What is the what?

4 April 2009


This is the second in a series of posts about what my job entails, teaching a foreign language, and the Spanish educational system in general. If you’ve seen Season 4 of The Wire, just picture me as Prez in the first episode. Part I here.


One of the funny things about my job is that nobody can agree on what to call me. Kids call me “James” – they’re not confused. My first name is a self-explanatory category (there are teachers, there are students, and then there’s James.) Sometimes they’ll say “maestro,” or “teacher.” And generally that’s how I’ll introduce myself to people in Jaén – maestro de íngles. But my official title isn’t teacher – it’s some amalgam of ‘auxiliar de comunicación’ or ‘de conversación’, and ‘language & culture assistant,’ though few of the real teachers I work with could tell you which; the titles are all ungainly, lumpy with syllables. Often I’m just referred to as ‘giving’ (dar) clases de íngles, with the passive voice eliding just who exactly is doing the giving.

Because I both am and am not a “real teacher.” (This shades into methodology, as you’ll see shortly.) I teach full classes, plan lessons, & translate textbooks all by my lonesome, as I write about in part I, and I think of myself as a teacher to the extent that what I’m doing is teaching, which is hopefully often.

But on the other hand, I am not allowed to grade assignments or give tests. (Sensibly, given the implications of allowing foreigners to affect your country’s educational statistics). I am not allowed to write disciplinary reports. I only see each of my classrooms once a week, which means I don’t have control over the room itself, I don’t see my students respond to the curriculum on a daily basis, and I can’t, realistically, assign homework. No sticks, few carrots – I’ll talk about classroom management shortly.

And, of course, besides all of this, I have no professional certification, and no experience or qualifications beyond general intellectual curiosity & the happy accident of being a native speaker.

So am I a good teacher?

Well, actually, the question is first: am I a teacher at all? If not, what is my job – and am I good at it?


“No me entera el íngles de nada.”

Table the question of whether I’m a teacher for a moment. In theory, an auxiliar – which is an animal as yet undescribed by science – is a supplement – unnecessary to the working of the school, not integral, as we’d have to be, given that some of us wash out or don’t show up at all, that our abilities & preparation are as varied as the ways that we’re used. Anything you do helps, even if it’s as minimal as being careful to round your vowels while you repeat orange.

As a native speaker and – let’s add, for kicks – humanities major, you can spot-edit English text, smooth out irregularities & unnatural constructions in speech, provide your accent, all without breaking much of a sweat. You can function as a breathing dictionary powered by coffee, and simply by your strange mannerisms, odd attire, your foreign-ness, you can introduce the idea to your kids that there is a big old world out there, and that people, actual people, non-Spanish & everything, live in it. This is, arguably, better than nothing.

Speak natural, native-accented English to someone for a month, though, & this does not teach them English. It won’t even magically correct their pronunciation. In fact, speaking “naturally” is impossible if you want to teach effectively – you have to use teacher-talk, slow down, pronounce your t’s, contrary to what I’ve heard some of my colleagues claim, which is (I may be creating a strawman) that by talking to themselves, essentially, in native-accented American English, they’re exposing the kids to real English, which the kids are expected to pick up by osmosis.

I harbor the suspicion to the contrary that native speakers may actually be less effective teachers, at least when plucked raw & untrained. They don’t have any feeling for what would be difficult for non-native speakers learning the language, & points of grammar that simply aren’t used except in foreign language pedagogy are constantly being pointed out to them.

[I remember when I found out what phrasal verbs were – verbs whose meanings are modified by the prepositions that follow them (pick up is not pick out is not pick on). The difference between take care of (cuidar) and take on (enfrentar) and take up (asumir) seems natural, instinctive. It isn’t, of course, and it drives Spanish speakers crazy.]

And teachers who aren’t native speakers of the language used by their students are hobbled in another way – classroom management. I do not work in an academic environment where my students want to learn English (as in private classes, TEFL programs, or adult continuing-education schools). I don’t even work in an academic environment where the students are selected (presumably) for some kind of baseline interest in learning in general, like the small boarding school in Ojai, California where I was educated.

(In all of these cases, second language pedagogy remains difficult – even if you want to learn a language, even if you’re a good student, it’s still often frustrating, it can be scary, it requires memorization & feeling like you have much less mastery of simple, small things than you’re used to having in daily life.)

I work, instead, in a new-built government school in a pueblo; my kids are in class because they are required by law to be taught English, and the way that they are taught is almost exclusively through grammar recitations, direct translation, & fill-in-the-blank. Readings they don’t understand are read back to them in Spanish by the teacher. They do not speak English, and English is not spoken to them.

By the time I receive them in my 2º and 3º de ESO (8th and 9th grade, ages from 15 to 17 years old, depending on how many times they’ve repeated the year), about a third of them have given up on their education entirely, and their required foreign languages in particular, so that that the best-case scenario is that they sit, silent, their head out one of the windows, like Buddhist monks objecting to war, their backpacks unopened, without pencils or books, without touching the handouts to leave on their desks, letting the strange, foreign sounds become a squawking ambient buzz, nonsense, noise just loud enough to prevent them from sleeping.

This is the pedagogical environment I inherit in my 2º and 3º de ESO (8th & 9th grade) English classes, and it’s what, theoretically, the language & culture assistant program itself is supposed to modify, supplement, or reform. We are supposed to introduce communicative approaches, or comparative grammar, or games, or cultural specificity – but only one day a week, and without being able to use most of the tools that teachers use to maintain order in a classroom, or being able to speak Spanish well enough, especially at first, to control kids who cannot or will not admit to understanding what you are say to them in English if you ask, with hand motions, to sit down and stop hitting the other boy with his own pencil case.

At its worst (on the bad days) this means that, to these kids, I’m a rube. If they speak fast enough & with a thick enough accent & use enough rural slang, I won’t catch on to what they’re saying. My attempts to introduce games and activities that incorporate speaking & listening in English, or reading comprehension from context, are taken, because of their strange unfamiliarity, as cryptic & byzantine, and when it doesn’t work I’m ignored. The more studious kids work on homework for other classes; the otherwise take it as an opportunity to do whatever they’d like. If the game depends on the kids communicating to each other in English, it is particularly difficult to implement; why talk in English when they can clarify, amend, and repeat in Spanish? Why muddle through an imperfect & foreign tongue? I have had games of pictionary derailed because four boys in my 2º de ESO B wouldn’t stop mouthing the Spanish word for what they were drawing on the board to their team.


I am arguing myself, as I do when I try to write about education here, into a kind of hall of mirrors. I either am or am not a teacher, teaching either effectively or ineffectively, and that effectiveness or ineffectiveness is either a result or has nothing to do with my status as a native speaker.

The question I’d like to pose for my readers (I’ve asked it before, I’ll actually try to answer it in the third part to this series of posts) is, Why is English taught at all? (What I’m getting at is, to what extent are those kids slouching in the back of my class rational actors?)

The standard answer to this question is, Because English is a valuable skill on the job market – that is, because it has market value. And obviously, because it is the current lingua franca.

But what market value, and how much utility, does a lingua franca have in a rural pueblo outside of Jaén, among students who in many cases have never left the province, who will not necessarily even get a baccalaureate education, much less go to the university? And to what extent does anybody get any use out of a language they learn in high school only?

Part three coming quicker than this part two did. I get lost in the rushes when I don’t write it all at once, because time allows me to second-guess & complicate – but to present it as an unbroken whole would be unreadable, given the medium I’m using. A puzzle.

2 Responses to “What is the what?”

  1. Nora Says:

    Golly, a whole passel of slippery subjects. I admire you for being willing and able to put all of these thoughts into writing… this is the kind of tangled web of interconnected subjects that usually induces the following series of events in my life:
    1.) Think hard for awhile
    2.) Have minor epiphany
    3.) Rats, brain too tired to write this crap down
    4.) Snacktime!
    5.) What was I thinking about again?

    Also, I had never considered Croatia. Intrigued now.

  2. Ashley Says:

    I suppose that by wondering why English is taught at all, you’re sort of opening the door for wondering why *anything* is taught at all. There are certainly some subjects that seem nonessential, especially in the context of your students’ lives (art, music, a second language, even history), so how should we even begin to distinguish necessary from extraneous when it comes to learning? Are “necessary” skills really only things that you must know for survival’s sake? If that’s true, most things that I learned in high school and beyond were unnecessary. I could write for weeks about Shakespeare but would die after three days alone in the woods. I mean… clearly this is all looking at your question from a pretty privileged and detached perspective (it’s easy for me to sit in my comfy home in Boston and sing about the glories of learning), but I wonder what your students’ attitudes toward their other subjects are. It’s probably easier for them to dismiss you and the class you “teach” (or not, depending on whether you’re actually a “teacher”), since you’re not from their world and aren’t teaching something that’s immediately relevant to it. Anyway… I realize I didn’t exactly answer your question. I think I was approaching some kind of solution…


    What was I thinking about again?

    (It happens to all of us.)

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