Making it as a Freelance English Teacher in Spain
An Experienced Expert's Overview
Madrid has everything any tourist could want except for the beaches. There is no doubt about it. What is more, the weather is rarely too cold in the winter nor too hot in the summer and it rains just barely enough. Most of Madrid is very safe. The "Madrileños" take their easy-going community life for granted and are glad to include you.
All of this makes Madrid the perfect place for your first "savings-subsidized" English teaching jobs abroad. What's more, the high turnover rate among teachers in the lower echelons in the English academies means plenty of opportunities to find teaching jobs every year.
What It Takes To Find a Job In Madrid
Even if you are an "average" American English teacher like me, you can bet you are different from most Spaniards. But, even if you are not what is considered "normal" back home, the Spanish will still welcome you because they expect and want you to be different. You can be young, old, shy, fat, skinny, black, homosexual, protestant, American and/or of any other minority group and still make it as an English teacher in Madrid just the same as anyone else. Nobody could ever stop a teacher from finding all the work they need.
When all is said and done, apart from having a bit of money saved up, the two most important requisites for success as an English teacher in Madrid are to have initiative and the capacity to "deliver." If a teacher has the money and "guts" to come over in the first place, then the only thing left to sort out is whether they can "deliver" or not.
What It Takes To Deliver
The ability to "deliver" means that the teacher "plays-it-by-ear" and does whatever it takes to keep their students and clients happy. Like Scheherazade in a 1001 Arabian Nights, the teacher sometimes strings their clients and students along with story after story until the students hopefully fall in love with them.
The ability to deliver does not necessarily mean that a teacher plans every little detail of their classes, and that they are a super-dynamic teacher who knows their English grammar perfectly. In fact, most academies and agencies simply look for evidence that indicates that the person is merely an "adequate" teacher and that they will stick it out until the end of the school year. Of course, they will want them to be a teacher who will prepare and teach their classes in a conscientious and well-informed manner. But above all the academies will want them to be a teacher who is not going to cut and run at the first sign of difficulty.
Whether you see English teaching as an easy anybody-can-do-it type of job that will fund your traveling around the world or as a job for qualified professionals, being a teacher is hard work. Do not ever forget that the English teaching profession can be quite unforgiving to those who underestimate the possible difficulties.
What Are the Difficulties for American English Teachers in Particular?
For British teachers, getting a work permit for English teaching jobs in the local academies is easy. As the English are European citizens, before they know it they have a full schedule of work at one or two English academies.
For Americans, it will usually take a lot more work to land that first big "dream" job with a contract and residence permit included. It might first take coming over on a student's visa for six months while they study Spanish and do a CELTA (English teaching certificate) course, for example. Or, a teacher may come over on a tourist visa, do private and company classes, and then have to pop in and out of the country to get their visa stamped and renewed every three months (this has been the traditional method in the past). Or, they may have to take a teaching job at that poor neighborhood academy just down the street after all, despite only getting paid 600 euros per month for 25 class hours per week.
It is obvious that if a teacher is an American without a work permit they are at a disadvantage, but that just means that they have to save more and work longer and more creatively. As Victoria Fontana's experience shows: if a teacher really, really wants it, they can find a way to do it anyway, despite the obstacles. Victoria is an American who had the initiative to slowly work her way through a maze of red tape in order to get herself an independent work permit (see the article she has written for Transitions Abroad on Work Permits in Spain for more).
The Main Difficulty: Cost of Living and Apartment Rentals
Apart from getting through all the red tape, the main problem in Madrid is that it is far too expensive for everybody, not just for English teachers. There is still quite a ways to go before Madrid gets as expensive as New York City, Paris, or London, but the biggest problem in Madrid for English teachers is the skyrocketing cost-of-living as compared to the stagnant low-income salaries. When I arrived in Madrid back in 1993, many teachers worked at low-salaried jobs in academies and schools in Madrid and got paid a measly 8 or 9 euros an hour. As far as I can see, salaries have not changed much since then, but what has changed is the cost of living. Everything is doubly expensive now, especially apartments.
Another difficulty is the fact that Spanish families in Madrid usually own their own homes and are reluctant to rent out their other properties, which means there are not a lot of apartments available on the market to begin with. If you combine these factors with the explosive growth of immigration in the past few years, you will see why it is hard to find comfortable and cheap apartments to rent.
Subsidizing Teaching Jobs with Savings
It is more important than ever for teachers to save up their money before they come over to Madrid because their savings will have to pay for a big part of their stay in the beginning.
So, How do English Teachers Manage to Succeed in Madrid?
In three words: Opportunism, preparation and networking.
Opportunism: The opportunities are there for teachers who actively look for them. "Opportunism" means having what it takes to risk leaving your current teaching job in order to take another better one when the opportunity comes. "Opportunism" is basically using insider knowledge and experience like, for example, the knowledge that agencies and academies charge around 30 to 35 euros an hour for a teacher to teach classes in companies, even when they pay the teacher only 12 to 18.
Preparation: In an English teacher's first year or two in Madrid, preparation will probably mean learning how to be a better English teacher by getting the CELTA (Certificate in English Teaching) and then working in an academy or agency. It takes a teacher a lot longer to prepare their classes at first and they have to make a bigger effort to do whatever it is that best helps them get through the week. For some teachers, dealing with the students and management can cause a great deal of stress and anxiety, for instance, and all of that can take a long time to work through.
Apart from the time-consuming activity of preparing for English teaching, a teacher will also want to prepare for the "real" Spanish speaking community by learning how to speak Spanish.
Later on, preparation will mean learning other worthwhile skills. It might mean getting a DELTA English teaching diploma in order to get a better teaching post in a better-paying English academy or it might mean studying any subject or incorporating any new technique that might help a teacher do their job better. Most of all, preparation means that a teacher is studying and learning how to work the market, thereby depending less and less on any one particular middle man and consequently making more and more money.
Preparation may lead to realizing that English teaching is an "iffy" seasonal business in Madrid (at best) and that an English teacher is better off either branching out into other areas or rising up in the hierarchies of the institutions which pay better depending upon qualifications, and which offer far better working conditions such as a year-round contract. The areas which freelance English teachers typically branch out into are translating and, to a lesser extent, proofreading, both of which require a certain level of skill which must first be acquired.
More institutionally minded teachers typically move up as Directors of Studies or even higher positions and certifications which will permit them to work in private high schools that follow either a British or an American curriculum. British teachers working in local British-curriculum high schools, for example, must have first worked in the British system and have gotten the PGCE, an official British teaching certification. American teachers who would like to work in DODDS (Department of Defense Dependents Schools) must first get stateside teaching certifications. Teachers who would like to teach in the Spanish public schools system must go through a trial of fire.
I am a total (i.e. no middle men) freelance English teacher and Spanish-to-English translator. Also, I am developing four different areas related to English teaching with a view to generating possible future opportunities. The areas are: translating, building a web site business, producing online English learning activities, and writing articles on English teaching in Madrid and on ESL and EFL in general. However, I do not ever forget that English teaching is really where the money is at in Madrid.
Networking: Networking is critical to an English teacher's success. The most important networking-related terms in Spain are "enchufe" and "enchufismo," both of which refer to the practice of using higher-level connections to get better-paying jobs ("enchufe" means "plug" in English). Frequently, even large multinational corporations in Madrid ask their own employees to recommend prospective workers for newly available jobs. (These are usually family members and friends.) In my own experience, many of my better paying teaching and translating jobs have come as a direct result of this "enchufe" networking, not very different from networking styles anywhere else.
Whether they approach networking in a spontaneous or methodical way, it is going to cost them time and money. Over the years I have seen teachers in Madrid use vastly different approaches quite successfully. But most importantly networking-minded teachers generally make an effort to initiate contact with other teachers whether on the job (especially while working in companies for agencies) or in the Spanish community, and then they make an even bigger effort to stay in contact with them over time. In fact, the very same thing can be said about contacting new clients for private classes in the Spanish community.
If the cornerstone of the networking structure is to maintain contact over time, which is usually dependent on a teacher's initiative, the whole networking structure itself rests on trust, which is largely dependent on how well an English teacher delivers (both personally and professionally speaking). In other words, if, for example, one teacher knows another freelance English teacher who has several classes in a company and then, for whatever reason, the company needs and asks for another English teacher, what options has that teacher got? Well, if they have got any sense, they will not trust any companies or agencies with the deal (which would be sort of like trusting a lion with a lamb chop). Instead, they will have to call on another professional freelance English teacher, just like themselves, who they think will neither mess up the job nor try to take it from them (meaning they trust them).
A real network depends on the capacity of its members to generate fresh opportunities and on its willingness to search each other out whenever a job appears which they themselves cannot handle. It is further based on an unspoken norm of "what comes around, goes around." The truth is that the whole "network" in Madrid is a lot more loosely connected than even many experienced teachers fully realize. Due to the very nature of the English teaching profession, most English teachers simply do not have the time or energy to keep up with more than just a few teachers at any one time.
Nowadays, however, the Internet offers a lot more opportunities for networking than ever before. Even though I sometimes only get together with some teachers of English with whom I have networked once every three to five months (due to the distance that separates us), through the Internet we are able to stay permanently in contact and, in the end, the jobs they send my way help to fill up my teaching schedule compensate for the teaching jobs that I send back to them.
The most obvious sites on the Internet on which to network are on city and topic related forums, even though they are mostly given to a bit of the "blind-leading-the-blind" syndrome. (This happens when teachers only visit the forum when they need to ask a question and never visit when they have the answer. The number of Spain-related forums run by supposedly knowledgeable people that don't even live in Spain is astounding.) There are also a very few truly "open" jobs and networking related sites on the internet such as www.MadridTeacher.com, which is "open" in the sense that the English teachers are pushed out in front where everybody (i.e. clients and academies) can "see" and contact them directly, where they can all "see" and contact each other, and where such behavior is encouraged. Then too, such sites as teachingabroad.meetup.com (Madrid, Spain) offer new and exciting networking possibilities which I have yet to evaluate.
What You Can Hope For From English Teaching in Madrid
Many teachers are happy to teach in the lower-paying academies in Madrid, because they only want to be a teacher here for a year or two and then go home, or because they simply want a job where they do not have to worry about things that a freelance teacher has to deal with on a day-to-day basis. Also, I should mention that academies and agencies have their own problems. The fact that nearly 200 academies have closed in Spain in the past few years says it all: despite the incredibly low teacher salaries, those academies and agencies have had to take bigger and bigger risks and spend far too much money on infrastructure, advertising, and sales staff in order to gain a larger market share and, in the end, it drove them under.
For English teachers who do want to rise higher and get paid more, it takes time and hard work to maneuver your way into something better. But if you are just starting out and you are only going to teach in Madrid for a year or two, it is highly unlikely that you will be able to network your way into many higher paying teaching jobs. I worked here for years ("gulp") before I found out that a very few English teachers were making around 35 or 36 euros per hour teaching 30 class hours per week (4,000 euros per month). As far as I know, you cannot find any of those teachers teaching in academies. For the most part, you can only find them teaching in the biggest corporations. What's more, I do not know if the "best" teachers in Madrid are teaching in those companies, but certainly the most fortunate ones are.
In any case, however, 4,000 euros a month is a bit much to expect for most freelance English teachers, who will usually peak out at around 2,000 to 2,500 euros per month for eight to nine months per year plus around 1,000 to 2,000 euros per month for the other two to four months.
Conclusion: Give It Some Time and Adapt
It takes time to work things out in Spain. Dealing with bureaucracies can be incredibly frustrating. It never takes just one trip to a government office to do anything. And it might take them up to two years to process your request for a "co-validation." (This is a certification which states that your stateside college degree, for example, is equivalent to another in Spain.)
Spain has a burdensome system which contrasts sharply with the lightness of its community life and the depth of its culture. But, with all due respect, Spain has a system that has its origins in a very ancient people who ruled lands in every part of the world not so very long ago, historically speaking, while the first Americans were still trying to eke out a living in Jamestown or Plymouth.
The best way to deal with "the system" is to be patient and methodical about everything. There is no use getting angry at either the civil servant or academy director. The system was already in place when they arrived and it is far more intelligent to learn its ins-and-outs and to use that knowledge to your advantage than to either try to confront it or give up on it altogether. The fact is that many American English teachers have come to Spain over the years and many have managed to get their "dream" jobs and stay. You can too if you really want to. Who could stop you but yourself?