A Lesson Well Learnt
The location of Salteras is not something that you would have learned in any geography lesson. A small village in the hearth of Andalusia, it stands on the high land to the east of Seville and looks across a hazy plain of scorched fields and olive groves that stretch towards the Sierra Morena. Italica, the birthplace of Trajan and Hadrian, is close by. Both Roman emperors would even now recognise a familiar landscape that suggests that nothing about the place is going to change soon.
But one thing has changed recently among the confusion of narrow streets and whitewashed houses of this traditional pueblo. In July 2001, the village became host to a very English institution, The Village School. Now that a second school has just opened in the adjacent village of Olivares locals might be forgiven for thinking that The Village School will soon be in every pueblo and they will all soon be speaking English.
“Not so”, says Ali Benwell, the feminine half of the brother and sister pair behind The Village School. “I really like being a teacher. It’s fun. The last thing I’d want to be is a manager driving up and down to different schools all day.”
Rob, 38, and the younger of the pair by two years, came to Spain in 1991 after completing a course in teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL) in London. After a series of unfulfilling jobs in the UK and a year travelling, Ali decided to take her TEFL course in 1997. A telephone conversation with Rob had convinced her to do the course in Spain rather than in the UK. “Rob said he’d help me out with accommodation,” she recalls. “So I decided on Seville.”
TEFL is an alternative and less complicated way of getting to Spain than opening a bar or a guesthouse. Many of those who take the TEFL route to Spain do so primarily to travel, to spend a year or two learning Spanish, and to experience the culture. Some decide to stay and make TEFL a career. For a few, like Rob and Ali, it becomes the basis for a profitable and rewarding business.
Like Rob, Ali quickly found work with one of the established schools in Seville, but it was not long before she began to share the thoughts of many teachers in Spain. “I think a lot of teachers working for someone else think they could just as easily work for themselves if they only had the setup around them. I was getting a bit bored with teaching in the school where I was working and felt that the time was right to open our own school. Rob and I mulled over the idea for about a year before opening the school in Salteras.”
Finding a suitable property was the biggest problem. “A lot of the premises we looked at had massive difficulties,” recalls Ali. “Many were on the first floor of buildings and needed lifts putting in. Often the buildings were simply shells without floors or ceilings and the expense was going to be enormous. Because of these problems we kind of dropped the idea.”
As with so many things in life, chance played its part, and in June 2001 Ali made a discovery in her home village of Salteras. “I came up to buy some bread and found the bread shop closed, with a ‘for rent’ notice on it. I asked to see inside the property. As soon as they opened the doors I thought, ‘Oh yes, I can see it happening here.’”
Incredibly, it took just two weeks from finding the property to opening the school. The only work that needed to be done was to divide the one large room up into two classrooms and a reception area. Then came the task of deciding on the look and feel they wanted for the school.
The original sign for the shop was still over the door and Ali liked the bright orange background, feeling that it provided a striking contrast with their chosen lettering. “We chose a blue for the lettering that reflected the Andalusian sky, that really distinctive blue colour that you see when you look straight up.”
She came up with the name of “The Village School” while sitting in a bar with her Dad who was visiting at the time. “We had a list of names like ‘institute’ and ‘centre’ but they all sounded wrong. We wanted something that everyone would understand.”
For legal and financial help with the business they decided to use local people. They found the bank manager very helpful and willing to provide the necessary funding to set up the business. Because there was no need to buy in stock, the initial expenses were not great. The most important thing was to find enough students from the start to provide a salary for both Rob and Ali and for a secretary who they decided was essential.
“The secretary is very important as the children need someone who can deal with their problems and someone who can deal with the parents,” says Ali. “It’s very important that when the students are here that we’re able to concentrate on being teachers.”
The decision quickly paid dividends and the school soon enrolled around 75 students. However, it quickly became apparent that while there was plenty of development going on in the village, with a consequential population growth, there would only ever be a finite number of potential students.
Ali recalls the decision to open the second school in the bigger village of Olivares. “When we opened the school in Salteras we had quite a few students from Olivares. We got to the point this year where we were thinking that if we don’t open up there someone else might.”
Olivares proved to be a far more complicated proposition than Salteras. The most suitable property they could find was on two floors and needed considerable construction work before it could be used. “The upstairs part had nothing in it,” remembers Ali. “It was just bricks, with a concrete floor, bricked-up windows and no ceiling. The owners organised the initial building work, but the last few bits, like getting the suspended ceiling put up, were a nightmare. Rob was up there every afternoon for a week waiting for these guys to come. They kept saying, ‘We’re on our way,’ but they never turned up. The electrician still hasn’t turned up.”
In June 2003 the new school began to enrol students for the new school year. As in Salteras, the courses on offer cover the whole range of student ability and age groups. Students can start as young as 4 years and the school caters for adult and advanced learners too.
Running a village school may be a far cry from running a bar or a guest house but Ali and Rob have had to face the same challenges as anyone else looking to start a new life in the sun. The biggest challenge has been the language. Neither spoke any Spanish before they arrived and they have had to learn quickly. “My Spanish has improved a lot since we opened the school, out of necessity really,” says Ali. She still has a problem knowing at what level to pitch the language. “I often wonder if I’m being too polite or too formal, especially when I have to deal with parents for the first time.”
The telephone remains the most difficult means of communication as there is none of the immediate feedback that is present in a face-to-face conversation. It is impossible for the other person to see the puzzled look on your face when they say something that you’re unclear about. Maintaining a sense of humour helps, as Ali points out, “Some people’s accents are so strong that you can’t understand a word they say and you resort to smiling and nodding your head. You just hope you’re doing so in the right places, though you could just as easily be smiling happily when you’re being told that their grandmother’s just died.”
Language difficulties apart, neither Rob nor Ali have any regrets about opening the schools. The enthusiasm the students and the local people have
shown for the school has impressed them both and ensures that neither have any plans to move back to the UK any time soon.
“The kids really have an enthusiasm for making the place their own. They wave when they pass by and often call in outside of class hours because they feel that they can come in. That’s really nice. I don’t think either me or Rob expected that the kids would be quite as enthusiastic as they are.”
A student who has been with the school from the start is eight-year-old Alejandro Barquín. “I like it because I like it,” he says with the simple yet enthusiastic honesty that seems to sum up why the school has proved so popular.
Ali’s advice to anyone thinking of making the move to Spain is simply, “Just do it! What’s the worst that could happen?” Coming from a teacher who has taken her own advice and turned her dreams into reality it’s a lesson that anyone considering a move to Spain might be well advised to learn.
First appeared in Living Spain in 2003