Is teaching English in Spain for losers? A former teacher speaks!

I came to Spain about 18 years ago.

Young, greasy-haired, and blaming “capitalism” for most of my problems, I guess you could say I was a bit of a loser.

I also wasn’t much of a hard worker.

I’d been doing service industry jobs back in the US. Similar jobs here in Spain looked pretty dismal.

So logically, I gravitated toward English teaching.

(I’m not saying teachers don’t work hard. I’m just saying there’s a big difference between jobs that require mopping and jobs where you make money by talking to people.)

just another loser English teacher
A young Mr Chorizo, long before he discovered the benefits of eating protein and doing pushups.

Anyway, I got a CELTA, and soon thereafter, a job at a language school in Madrid.

And so began my illustrious career in “education” – by which I mean the lower end of unregulated private tutoring.

Types of English Teacher in Spain: a Field Guide

I soon found that there were several types of English teacher in Spain – sort of stock characters you’d find kicking around any academy. To wit…

  • Elderly and British. They were good for their stories about back in the day – border runs to Gibraltar, wild scenes during the destape, stuff like that.
  • Confused and independently wealthy. I didn’t meet too many of these, but they were people with lots of money who had somehow ended up in Spain, and were keeping themselves busy by teaching.
  • Young and having an adventure. Most of these went home after a year or two, after realizing they’d never be able to pay off their student loans on a Spanish salary.
  • Otherwise unemployable. These, a friend once described by saying “Of course, anyone who can’t keep it together back home can just pop over to Spain and become a teacher.”

I was somewhere on the line between young adventurer and unemployable. Luckily, I’d come to my senses and dropped out of university at age 19, before accumulating too many student loans. And now, I was in my 20s and having the time of my life in Europe.

(Dropping out of university might have contributed to my unemployability, but since my only interest in those days was poetry, it’s probably for the best. Putting an English Lit degree on an application at Starbucks while sitting on $50,000 in debt doesn’t really seem like a step up.)

I taught at that language school in Puerta del Sol for several years. And I had a lot of fun, despite earning 11€ an hour. The cost of living in Madrid wasn’t too high, and anyway, who cares about money?

Life is just a series of moments anyway… like, don’t be so uptight, man!

I later learned that the human brain isn’t fully developed until about age 25, and that one of the last parts to form is the part that deals with rational long-term planning.

That pretty much explains what happened to me: around my mid-20s, I started looking around and wondering if teaching English was really a good plan for “the rest of my life”.

Cliffs of Moher, Ireland… a place I never could have afforded to visit if I’d kept my teaching job.

I decided it wasn’t. Mostly, because I wasn’t ready to spend my 30s, 40s and beyond earning so little money. There didn’t seem to be any hope for advancement in my “career”. Pay went up with inflation, one or two percent a year, and that was about it.

Otherwise, it seemed to be a matter of waiting for my manager to retire and then hoping for a promotion.

I tried giving more expensive private lessons, but that only worked partially. For one thing, I needed to be on contract to renew my work permit. And for another, Spain was slip-sliding, by that time, into the Great Recession. It wasn’t a great moment to be asking for more money.

I envisioned my future as an aging language teacher. A life of semi-poverty. Patched corduroy pants. Rice and beans the whole week before payday. Eventually I’d go face down on the floor in the middle of a lesson about the present perfect, and be tipped into a pauper’s grave to no fanfare at all – my corpse smelling of dry erase markers and shame.

Doesn’t sound too appealing, does it?

So…

Is teaching English in Spain for losers?

No. Actually, that’s just a clickbait title I used to drag you in here.

And it worked. Ha!

But “for losers” or not, teaching English is certainly not going to make you rich. Salaries are low, and if the last few decades are any indication, they’re probably going to stay that way.

Now maybe you love teaching. And that’s fine.

All you need is love, y’know?

Well, tell that to your landlord. Mine wants me to send him money every month, the big jerk. But your mileage may vary.

shop in madrid spain
Old lady panty shops: an industry in decline like English teaching?

In any case, all this begs the question: why aren’t English teachers making more money? And can anything be done to improve the “industry” as a whole?

Let’s start with the salary question.

Why are salaries for English teachers so low?

I guess there are several factors that explain why salaries for English teachers in Spain are so low.

One is that salaries in general are pretty low. The Spanish average, according to official data, is about 25,000€ per year. And even that’s probably inflated: the salaries of top earners bring the average up for everybody else. The people over at the Agencia Tributaria say that the most common salary is between 12,000 and 21,000€ per year – which, I have to say, seems more realistic.

Also, teachers aren’t very well paid in most countries. Here in Spain, a public school teacher earns more than the average worker, but – and this is a big but – I’m not talking about public school teachers here. They’re civil servants, with degrees in education, who spend years trying to pass a national exam.

Private tutoring – officially, enseñanza no reglada – is a whole different animal. Our legal minimum salary (established by an agreement between the government and trade unions called a convenio) is around 13,000 to 15,000€ a year, depending on job title. If a language school wants to pay you more than that, they can… but they’re not obligated to.

Perception in the market also matters. Spanish people are used to education being free or almost free. And English classes are sort of a commodity that everyone assumes they should be able to afford.

So while there are definitely people out there willing to pay 25€ an hour for lessons, they’re not especially numerous. Most people who might need to learn English are scraping by on 1300€ a month – or less – and just can’t afford it.

So they go to group classes, in academies that pay teachers the minimum or slightly more. Or they find a private teacher willing to work for less.

Then there’s the famous question of supply and demand.

Every year, there’s a new crop of adventurous young people moving to Spain. Some of them are part of the Auxiliares de Conversación program. Some of them (like the younger me) just decided to try their luck in a foreign country. Some are “native” – whatever that means – and some aren’t.

In any case, a constant supply of inexperienced young workers will tend to put downward pressure on wages. To believe otherwise is wishful thinking.

Now you might be saying, “But I’m a qualified professional with years of experience and IT’S NOT FAIR to pay me the same salary as a 22-year-old who just stepped off a plane!”

And I hear you. But that’s life.

The labor market has its iron laws, and most of them aren’t based on the salary you think you deserve.

Which all brings us to the even bigger question…

Is there hope for English teachers?

I wish I had a better conclusion here, but…

I don’t really think there’s much hope for improvement in the lives (or at least salaries) of English teachers in Spain.

Personally, I got out of the whole industry when I did the math and realized that even if I managed to double my teaching salary, I’d never be able to afford the life I envisioned.

Yes, the young greasy-haired anti-capitalist had finally come to his senses and decided he wanted to do more with his brief moment on this planet than just scrape by in a shared flat in Vallecas, drinking 30-cent beers from Lidl and eating horse meat.

That guy is now my hard-working alter ego Mr Daniel. He’s got an online business. He’s free from wage slavery now, and – hopefully – forever. Instead of horse meat, he now eats solomillo de ternera, and washes it down with wine priced in the 6 to 8 euro range.

And of course, he (or I, the sometimes controversial Mr Chorizo, your humble author) might be wrong about the industry.

Maybe your case is different than most people’s.

Perhaps you’re great at finding rich people to pay you 25€ an hour for private lessons. I certainly wasn’t. Anyway, how many of those can you fit into your week? Is it enough to make it worth it, after all the transport and all the taxes?

Or maybe you’re thinking you can just start your own language school, and make tons of money that way. Well, I know some academy owners and they’re not quite as rich as you imagine. There are a lot of regulations, and a lot of expenses, and it’s not easy.

general strike 21 february barcelona
Striking Catalans, from a few years ago.

Maybe – just maybe – you’re thinking that if everyone got together in some sort of union, and demanded more money, REFUSING to work for any less than… I dunno, 15€ an hour… that the whole system would change and you’d finally be happy.

To you, I say good luck.

I’d rather not wait around for “everyone” to be on the same page in order to improve my life.

(Also, there are already trade unions you could join if you wanted to. They’re the ones who negotiated the current minimum salary, remember?)

Anyway, losers… it’s time to wrap this up

Dividing the world into “winners” and “losers” is one of the great American past times.

I don’t know to what extent people in other countries participate in it.

But when I say that my younger self was sort of a loser, I’m not really talking about lack of money. A lot of young people are broke. Unless you have family support, “broke” is just another part of being in your 20s.

No, what I mean by “loser” is someone who’s got a long list of excuses, and who thinks that everything is someone else’s fault. Someone who refuses to admit that most things in their life are products of their own decisions – not some evil “system” that’s out to get them.

Maybe you know somebody like that. I’ve known more than a few.

Thankfully, like I said, I came to my senses and decided to do something else with my life. I took some extreme ownership, and haven’t looked back.

I know, I know. You may have some objections to this bit of philosophy. I’m fully aware of what happens when you tell someone that their excuses are bullshit.

So make a list of all your best objections and excuses, and then go read it out to Jocko here…

‘Cause this isn’t my first excuse rodeo. Or even my hundredth. But – as the saying goes – that’s a story for another day.

For now, it’s time to wrap this up.

So to all the losers out there, and all the winners…

Thanks for reading.

Yours,

Daniel, AKA Mr Chorizo.

P.S. Rob Harvilla, over at the podcast 60 Songs that Explain the 90s (full disclosure: it’s my new favorite thing) recently pointed out something called Betteridge’s Law of Headlines. It can be stated thusly: if the headline asks a question, then the answer is “no”. So I guess you could have saved yourself a click. Oh well. Hope you enjoyed this. Leave me a comment, if you’re so inclined, right down here…

Daniel
 

How did I end up in Spain? Why am I still here almost 20 years later? Excellent questions. With no good answer... Anyway, at some point I became a blogger, bestselling author and contributor to Lonely Planet. So there's that. Drop me a line, I'm happy to hear from you.

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