaBlaCar driver didn’t show up, the only bus that passes through this town leaves at half four, which is when the training day begins, and I haven’t received a smidgen of confirmation as to whether I’ve actually got anywhere to stay there tonight. So all in all, despite not having fully prepared any classes, I’ve decided to toss that in the towel and start work today. It’s not a major loss, as I’ve had two teaching jobs before and I’ve done half of the paperwork already, the main focus of these meetings. They’re also non-compulsory, so it’s no big deal, but I was hoping to go if just to formalise the whole shebang, though perhaps more so to meet some other auxiliares. I may be a blood traitor to my kin, choosing to eschew any and all English speakers by living with Spaniards way out here in the sticks, but that doesn’t mean I don’t miss my mother tongue. At the moment writing is proving my only channel for it, and Hell, is that benefiting from an absence of conversation…! I must have written a chapter a day for the last four days. That’s ten A4 pages a day. I have far too much time on my hands – for now.

How’s that for a healthy antidote to the ‘I’m having the best year of my life on my year abroad’ drawl I’ve been riding on for the last week? Alright, alright, I’ll quit putting myself down so. On the plus side (finally!) teaching’s been really fun, and that’s what I’m here for. My Spanish is improving daily, in vocabulary, grammar (I never did learn the simple past tense at school and I’ve been winging it for the last ten years) and stumble-rate. The latter is, of course, a problem in every language I speak – even English – and has more to do with my machine-gun rate of speech than anything else. Teachers have been telling me to slow down for years. ‘You never will learn, Benjamin’, as my father would say. He’s right on that count.

The shining light in my experience though, above and beyond school, is the couple of hours I spend a week with the husband of one of the staff here, who’s requested extra English lessons. Not only is his English at a much higher level than any of my students, but he’s also one of the most interesting men I’ve ever met: a genuine intellectual if there ever was one, his bookcases lined with legal tomes and a collection of certificates and photographs on his desk, featuring such leading lights as Umberto Eco, King Felipe VI and Mikhail Gorbachev. We had to cut our lesson short yesterday when, mid-meeting, he received an important call from a government official promoting him to high office, a decision which he had been labouring over for some time since it would require a drastic change in his life. He took the job and poured out his heart to me, and I felt more than honoured to be the first person to hear about it; before his wife, children and even his own secretary. ‘I feel like a child at EuroDisney… like a little boy on Christmas Day’. That was how he put it to me. I left him to open his Christmas presents and set off to treasure that warm fuzzy for an hour in the park. It may only be for a couple of hours, but it’s already the highlight of my week.

And there I am, fussing over kids, when the real gem out here is a man older than most of my teaching colleagues. Life has a funny way of playing around with you, sometimes. BB x