Is teaching English in Spain for losers? A former teacher speaks!

September 13, 2022

I came to Spain about 18 years ago.

Young, greasy-haired, and blaming “capitalism” for most of my problems, I guess you could say I was a bit of a loser.

I also wasn’t much of a hard worker.

I’d been doing service industry jobs back in the US. Similar jobs here in Spain looked pretty dismal.

So logically, I gravitated toward English teaching.

(I’m not saying teachers don’t work hard. I’m just saying there’s a big difference between jobs that require mopping and jobs where you make money by talking to people.)

just another loser English teacher
A young Mr Chorizo, long before he discovered the benefits of eating protein and doing pushups.

Anyway, I got a CELTA, and soon thereafter, a job at a language school in Madrid.

And so began my illustrious career in “education” – by which I mean the lower end of unregulated private tutoring.

Types of English Teacher in Spain: a Field Guide

I soon found that there were several types of English teacher in Spain – sort of stock characters you’d find kicking around any academy. To wit…

  • Elderly and British. They were good for their stories about back in the day – border runs to Gibraltar, wild scenes during the destape, stuff like that.
  • Confused and independently wealthy. I didn’t meet too many of these, but they were people with lots of money who had somehow ended up in Spain, and were keeping themselves busy by teaching.
  • Young and having an adventure. Most of these went home after a year or two, after realizing they’d never be able to pay off their student loans on a Spanish salary.
  • Otherwise unemployable. These, a friend once described by saying “Of course, anyone who can’t keep it together back home can just pop over to Spain and become a teacher.”

I was somewhere on the line between young adventurer and unemployable. Luckily, I’d come to my senses and dropped out of university at age 19, before accumulating too many student loans. And now, I was in my 20s and having the time of my life in Europe.

(Dropping out of university might have contributed to my unemployability, but since my only interest in those days was poetry, it’s probably for the best. Putting an English Lit degree on an application at Starbucks while sitting on $50,000 in debt doesn’t really seem like a step up.)

I taught at that language school in Puerta del Sol for several years. And I had a lot of fun, despite earning 11€ an hour. The cost of living in Madrid wasn’t too high, and anyway, who cares about money?

Life is just a series of moments anyway… like, don’t be so uptight, man!

I later learned that the human brain isn’t fully developed until about age 25, and that one of the last parts to form is the part that deals with rational long-term planning.

That pretty much explains what happened to me: around my mid-20s, I started looking around and wondering if teaching English was really a good plan for “the rest of my life”.

Cliffs of Moher, Ireland… a place I never could have afforded to visit if I’d kept my teaching job.

I decided it wasn’t. Mostly, because I wasn’t ready to spend my 30s, 40s and beyond earning so little money. There didn’t seem to be any hope for advancement in my “career”. Pay went up with inflation, one or two percent a year, and that was about it.

Otherwise, it seemed to be a matter of waiting for my manager to retire and then hoping for a promotion.

I tried giving more expensive private lessons, but that only worked partially. For one thing, I needed to be on contract to renew my work permit. And for another, Spain was slip-sliding, by that time, into the Great Recession. It wasn’t a great moment to be asking for more money.

I envisioned my future as an aging language teacher. A life of semi-poverty. Patched corduroy pants. Rice and beans the whole week before payday. Eventually I’d go face-down on the floor in the middle of a lesson about the present perfect, and be tipped into a pauper’s grave to no fanfare at all – my corpse smelling of dry erase markers and shame.

Doesn’t sound too appealing, does it?

So…

Is teaching English in Spain for losers?

No. Actually, that’s just a clickbait title I used to drag you in here.

And it worked. Ha!

But “for losers” or not, teaching English is certainly not going to make you rich. Salaries are low, and if the last few decades are any indication, they’re probably going to stay that way.

Now maybe you love teaching. And that’s fine.

All you need is love, y’know?

Well, tell that to your landlord. Mine wants me to send him money every month, the big jerk. But your mileage may vary.

shop in madrid spain
Old lady panty shops: an industry in decline like English teaching?

In any case, all this begs the question: why aren’t English teachers making more money? And can anything be done to improve the “industry” as a whole?

Let’s start with the salary question.

Why are salaries for English teachers so low?

I guess there are several factors that explain why salaries for English teachers in Spain are so low.

One is that salaries in general are pretty low. The Spanish average, according to official data, is about 25,000€ per year. And even that’s probably inflated: the salaries of top earners bring the average up for everybody else. The people over at the Agencia Tributaria say that the most common salary is between 12,000 and 21,000€ per year – which, I have to say, seems more realistic.

Also, teachers aren’t very well paid in most countries. Here in Spain, a public school teacher earns more than the average worker, but – and this is a big but – I’m not talking about public school teachers here. They’re civil servants, with degrees in education, who spend years trying to pass a national exam.

Private tutoring – officially, enseñanza no reglada – is a whole different animal. Our legal minimum salary (established by an agreement between the government and trade unions called a convenio) is around 13,000 to 15,000€ a year, depending on job title. If a language school wants to pay you more than that, they can… but they’re not obligated to.

Perception in the market also matters. Spanish people are used to education being free or almost free. And English classes are sort of a commodity that everyone assumes they should be able to afford.

So while there are definitely people out there willing to pay 25€ an hour for lessons, they’re not especially numerous. Most people who might need to learn English are (like most teachers) scraping by on 1300€ a month – or less – and just can’t afford it.

So they go to group classes, in academies that pay teachers the minimum or slightly more. Or they find a private teacher willing to work for less.

Then there’s the famous question of supply and demand.

Every year, there’s a new crop of adventurous young people moving to Spain. Some of them are part of the Auxiliares de Conversación program. Some of them (like the younger me) just decided to try their luck in a foreign country. Some are “native” – whatever that means – and some aren’t.

In any case, a constant supply of inexperienced young workers will tend to put downward pressure on wages. To believe otherwise is wishful thinking.

Now you might be saying, “But I’m a qualified professional with years of experience and IT’S NOT FAIR to pay me the same salary as a 22-year-old who just stepped off a plane!”

And I hear you. But that’s life.

The labor market has its iron laws, and most of them aren’t based on the salary you think you deserve.

Which all brings us to the even bigger question…

Is there hope for English teachers?

I wish I had a better conclusion here, but…

I don’t really think there’s much hope for improvement in the lives (or at least salaries) of English teachers in Spain.

Personally, I got out of the whole industry when I did the math and realized that even if I managed to double my teaching salary, I’d never be able to afford the life I envisioned.

Yes, the young greasy-haired anti-capitalist had finally come to his senses and decided he wanted to do more with his brief moment on this planet than just scrape by in a shared flat in Vallecas, drinking 30-cent beers from Lidl and eating horse meat.

That guy is now my hard-working alter ego Mr Daniel. He’s got an online business. He’s free from wage slavery now, and – hopefully – forever. Instead of horse meat, he sometimes eats solomillo de ternera, and washes it down with wine priced in the 6 to 8 euro range.

And of course, he (or I, the sometimes controversial Mr Chorizo, your humble author) might be wrong about the industry.

Maybe your case is different than most people’s.

Perhaps you’re great at finding rich people to pay you 25€ an hour for private lessons. I certainly wasn’t. Anyway, how many of those can you fit into your week? Is it enough to make it worth it, after all the transport and all the taxes?

Or maybe you’re thinking you can just start your own language school, and make tons of money that way. Well, I know some academy owners and they’re not quite as rich as you imagine. There are a lot of regulations, and a lot of expenses, and it’s not easy.

general strike 21 february barcelona
Striking Catalans, from a few years ago.

Maybe – just maybe – you’re thinking that if everyone got together in some sort of union, and demanded more money, REFUSING to work for any less than… I dunno, 15€ an hour… that the whole system would change and you’d finally be happy.

To you, I say good luck.

I’d rather not wait around for “everyone” to be on the same page in order to improve my life.

(Also, there are already trade unions you could join if you wanted to. They’re the ones who negotiated the current minimum salary established in the convenio, remember?)

Anyway, losers… it’s time to wrap this up

Dividing the world into “winners” and “losers” is one of the great American pastimes.

I don’t know to what extent people in other countries participate in it.

But when I say that my younger self was sort of a loser, I’m not really talking about lack of money. A lot of young people are broke. Unless you have family support, “broke” is just another part of being in your 20s.

No, what I mean by “loser” is someone who’s got a long list of excuses, and who thinks that everything is someone else’s fault. Someone who refuses to admit that most things in their life are products of their own decisions – not some evil “system” that’s out to get them.

Maybe you know somebody like that. I’ve known more than a few.

Thankfully, like I said, I came to my senses and decided to do something else with my life. I took some extreme ownership, and haven’t looked back.

I know, I know. You may have some objections to this bit of philosophy. I’m fully aware of what happens when you tell someone that their excuses are bullshit.

So make a list of all your best objections and excuses, and then go read it out to Jocko here…

‘Cause this isn’t my first excuse rodeo. Or even my hundredth. But – as the saying goes – that’s a story for another day.

For now, it’s time to wrap this up.

So to all the losers out there, and all the winners…

Thanks for reading.

Yours,

Daniel, AKA Mr Chorizo.

P.S. Rob Harvilla, over at the podcast 60 Songs that Explain the 90s (full disclosure: it’s my new favorite thing) recently pointed out something called Betteridge’s Law of Headlines. It can be stated thusly: if the headline asks a question, then the answer is “no”. So I guess you could have saved yourself a click. Oh well. Hope you enjoyed this. Leave me a comment, if you’re so inclined, right down here…

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About the Author Daniel

How did I end up in Spain? Why am I still here almost 20 years later? Excellent questions. With no good answer... Anyway, at some point I became a blogger, bestselling author and contributor to Lonely Planet. So there's that. Drop me a line, I'm happy to hear from you.

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  1. It took a lot for me to admit to myself that I hated teaching English as a second language. After a year at an academy in the Czech Republic I arrived in Barcelona in 2003 and took any work I could get. I was always working for at least 2 language schools as well as private students on the side.
    In 2007 I decided I wanted to spend Christmas in Argentina and so I started working even more hours in order to save up the money.
    My first class of the day started officially at 8 am (students arrived at 8:30, of course) and my last one ended at 10 pm. My last three classes Monday to Thursday were all the same level using the same book so to save on lesson planning I just repeated myself for four and a half hours a day. Add to that a nightmare looking after a group of brats in Malta all summer, (I was legitimately terrified I would bring one back either in a coma from alcohol poisoning or pregnant). That September I was on the metro heading to my first class of the day when I started fantasising about a terrorist attack that would blow up the train. Now I didn’t want anyone to get hurt, I just thought that maybe I could get a broken finger or ankle or something that would get me a few weeks off work. It was at that point I realised, if you prefer being blown up to going to work, you are probably in the wrong job.
    I quit not long after and worked in a restaurant up until my trip (you do not want to know what Catalan restaurant owners will do to save money) and when I got back had a bit more of a think about what I wanted to do with my life.

    1. Wow, Lucie, that’s quite a story. Thanks for sharing!

      Personally, I enjoyed teaching. Like the actual teaching part. I just didn’t like the schedule, the salary, the conditions, the management… basically everything else about the industry.

      Glad you got out. Thanks again for commenting 😉

  2. Great read this one. I actually wrote about one can make more money as an autónomo in this blog here (https://eslauthority.com/teach/spain/becoming-an-autonomo-in-spain/).

    However looking back (as I am now out of teaching English in Spain), whilst I did make more money from Mid September to mid June, the lack of paro and death of English classes in the summer ensured that you made the same as a salaried teacher over the course of a year.

    English teaching is great, as you say Daniel, to pay for a year or two in Spain. But to start a family or own a house (without family support) is a Herculean task.

    For me it was a great experience, but after my 30s I realized that it was a dead-end cul de sac

    1. Yeah, as much as you might be able to charge more per hour as an autónomo, it really ends up being about the same in the end… unless you’re making thousands of euros per month. Thanks for commenting!

  3. Glad to hear you made it Mr. Chorizo! Your journey to success is inspiring…great story (even though my journey is quite different, I relate somehow). Still enjoying your content from California!

  4. How about “lo que” and pronouns? Seems that I know a fair amount of words in general, I just can’t put them together in complete sentences.

  5. “…el combate es la escalera
    y el que trepe a lo mas alto
    pondrá a salvo su cabeza
    Aunque se hunda en el asfalto
    la belleza…”

    “Míralos, como reptiles,
    al acecho de la presa,
    negociando en cada mesa
    maquillajes de ocasión;
    siguen todos los raíles
    que conduzcan a la cumbre,
    locos por que nos deslumbre
    su parásita ambición.
    Antes iban de profetas
    y ahora el éxito es su meta;
    mercaderes, traficantes,
    mas que náusea dan tristeza,
    no rozaron ni un instante
    la belleza…”

  6. Teaching from 2010 to 2015 led me to depression. I left the country for a year.

    I was making around about 28000 a year, which for a private autónomo teacher in Spain is pretty good. On top of that I made another 6k organising English learning abroad trips. So why the depression?

    Well, it is not all about the money.

    I worked from 8am to 9pm. Virtually nonstop.
    Needed Saturday & Sunday to prepare classes.
    Stopped socialising, I was too tired.
    Did no exercise, I was too tired.
    Had 35 hours of teaching on the books, as cancellations and public holidays in the middle of the week took it down to about 28.
    People not turning up and not even telling me.
    Dealing with some real asshole clients.
    Paying autónomo fees, haha, that would depress anyone.
    Rushing from one class to another, trying to park.

    After being put on anxiety tabs, losing a sense of perspective and purpose becoming full of negativity and hating life, I realised it was time to quit.

    It too me a long time to recover. Five wasted years.

    1. Yeah, David, it’s rough. I was only able to get through a decade of teaching by burning through a lot of youthful enthusiasm. By the time I hit about 30 I was done. Thanks for commenting… I’m glad you’re doing better now.

  7. Although I have felt the way some ex teachers describe here don’t forget that there are many low paid jobs in Spain where you might also wonder, ” what am I doing here?” How does the waiter feel doing a 10 h shift for not much more than 1000 a month? How much does an Amazon worker get paid?
    I doubt very much though that you can make 28k teaching as one commentator says. It’s virtually impossible. If it was possible it’s not such a bad salary for Spain. Being autonomo sucks not only for English teachers but for almost everyone in Spain.

    1. 1. Yes I did. You cut out the middleman.

      2. Repeat money is not everything. Health is way more important.

      3. Waiters. Amongst the worst jobs possible. Hence, massive shortage of waiting staff.

      4. Autónomo is pure thievery. We are nearly 4 million paying for it. 300 a month for the most basic, with no right to a state pension. Check out almost every other EU country, and then have a rethink. In the UK in 2015, the year I was gone, I paid 2% of my profit yp to 6k aprox, then 7%.

      Amazon workers! Straight shifts, benefits, not much brain work required in almost fully automated systems. Unless picking g requires the same ability as an English teacher. Comparing apples and pears.

  8. Similar thoughts going through my head as I’m turning 40 and trying to make better financial decisions for my future. I am autónomo, which helps a bit, and I feel lucky to not have had to schlep around the city from 8am to 9pm as my current main company gig started just before Covid hit and I’ve been teaching online 100%. I did recently discover that my boss (the middleman language company) charges 44 per hour, and I only get 20. Kicking myself for not demanding more up front, as the director is unwilling to budge on raising my rate even after 3.5 years. Nowhere to grow, stuck listening to and tweaking endless powerpoint presentations, with plenty of last minute cancellations, I’m starting to feel like commenter David, a negative outlook despite my comparatively decent situation. Working toward becoming a web developer in my spare time, though most of the time it feels like I’ll never get out!

    1. Hey Dina, well, I got out, so it’s definitely possible. I remember overhearing the conversation where my director of studies was charging 24€ an hour for my time, and I was only getting 12. This was ages ago, but it changed my mind about the industry. Good luck!

    2. Hi D.
      The online route is the way to go if you live in Spain. But with non Spanish customers.

      Web developing is fun, but the market is very saturated, especially with very talented Indians who will do a website for 200 euros.
      There’s growth and possibilities in SEM and SEO. Cyber security is seeing huge growth.
      And with online English you can focus on countries that take it more seriously and pay better. I have a Malaysian friend, she makes 25 to 30 euros an hour online. In Malaysia, she would get 8 to 10 in an academy. The downside is time differences, a Taiwanese student is something like 7 hours ahead of Spain. I think. So good planning is required.

      Since I returned to Spain in 2016 after a year away, I have tried allsorts. Painting & decorating, IT Service Management, Landscaping amongst others. All as autónomo. Landscaping you make 350 a day. Paint a 160m2 flat in 2 weeks you make 1500. ITSM, from 50 to 75 an hour for non Spanish, about 30 an hour for Spanish. There is money to be made, it is just that English teaching while being a skilled job, is not respected. Hence academies pay salaries akin to unskilled labour such as waiters, cleaners, shop assistants. Private teaching works well if you go direct, no middleman. Individual classes are a waste of time.

      1. Thanks for the reflections, David. Food for thought. Curious why you say individual classes are a waste of time. That’s all I’ve been doing the last few years. I was under the impression group company classes were paid at a flat rate to the teachers.

  9. Hi D.
    I would mix it up. Individuals have some benefits, which I am sure you are aware of.
    I usually spent 50% of my time on individuals, at between 20 and 30 euros per hour
    In-company I would get paid between 52 and 72 euros per hour.
    All pre-tax, pre autonomo payments.
    With an individual if they cancel, you lose the class and maybe the money. To discourage this, I made everyone pay the month up front, and give me 48 hours’ notice if they cancel.
    From mid-June to mid-Sep, I offered classes mostly to individuals who were local and people on holiday. For example, I often picked up a couple of Madrileños that would have 1 or 2 hours most days day for 3 or 4 weeks. So, in the dead of Summer, I made money.
    With companies, if you want to make money, avoid academies and consultancies that offer classes. You will see less than half the money they make. The only way is to do it directly. So yes, you need to put yourself out there, be on LI, social media. If you don’t fancy visiting business to offer your services, send them a flyer or at least ask permission to send them an email presentation. Business groups are usually 3 or 4 to maybe 8. The good thing is, even if they don’t all turn up, you still go ahead with the class and invoice it. If you can find up to 10 hours a week in company at over 50 Euros/hour average, life becomes more tolerable.
    Most English teachers don’t have business training, and don’t know how to sell themselves. Those that do (and I came from a business development background) are usually the most successful.

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