After watching an episode of House Hunters, Canadian lawyer Ralph was inspired to change his own life. Now, 6 years later we catch up with him about that move to Madrid, and how he used his legal background to become a specialist English teacher. Read on to hear about how Ralph became an independent freelance English teacher.
Hi Ralph! Can you tell us more about your legal background?
I hold a Juris Doctor degree in Law from Osgoode Hall University as well as a B.A. in International Relations from York University, both in Toronto, Canada. As a member of the Ontario Bar Association, I was in private practice until 2015, specializing in Administrative law and Litigation. I represented international clients in a range of disputes with governmental bodies.
Over the last 6 years, I have been teaching introductory courses related to Legal English and Writing, Commercial, and Procedural law at a number of private post-secondary institutions. I also taught directly at international law firms seeking to expose their lawyers and senior partners to Common Law legal terminology.
As an Associate Professor at IE (Business School), I have been imparting Research and Academic Writing Skills courses as well as various workshops and short-term courses focused on the Language of Law as well as Legal writing.
Your inspiration for moving abroad came from a unique place, can you tell us that story?
I’ve always wondered what it would be like to live in Europe and particularly in Spain. I’ve vacationed there many summers prior to moving here. In 2013 I was watching an episode of House Hunters that followed a Canadian finance specialist from Alberta in her settlement process in Madrid. House Hunters is a show that follows the relocation and settlement process of Canadians abroad that.
She spoke about her professional transition from an investment specialist to teaching Business English to finance professionals in Spain. That was the first time that it occurred to me that I could leverage my legal background and experience in a similar fashion.
After reaching out to her via Facebook and then speaking on Skype, she introduced me to an owner of an English academy specializing only in professional English, particularly Legal and Finance English. A few months later, upon moving to Madrid, that became my first job. Through there, my client portfolio grew and I started collaborating with about five or six different academies. I always offered Legal English and Legal Writing courses. All of these academies were geared specifically to ESP (English for Specific Purposes) courses.
You’re now a freelance English teacher. How did you make the jump from teaching in academies to teaching legal English independently?
It was a natural transition that took a good 5 years. In 2018, one of my former students contacted me and asked if he could introduce me to the Human Resources department in his new law firm to discuss possibly setting up a new Legal English program there.
Soon thereafter, I was contracted to run their Legal English classes and it was the first time that I was hired without the “middle man.” There was a clear financial benefit to this as well. It made me think that perhaps this could be an avenue worth exploring further since there is a very high rotation among young lawyers in Madrid. They are constantly changing law firms and my students often become my ex-students in a matter of months. However, we tend to maintain contact and I thought that having my own Academy, in that context, could be beneficial.
What are the three benefits you enjoy since becoming a freelance English teacher in Madrid?
- Explaining how the common law system works to lawyers educated and trained in the continental civil law system (two very different worlds)
- Exploring and debating some of these differences (pros/cons of each system)
- Engaging in discussions on the legal hot topics of the day and setting up moot courts (legal role plays) and making learning interactive, practical, and, above all, fun for everyone involved
What challenges did you face when moving abroad and becoming an English teacher? How have you overcome them?
The first one is the most obvious one that any expat experiences, which is the language barrier. I spoke almost no Spanish at the outset. I made a point of not speaking English with anyone, including other fellow English speaking expats during my first 3-4 years in Spain. Also, I used my frustration of not being able to express myself exactly as I wanted in Spanish as a motivation for absorbing as much of the language as possible. Luckily, I am fully bilingual now.
Culturally, there were some challenges too. The complete non-existence of the concept of personal space; the loud talking, the continuous kissing of strangers (as a form of greeting). Also the very rigid application of any type of written (and sometimes unwritten) customs, policies, and regulations (particularly in the context of state bureaucracy).
Finally, the very lax grasp of the concept of time and deadline. However, I had to always remind myself that I couldn’t judge the Spanish culture from our Anglo-Saxon perspective and that probably many of our customs and norms would seem equally curious to them. Moreover, if I didn’t want anything to change, then why did I move in the first place?
Can you share a few personal tips about how to be a successful online English teacher?
Use the different types of tools that are available to us (feedback fruits; kahoots; polls, etc.) to maintain the interactive and dynamic nature of classes as much as possible. You have to understand that not everything available face to face can be adapted to the online format.
Be flexible with the timing of classes. Understand that many of the “students” (who, in my case, are all legal professionals) are juggling both work, kids, and the day to day mundane household tasks all at once. Their attention span will not be the same as it is in face to face classes. As a result, be less demanding and adopt a more fluid class structure.
Is there anything you wish you knew before embarking on an online English teaching career path?
I’m not sure if this applies specifically to “online” teaching, but in more general terms, the learning curve that would be involved in becoming an effective teacher is great. A good grasp of the subject matter (being taught) alone is not enough. One tends to need a couple of years of experience and “trial and error” in terms of methodology, materials used, class structure, etc. before really perfecting our craft.
What words of encouragement do you have for individuals considering a TEFL certificate and becoming a freelance online English teacher?
Attempt to find an area that really interests you and focus on that. It is impossible to be good at everything. The more “niche” your skill-set becomes, the better your chances of differentiating yourself from other teachers, earning a better salary and, transforming this into a feasible long-term career. (As long as it is the type of skill set that is in demand; something that you may want to investigate before choosing a particular country)
Thank you Ralph, for taking the time to share your inspirational career-changing experience of becoming a specialist freelance English speaker, online and abroad.
As a result of completing our Teaching Business English course, Ralph has been able to gain a competitive edge over others offering a similar service. Being a freelance English teacher has allowed Ralph to explore his passion for law and teaching while living full-time in his favorite vacation spot!
? Did you find this article helpful in making a decision to move abroad? Where is the first place you would like to travel? We would love to hear what you have to say, please your answer in the comments box 🙂