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English Teaching Info

Interview of Richard Bienvenu About Teaching ESL Overseas

Where are you from?

I was born and raised in New Orleans, Lousiana U.S.A and lived for a while in Spain, California, Alabama, Washington State and now I am back in New Orleans.

Where are you teaching or where did you teach?

I taught in beautiful, exciting, romantic and culturally rich Seville, Spain. Currently I am teaching at Modern Languages Institute in beautiful, exciting, romantic and culturally rich New Orleans.

What did you like most about living and working abroad?

I loved being exposed to and becoming a part of another people and culture. I loved the adventure of it all, the new discoveries that I would make everyday and the great friends. Some have remained friends for life.

As a native of New Orleans, which boasts some of the best cuisine in the world, I am very attuned to the quality and richness of foods. Spain did not disappoint. Some of the simplest and cheapest foods were often some of the best, just like in New Orleans. I also enjoyed seeing how much the Spanish culture has influenced the culture of New Orleans.

Also, I loved learning about how much the Moorish culture influenced that of southern Spain. And the festivals! And the Flamenco! And the music! Ay, mi madre! Living and teaching in Seville was one of the best things I ever did in my life.

What did you dislike the most?

Hm. That's a hard one. I disliked the fact that all the houses are made out of stone so in the winter time it took quite a lot to heat rooms and such. So although Seville is in warm southern Spain there were some pretty cold days and I found that, well, kind of ...cold.

How did you get started teaching abroad?

Actually, I fell into accidently...well, I believe there are no accidents. So, better to say I fell into it unintentionally. I had just graduated from USC Film School in Los Angeles and I was pursuaded by a friend of mine, Ray, who had previously lived in Spain, to go with him on his annual visit to see his daughter and Spanish ex-wife.

So I decided to go with the idea of maybe finding a job in the Spanish film industry. Whatever happened I was determined to somehow find a way to live in Spain for at least a year. (Mind you, I was totally ignorant of Spain. I thought it would be like Mexico with tortillas and hot sauce and all that.)

When I got to Madrid I didn't particularly like it and realized that I needed to speak Spanish to be able to get in the film industry. I spoke no Spanish and not liking Madrid, got discouraged about finding a job in film.

My friend showed me a postcard of Seville with the white walls and houses and jet blue skies and beautiful red flowers cascading like exploding fireworks over the balconies. That was Spain, I thought. "That's where I want to go," I told him. He said, "Good. We're going there tomorrow."

When we got to Andalucia, that area of southern Spain which contains Seville, Granada etc, it was all that I expected and more.

One day we were in a typical bar (the kind with dozens of moldy Jamon York (ham) hanging from the ceiling) in the Barrio de Santa Cruz. My buddy Ray had originally traveled from Southern California to Spain many years before with his good friend Bob.

They had come to Spain to be bullfighters. The first time Ray got into a pen with a bull he immediately realized it wasn't for him. But Bob actually continued on and became a bullfighter. Not a very good one but he did follow some of the local circuits for a time.

He actually had a bullfighting name like El Kabong or something like that. (I just made that up.) Anyway, after a time he too realized there ain't no future in mediocre bullfighting and not wanting to get gored or made into marmelade in the bull ring he married a sweet Spanish woman and settled in Seville as the dean of students at a small, very small, American college.

As it just so happened Bob was in the bar that day. Ray and his friend had a reunion of sorts. (Ray told me there had been some bad blood between them, but he never expounded on that. So I was left guessing.)

Somehow Ray got around to mentioning to him that I wanted to live in Spain and that I was looking for a job. "Well, we need English teachers," Bob said. "Why don't you come over tomorrow for an interview."

Now my first reaction was "Oh wow, that's great..." But inside I said "Oh, (expletive deleted)!" Outside I was all smiles. But inside I was about to swoon. You see I had resigned myself to the fact that I would probably go home in a few weeks and happily abandon my designs of living and working in a foreign country.

My friends even had bets that I would come home in a month's time.

Over the few weeks I had been there it was starting to get to be too much. I couldn't speak the language, the culture was different. (I mean, there were no supermarkets, for gosh sakes!) But destiny would have none of that. I had said that I wanted to live in a foreign country.

And here it was, the opportunity, unbidden, being handed to me on a paella...er...silver... platter. Oh my God! I'm really going to have to do this!

The next day I headed down the beautiful Las Palmeras avenue, the long wide street that contains some of Seville's biggest and most beautiful homes, to a big two story house behind a gate on a corner.

This was Columbus International College (today no longer in business). I remember all the doors and windows being open, the beautiful intense Andalucian sun streaming through the front windows and a gentle breeze flowing through quietly moving the white curtains.

The wife of the head of the college, a rather proper English woman, interviewed me. I was a little nervous. Maybe becuase I had the strange feeling that I was going to be hired. She asked me all the usual questions. I told her I had never taught English before.

Then she hired me. On the spot.

Perhaps the fact that I had a Masters Degree (alhough it was in film production) helped. Perhaps it was my incredible charm and debonair way. Perhaps they were desperate for teachers. Who knows. Whatever the reason, without any previous forethought or plans I had now become a bonafide professional ESL teacher.

Did you have any background in teaching English, if not, how did you learn?

I had absolutely no background in teaching English. But I had had some experience being in front of a classroom as an occasional teacher here and there but it was very limited. So I learned on the job. English was one of my favorite subjects in school.

In Seville they gave me one class of Advanced Students three days a week and one class of 12 year olds twice a week. (Read my enlightening article about teaching 12 year olds )

For the adults I found an advanced grammar book at a book store and was basically one chapter ahead of my students. I would read a chapter, understand the concepts and then go in and teach it. We did a lot of conversation in class too. Sometimes it got political which would usually go over my head.

I found it's important to act like you know what you are doing. Even if you don't, you will eventually. You are leading a class so you have to be a leader. The students are looking to you for guidance. It's imperative that the teacher be very decisive but not be afraid of making mistakes.

Also, I think it's important to be real and to be patient. If you don't know the answer to something admit it. You are not going to know everything about English so put your ego aside. Have a take charge attitude but don't be arrogant about it. Gentleness, cheerfulness and compassion and a love for teaching are really what's important in the end.

Just to let you know, I am not certified. I don't believe being certified makes you a better teacher. But being certified might get you a better paying job and open up some doors. So it's worth looking into. I think what's most important, though, is passion, ability and a love of teaching.

How long have you been teaching English?

I have been teaching on and off since 1979. In Portland, Oregon I taught business English to executives from Mercedes Benz from Germany, my most prestigious job. I have been steadily teaching here in New Orleans for about two years.

Do you feel teaching English overseas is a great way to make a good living?

Of course, it depends on where you go and what you consider a good living. If adventure is important and your needs are few then I think you can go almost anywhere.

In Seville I made more than enough to live on. I supplemented my income by singing and playing bluegrass guitar on the streets and in pubs with my British/Italian-bluegrass-banjo-playing roomate. I didn't have to play music. I did cause I wanted to. My pay was enough from teaching.

I actually had a savings account and went back to America with a nice chunk of change left over.

Can you please give some good advice for someone thinking about living and teaching English abroad?

Either pick a country you know something about to be a little secure or go somewhere you have no idea about for the adventure. Don't try to plan too much or you may take all the fun out of it. Strange unusual things may happen.

Be wary about creepy things, though, trust your intuition. If you feel you don't have any intuition develop it before you go. (This means listening to your gut.)

Don't resist unusual opportunities. You never know what destiny may have in store for you. Don't do foolish things or anything that may jeopardize your health. Eat well, not a lot of junk and sugar, and exercise like walking two miles a day to stay healthy.

If you are thinking about teaching overseas don't think about it too much. Jump in. Go for it. Leap and the net will appear.

Can you please describe what's it like living and working in the country the you were in?

Spain is great. The people are friendly, the culture is intense with history and traditions. The food, even the simple fare is fabullous.

In Seville life is lived on the streets. Your house is just a place to keep your clothes and lay your head at night so apartments and such are not very big. When I was there prices of things were not very expensive.

I think it's changed now, but I understand it's still one of the least expensive European countries to go to.

I loved teaching at the school. We had a Puerto Rican woman named Hilda as head of the English program. She taught me a lot about dealing with students, especially children.

All the students were great. We had Spanish students as well as students from Iran, Nigeria and some other African countries.

Living in Spain altered my life profoundly. I think I actually "grew up" there. Starting a new life, making new friends, having new responsibilities, having constant adventures, being immersed in a wonderful, fascinating and beautiful culture.

I was a different, more wordly, more open-minded person when I finally went back home. Nothing can compare with that extraordinary year in Spain. It is fixed in time and marks the incomparable occasion when I finally burst forth from the chrysilis and flew.

Do you have any warnings for people considering teaching English overseas?

NEVER send money to any recruiter or potential employer. Genuine recruiters and schools will pay for visas and any other teacher's fees. If any recruiter or school asks you for money up front it's bogus. Remember, if it smells fishy... it probably is.

Don't procrastinate about teaching overseas. Do it. Even if it's for a couple months. You don't want to find yourself later on in life when you may be weighed down with responsibilities wishing you had taken that adventure. You have no idea of the wonderful, life-altering experiences awaiting you.

If you could do it over again, what would you do differently?

Hm...good question. I would not lose touch with all of the wonderful incredible people, students and friends I fell in love with when I was there.

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