Elvira Ambite was born in Ávila, Spain, in 1991. She loved English since she was a little girl, and she’s taught it for almost ten years. After living abroad for several years, she went back to Madrid in 2015, where she works at a language school.
Could you please tell us about your educational and professional background?
I completed a degree in English Philology from the University of Salamanca. I had spent several summers teaching English to teenagers in my town. After that, I wasn’t really sure about making a career in education, so I decided to move to The Netherlands and work as an au pair (babysitter) while I made up my mind. I ended up staying in Amsterdam for two years. During that time, I learned a great deal about teaching from my host family’s children, and it was then when I realized that education was my true calling.
I came back to Madrid to get my master’s degree in 2015. While the experience of studying that particular MA from the Complutense University was, to put it lightly, soul-crushing, I was incredibly lucky with my internship, which involved teaching English at a secondary state school. My mentor was an amazing professional and I cherished every moment I spent there.
Since then, I’ve worked as an English teacher in many contexts, including high-end companies and language teaching schools like Kids&Us. I always keep learning and trying to get better at my job.
Your story was recently featured in the Spanish edition of the Huffington Post in an article after you published several tweets about the challenges of being a non-native English teacher in Spain. What drove you to write those tweets? What was your goal? Did you expect the response you received?
To be honest, I didn’t have any goal other than to get some of the anger off my chest. I’d been looking for a better job for almost a year and this issue with the native teachers is a constant barrier. I was particularly disappointed that day. I could never have imagined the impact of my message. I remember writing the tweets, turning my phone off and falling asleep in my friend’s car -we were going to the beach for a few days. When we arrived at our destination, I saw hundreds of responses to my tweets, so I got a little overwhelmed. I’m not used at all to that kind of online attention. I am very happy that my vindication reached so many people and the fact that, at least, it started a conversation.
As a self-identified non-native English teacher, what do you find more rewarding and challenging? How do you navigate both the positive and negative responses to your work?
The most rewarding thing in the world is observing actual progress in my students. For example, when a middle-aged engineer that one year ago could barely produce a sentence is able to have a successful conversation with a client on the phone; or when children overcome their shyness and can narrate a perfectly coherent story without even realizing it.
In the context where I teach, I guess the most challenging thing is the quality of the contracts. For example, oftentimes, teachers feel the necessity to get several jobs to be able to survive, which means they have very limited time to prepare their lessons. In general, it is a context where teachers are required to function with constant exhaustion; therefore, they struggle to concentrate on doing their jobs. It is really draining.
In order to handle the responses to your work, communication skills are key, in my opinion. A lot of people want immediate results and you need to be able to earn their trust without patronizing parents and adult students. If you like your job, if you plan your lessons properly and you are willing to communicate with the group, you will navigate successfully through any potential obstacle.
From your experiences, how do you envision the future of English teaching in the context where you teach? Is there anything you would like to see changing?
I think there are a lot of misconceptions to overcome. The popular belief that the best English teacher must be native is seriously damaging our work. Not only our work conditions as non-native English teachers but also the quality of the services provided to students. And I think employers and consumers are both to blame for this situation. I do understand some of the causes of the issue. First, I understand that learning English seems an urgent need and an imperative for most job positions. I also understand the mindset of many English-speaking young people who, when they live abroad in a non-English speaking country for a year, prefer a teaching job over a job that requires more physical labor, even if they have not been trained to do it. What I do not understand, and I certainly do not support is the fact that many English-speaking companies and language schools are bypassing their duty of educating their students. There are some relieving examples. For example, Kids&Us explains parents why native teachers do not have any priority, and they do it in an effective way. But this is an exception. As long as language schools keep hiring people by looking at their passport, the problem is going to be there and results are going to be just as mediocre. Most of these native teachers do not meet the requirements to perform their job. Chatting with the students is not an English lesson, and some of the stronger learners can gain fluency from it, but it means leaving behind those who have more difficulties or need more specialized support.
What would you recommend to non-native English teachers who are starting their professional career?
Persevere. Beginnings are hard but better opportunities will arrive. Our profession is wonderful. It can be fun, challenging, rewarding, hard, intense, fulfilling, all of that in one lesson. Keep educating yourself, there is always something left to learn. Make the effort of empathising with your students. Learn how to motivate them, every group is different and discovering how to bring them in is as rewarding as teaching them learning strategies, there is always a way. Plan your lessons carefully and always have a plan B in case the first plan doesn’t work for that particular group of people. And, if you genuinely have fun, they will too.
You hold an MA degree in linguistics from Trinity College. In your opinion, how does the scholarship in applied linguistics and adjacent fields contribute to the professionalization of English teachers? Is there anything you would have liked to learn that you didn’t have the chance to in your MA degree?
I don’t. I spent a study abroad year in Dublin and I was lucky enough to study in Trinity College Dublin (TCD). Since the degree of Philology does not exist per se in Ireland, all subjects related to linguistics belonged to the MA degree. In my view, the level of that MA was significantly below my knowledge as an undergraduate in Salamanca. However, the focus of the program was better-aimed and, as a student, I felt more stimulated. I cannot say that the program was more teaching-oriented, but it gave students a much more accurate idea of how English works as a language and, since the groups are smaller, a very exciting opportunity for debate. Besides, the fact that students are evaluated mainly through essays, where they have to show that they have actual, deep knowledge of the subject, I find far more interesting and rewarding than being assessed through tests.