I used to work in a school called Ealing Green. It was closing down for many reasons, but possibly mainly because it was a school for boys and single sex schools were rapidly going out of fashion. I had been there for almost seven years – first on general supply ( the only supply teacher who actually asked to come and work there) and latterly as Head of English after the untimely death of the inspirational David Pass.
But the school was closing down, we were all worried about our future, and one morning I was late – (probably not for the first time despite living relatively near to the school)- the deputy head was as usual sitting in the staff room sorting out the post and the cover for the day when he opened a big brown envelope with a glossy brochure in side. I just caught the title as he tossed it into the bin. Work experience abroad for teachers. Oh dear, i thought, there goes my chance. Meanwhile I got a message to see the Head in his office that afternoon. I couldn’t imagine what about, so when the time was right I picked out the brochure from the waste paper basket, read it thoroughly, excitement at possibilities rising in my brain and went off to beard the lion in his den. Imagine my surprise when he proceeded to tell me off. I was suitably dejected and apologetic and then who knows what came over me – instead of leaving his office promising to be on time for ever more I said I had something to say to him too – would he please sign the form so I could go on paid work experience in Spain.
He was quite flabbergasted. when?, where? why? So I explained and when I said it would not be till July he breathed a deep sigh of relief, said, “Yes, of course,” and that was that.
So I went. I stayed with my friends Carlos and Sylvie and their delightful daughter Cecile and worked in a bank. Afterwards I had to write a report on my experience, which I found by chance today. This was in 1992. I left Kasia and Andrzej with Jacek. I had by then found a new job where my Spanish would be totally unnecessary – but what the dickens! as they say in polite circles – I still went and came back. The weather was glorious, I had plenty of time for myself (you won’t find that in the report and Jacek came out to visit me. We went to Salamanca for the weekend. Brilliant.
Report of work experience placement, Caja de Madrid, July 1992
I went to Spain on a work experience placement with the intention of improving my knowledge of commercial and business Spanish, as hitherto my command of the language has been strictly literary and colloquial. Working in a savings bank – a cross between a building society, a friendly society and a bank – I learnt a great deal more than I expected, both linguistically, businesswise and about the nature of work.
I was welcomed enthusiastically by the manager of the Caja de Madrid, in a branch of a busy working-class southern suburb of the capital, who soon discovered, to my immense convenience, that we were close neighbours in the northern part of the city – so although it took me an hour and a half to cross the city by public transport on the way to work, he would drive me home in ten minutes using the arterial road that has been recently cut through the middle of Madrid. The heat was immense – but the interior of the branch building was so air-conditioned it was almost cold.
It needed to be. When I entered the bank the noise was overwhelming. Everything seemed to be done in public. People shouting for their money, their papers, at the tops of their voices. A fully armed security guard standing around, trying to look busy yet noncommittal, was the only silent creature. The manager, Señor Ramon Alonso Lamarca, did actually have a beautifully appointed office – but he never used it. He was everywhere – overseeing everyone’s business, proffering advice, dispensing instructions, encouraging both staff and customers. It seemed like a constant flow – but he did, I noticed, give himself a few minutes off every day, to pop round the corner to a local bar (the only local bar) for a coffee. Inside the branch no one else seemed to have time to leave their chairs or their stools for any reason. I never discovered if there were any lavatories in the place – no one seemed to have time to go – so I dared not. To ease the tension, many cigarettes were lit – hardly any were actually smoked – no time.
I was impressed with the pace of work. I was assigned to shadow a young man of twenty odd who was being groomed for the post of assistant manager. He had a lot of responsibility, dealing directly with members of the public who came in for mortgages, personal loans and insurances – a new venture in Spanish commercial life, as far as I could work out. His desk and the clients’ chairs were on full view to the public, which I found a bit disconcerting at first – but no one seemed to mind, not even lowering their voices when talking about the most intimate financial dealings. What surprised me even more was that no one seemed to mind my listening in. I was totally unable to contribute, of course, except a little in discussion, when the bank was closed to customers, and the staff were expected to catch up on the day’s paperwork before going home. The pace was truly hectic.
Time was found, however, to initiate me into some of the workings of the two parts of the bank. I was shown the correspondence – and learnt a lot about the writing of business letters, and allowed to listen to telephone calls being made to check up on client references. All loans are secured and checked. It’s impossible to get a loan, say, for a holiday and spend it on clearing other debts!
I was also given a very useful commercial/business English/Spanish dictionary. Not entirely accurate as far as the English version is concerned, but with many useful explanations about the differences in English/American and Spanish business practices. In the particular branch where I was placed, there was no international business at all. The staff were all monolingual, though realised that if they wanted to advance their careers they would have to expand their own knowledge. Working in a bank in Spain, however, seems to be an ideal way of combining employment with further education, and most young people certainly take full advantage of this option. The pay is relatively low, but the benefits of shorter working hours, 8 a.m. till 3 p.m. – and no weekends – private health insurance, equal opportunities for employment and advancement (based on stiff exams called oposiciones) are taken full advantage of by young people who for various reasons have not gone straight into higher education.
Altogether my fortnight in the Caja de Madrid was an extremely worthwhile experience. I learnt a lot about the language, my main aim, and an even greater amount about the world of work in Spain, albeit in only one small but significant area of Spanish life. I am certain I shall find the experience useful in the rest of my teaching career, both as a teacher of Spanish and of other subjects.
What I didn’t write about then but what I remember most clearly now is the bank’s attitude to security. Where we have screens and panic buttons and cctv – they had a man with a gun. He stood by the door and calmly scrutinised everyone who came and went. and he was the only person who had the time – or the inclination – to chat to me.