Job description

26 March 2009


Many of you have written to ask for a more complete picture of what my responsibilities entail, what the teaching is like, etc. This is the first in a series of posts attempting to answer those questions, to the extent that I have answers.


This is how my weeks are: I’ll arrive in Bédmar on the Jódar bus at 9:30 a.m., run by powder-blue Muñoz Amezcua (3,55€) or share a ride with a teacher at half past 7; the bus station in Jaén closed for renovations last week, and buses now leave from an improvised lot alongside the highway outside the city. It takes me an hour and a half to get to school from my apartment.

The days I have early classes I’ll make myself a cup of coffee with a stovetop Italian moka & stand in my bathrobe with the lights off, watching the gas flame while the sunlight pools in the window & over the clotheslines– the sun rises now at around 7. Otherwise I’ll have my first coffee, a cortado, in the school cafeteria, with a tostada with olive oil & tomatillo or a flaky, chocolate-filled pastry called a neapolitano, & generally I’ll wait to have breakfast until there are teachers in the cafeteria to talk to, and one person always pays for everyone else.

II. Lunes a Jueves.

I am required by law to teach 12 hours per week. This is what that means:

I have the two sections of 1 de ESO (7th grade), in small groups of six to nine in the library downstairs – long tables, a few locked glass bookcases, broken chess sets, a projector. I’ll be asked weekly to introduce specific vocabulary or grammar – present continous, household objects, food, modal verbs, prepositions. We’ll draw a map of a town together on a big square of poster-board, with buildings labeled with symbols & a legend in English, or play human darts, in which one kid directs a blindfolded partner (turn . . . left! No! No! Left! Little right! Up!) towards a dartboard.

Later, some, but not all, of these kids will be in the school’s two bilingual classes – music & natural sciences. The others, the non-bilingual 1 de ESO, are mixed in, so I cannot integrate bilingual lesson plans with my English sections. 

In this hypothetical week I’ll spend an hour tutoring the natural science teacher so that he can take a higher level English exam, mainly to accumulate enough points to leave this school and get a better job outside of Granada, where his wife is getting her doctorate. Another hour tweaking the English in the lesson plan on atmospheric properties he’s downloaded from the internet. I’ll co-teach about half of the music class, and translate chapter 6, “The Symphony Orchestra,” from the Spanish textboook into English, because we have no bilingual teaching materials.

At some point in the week, I’ll find one fact each in music & natural sciences and print out a bilingual Did You Know? – this week’s pictures a hurricane, an atom bomb, & Lisa Simpson playing the saxophone, to tape onto the English Corner in the front stairwell, above the News of the Week, which this week is still my St. Patrick’s Day printout, featuring the Chicago River dyed green.

This, and my weekly bilingual project reunión (in practice, a 10:15 a.m. Tuesday coffee break), adds up to eight hours – 1 de ESO A & B, actividades en íngles, música, music &  natural sciences lesson planning, natual sciences tutoring. Four more hours in 2 and 3 de ESO A & B, where I prepare worksheets, try to do more reading & writing, and play games like 20 Questions, Pictionary, and hold spelling bees – and that’s the twelve.

My days are filled out with more coffee, the New York Times online, & occasional miscellaneous chores. I’ll help the Polish Erasmus student with her homework – an English translation of Juan Ramón Jimenez, troublesome because his figurative language, worked through word for word, transforms a horse into a “round, boneless ball of cotton” and its eyes into “jetblack mirrors as hard as the black crystal shells of scarab beetles” – and spend a quarter hour talking with the castellano & science teachers about the pronunciation difference between horse & whores (there is no phonetic distinction in Spanish).

III. “A standard to which the wise & honest  can repair.”

The degree to which I plan lessons or teach classes depends wholly on the teacher. The science teacher has shouldered me out of class in favor of personal tutoring; 1st year English teacher, also the bilingual coordinator for the whole project, asks me to prepare specific lessons but leaves me alone with the kids (which is, strictly speaking, against the law); the music teacher has me prepare her lessons, but in classes uses me mainly as an explicator, a kind of human English speaking machine; in 2nd and 3rd year, I can plan whatever I like, while the teacher sits at the desk, fielding questions in Spanish & interrupting occasionally into debates over discipline with the back row kids.


At some schools, bilingual classes consist of a native auxiliar gnomically adding a single word in English to the lecture, otherwise conducted entirely in Spanish, or repeating, over and over, the word orange, being sure to round the vowels. In others, experienced Americans with TEFL certificates & communicative methodology sprain their ankles running physical education classes. Belgians with Midwestern accents hold personal conversation practice. Auxiliares sponsor showcase projects with names like “World Village,” film their kids making fake Super Bowl commercials, or hold peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich competitions. Every school is a world unto itself.

My world: A new, spare building, linoleum-floored, with green desks and big, empty classrooms. The school itself new, ten years old – before this, they bussed the kids to Jódar. They still do, for the baccalaureate. Frayed palms outside, windows with steel shutters. A little more than one hundred and twenty students. Subjects – math, history, castellano, sciences, french, english, plástica (art), music, physical education, and religion (practically speaking, under a socialist government, a species of comparative ethics). The primary school is right up against the building; I can hear children playing recorders through the wall. Two English teachers, two bilingual subject teachers, me, and the Polish Erasmus student compose the department, here, in the foothill of the Sierra Máginas – there is still snow on the mountains, purple flowers on the trees outside.

Why do we teach, & how, & do we do it well or poorly? Questions, a continuación, for tomorrow’s part two, which will pick up where this section leaves off.


From last fall (some repetition, unavoidably):

“Olives, & Pedagogy.” [12 November 2008]

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