This is an interview with Grecia Álvarez, English Language Teacher living and working in southern Spain, done by Naomi House of INALJ. This is part of INALJ’s 2020 series with librarians abroad, focusing on the work they do and how they got their job.
On Teaching English Overseas :
an INALJ Librarians Abroad Interview with Grecia Álvarez
(with info on how CELTA (Cambridge English Language Teaching to Adults) qualification can help your job hunt)
Q1: Thanks so much for taking the time to help us better understand what English Language Teaching work abroad is and how LIS folk can find employment opportunities. First could you tell us a little bit about yourself, where you got your MLIS (or your educational background) and what you do?
Thank you for the opportunity to share my story. I hope it helps people who might be considering a move abroad to get some clarity. My name is Grecia Alvarez and I’m 35 years old. I currently live in Algodonales, Spain but I’m originally from Miami, Florida. I graduated from the Simmons GSLIS program in 2010. Before going to library school, I worked at Boston University’s study abroad office in Madrid, as a program assistant. While I was studying for my MLIS, I worked at a special library at the Center on Media and Child Health (CMCH) at Children’s Hospital Boston and the Harvard School of Public Health. Later, I applied for and was awarded a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship to Morocco. I worked at the University of Tetouan, a medium-sized university in the north of the country. I taught English and American Culture and I helped with cataloging at the university library.
I moved back to the US after my Fulbright year and I worked in a public library and a university library in Miami. I then decided that I really enjoyed teaching so I did the CELTA (Cambridge English Language Teaching to Adults) qualification, because it’s one of the easiest ways to get into teaching. I moved back to Morocco and taught English at the American Language Center, a private language school and worked at the Tangier American Legation Museum library, as a cataloger, for a few years. I then moved to Spain and started working with SEDIC (the Spanish Society for Library Professionals – akin to a national library association) as an English teacher. I have been teaching a course I designed called “English for Librarians” with them for the past 5 years.
I was furloughed from my regular teaching job at Dale a la Lengua (a private language school I co-founded with a friend), here in Spain during the pandemic but I’ve been able to continue teaching online on and off.
Q2: Now can you tell us how You personally found your overseas job? Can you speak a little about how you got CELTA certification and what role you think it played in your hiring?
I got my CELTA in 2013 because I already knew that I wanted to live abroad. The world of English Language Teaching (ELT) has exploded over the past 30 years and it was the only sector that could easily accommodate someone with my background. Since most private language schools require a teaching certification and CELTA is the most widely recognized one, I took the plunge. I don’t regret it as I found the program to be an excellent launching point for someone new to the world of ELT. The CELTA course was offered in Miami and it was a month-long intensive course (8 hours daily) so I had to leave my library jobs to take it. The ELT sector is rich with opportunities. Even if you grow tired of teaching you can always work in materials development, exam administration or even language school management.
While working in libraries is still one of my professional goals, getting a traditional library job in Spain is incredibly difficult because there just aren’t many openings and the competition is fierce. When you move abroad it’s a bit like starting from zero. I’m incredibly fortunate to be a native speaker of Spanish, so the language was never an obstacle for me. I am also well-integrated in Spanish society because I’m married to a Spanish man. By virtue of the fact that I’m married I am legally permitted to live and work in Spain. If those pieces had been missing, I would have had a much more difficult time in creating a life for myself abroad.
Q3: What do you think makes an LIS worker a strong candidate for hiring managers in this type of job abroad?
In my experience, LIS workers are especially good problem solvers. Because of our training and the nature of our work, we are able to see what’s missing in a particular context and rise to the challenge. In my first teaching job, I noticed that my school had a wealth of resources and materials for teachers, but that they were not being put to good use, mainly because they were not accessible. I offered to get those materials organized and communicated the new system to my colleagues. As a result, the resources and materials began to circulate and fulfill their purpose. By proving myself a generally helpful person to have around, I was offered the opportunity to build a library for students from scratch. I compiled a list of all the materials and trained the person who would be the center’s library manager. I was also invited to give feedback on their website redesign, since I had experience working on website construction.
I saw a way to become indispensable to my managers and they rewarded me with more freedoms and opportunities. I was recommended to work at the American Legation library because of having proven myself at the American Language Center. In Morocco, American cultural organizations are all interconnected and when you make a splash at one, it can have a ripple effect at another. It is very rewarding to make those connections and networking has been a key to my success.
Q4: What is the best way to get your foot in the door or your first overseas job?
I sincerely just showed up at the door with my CV in hand. It’s infinitely more difficult to secure a teaching job if you aren’t already living in the country. Many, many schools do not publish their job offers online. They just sit around and hope for the best, which is a useful strategy if you’re a large school in a big city.
It is very helpful to be aware of hiring timelines. Most language schools start their classes in September and they start looking for new candidates in April. If you show up in October, it’s a lot more difficult to find an opening. It’s also very important to secure a legal job. There are many fly-by-night operations in the world of ELT and you don’t want to get strung along.
Also, look to your network for opportunities. When I worked at Boston University’s study abroad office, I befriended the librarian in the building and she put me in touch with the director of SEDIC. He offered me the opportunity to design the English for Librarian’s course and I’ve been teaching it ever since.
Q5: Finally what are some of the most important skills / certifications / etc that LIS folk can do to prepare them? Any last tips?
Personally, I think every LIS professional should have a bag of tricks they can pull from. In my bag of tricks I have knowledge of several languages besides English, I have strong writing skills (or at least I like to think I do), I have internet skills (I can build a WordPress website from scratch, I can create promotional materials, I can manage social networks) and I have strong interpersonal skills (I’m polite, I’m aware and respectful of cultural norms, I am observant and generally helpful). Some of these tricks are just plain common sense, others I had to work at to be able to include them in my arsenal. I’m still working at becoming the professional I envision.
As a last tip, I would say: take risks. I know it’s trite to say this but you will never know how far you can go if you stay within the limits of your comfort zone. The best things I have achieved in my life have been some of the scariest things I’ve had to do. Frankly, I wouldn’t have it any other way because those things are irrefutable proof that I’m alive and that I’m still growing and learning. Always learning!
Grecia Álvarez is an Info Pro turned English Language Teacher living and working in southern Spain. She’s always looking to improve her teaching skills and expand her areas of expertise. She’s currently reading like a fiend, getting better at French and looking for her next big move.
Views expressed are those of the interviewee and not INALJ or their employer. Photo provided by the interviewee and permission granted to use it for this interview.