By Tom Ricketts

02 May 2019 - 17:59

Young people in a library with laptops
'I set up a pen pal scheme with a school in England.' Photo ©

Priscilla Du Preez used under licence and adapted from the original

Trainee secondary Spanish teacher Tom Ricketts didn't set out to have a career in languages, but his own teachers' expertise and a study year in Spain changed that. 

I studied Spanish at secondary school in Rugby, a market town in Warwickshire

I got on well with my teacher, and I wanted to be a good student for her, so I worked hard and ended up enjoying Spanish.

The sixth-form colleges (secondary schools which teach students aged 16 to 19) in my area didn’t offer A levels, which are advanced level qualifications, in Spanish. So, I went to a sixth-form college in the town of Nuneaton. I travelled for an hour and a half on two buses, just so I could study Spanish. My A level teacher was amazing and it was here that I really fell in love with Spanish.

I studied Spanish at university in north Yorkshire, England 

I was always keen to learn as much Spanish as I could. For me, going to university was the best way to achieve this.

So, I went to the University of York to study Spanish and linguistics. We studied grammar in more detail, and the institute expected more from me as a learner than my sixth-form college.

I started to learn about politics and the environment in Spain and Latin America, which we discussed in class in Spanish. I was also reading in Spanish, which I hadn't done before. We analysed literary texts and news articles, and often had to present about what we had learnt.

I was and still am obsessed with words, and love learning new and often unusual vocabulary. I have filled countless notebooks with new words that I have learnt. I write the Spanish words with their English translations, and often type this new vocabulary into a programme like Quizlet to help me remember.

I lived with a host family while I studied in Logroño, Spain

I went to study in Spain in my third year of university. I felt my Spanish language skills were average, and I lacked confidence. I was terrified of making mistakes or saying something unintelligent.

I needed Spanish practice, and knew I’d use English at work and with other exchange students. So, I lived with a host family. If I didn’t communicate in Spanish, I didn’t communicate at all! Within weeks, I was more confident.

As well as improving my Spanish generally, I learnt lots of colloquial language such as porfi instead of por favor (please). My host family also had a pet dog, so I became an expert in Spanish dog commands.

I lived in Logroño, the capital of La Rioja, a region in the north of Spain known for its red wine. To get there, I flew to Madrid from Birmingham and then travelled for four hours by coach. There was little tourism, so I felt that I could immerse myself in traditional Spanish culture.

I spent a lot of time with my host family. We often walked the dog together or went out for dinner. They took me to a vineyard once, and we ate grapes straight from the vine. Spanish grapes look a lot like blueberries and are delicious.

As someone who is quite a home bird, I enjoyed being a part of this family unit. I also tried lots of traditional Spanish dishes and adapted to lots of food I didn’t normally eat, such as hearty stews and fishy paellas.

I worked in a secondary school in a village called Nájera, with a population of about 8,000 people

I planned and taught English lessons, with support from phenomenal English teachers.

I also set up a pen pal scheme with a school in England. My students loved practising their English and learning about UK culture.

My university had a link with a school in Hull, not far from York, and I contacted their Spanish teacher to coordinate this programme. We started with students typing their letters so they could email back and forth easily. Then, we sent postcards showing the culture and tourism in La Rioja. 

When I visited the school in the UK upon returning from my year abroad, I was pleased to hear that some of these friendships had continued on social media.

I teach my students the importance of learning from your mistakes

Mine have certainly helped me to not make the same mistake again.

I had many linguistic faux pas in Spain. I confused the verb atraer (to attract) with traer (to bring) and told my host mother that my parents would ‘attract a winter coat for me’. For weeks, I wondered why she looked so perplexed.

In my first week in Spain, I had to go to a pharmacy for throat lozenges. Despite anxiously planning a script in my head, the pharmacist asked if it was for tos (cough) but I heard dos (two) and so responded 'Yes, two please!'

I often tell my students about one of my A Level essays. I described a young girl from a film as maleta (suitcase), somehow confusing it with a word for a child's bad behaviour. 

I decided to become a Spanish teacher when I returned to England 

When I returned to York for my fourth and final year of university, I felt like a different student. I still have that confidence in my teaching career.

I could not find graduate jobs or schemes that explicitly wanted my languages degree. I had worked hard to learn the language for four years, and wanted to use Spanish every day.

So, I decided to do a postgraduate certificate in education (PGCE), which qualifies me to be a teacher in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. During my PGCE, I took a position as a teaching assistant in a secondary school, where I help students prepare for their speaking exams.

I use Spanish spontaneously and often, which is great. I love teaching not just the national curriculum, but extra colloquial language that I picked up in Spain. I also like to share personal stories that show my students that Spanish goes so much further than the classroom. 

I love my teacher training and can’t wait to be a newly qualified teacher next year. I am gathering resources, and anecdotes, to teach the future generation of linguists.

Tom Ricketts participated in the English Language Assistants programme

You might also be interested in