Monthly Archives: July 2018

My odyssey with the Spanish civil service exams.

I’ve been away from my blog for months now. But I have an excuse. I was studying for the “Oposiciones” in Education here in Navarra, where to get the scant few permanent teaching positions offered by the local education dept. once every two, or three, or four, or five years (there’s no rhyme or reason to the timing) dozens, or hundreds (depending on the subject) of teachers all compete against one another to see who’s the best teacher in the whole wide world and the lad at the top of the heap after the cage fight gets his pick of the jobs.

Sounds like a great system, I hear you say. The teachers must be the best in the world – eff you, Finland!

Eh, no. As you might have guessed, it’s a pile of shite.

Anyone who’s watched The Maze Runner, or The Hunger Games or a load of other flicks, knows it’s no way to choose a teacher. This wasn’t even like that. It’s more like the Japanese flick, Battle Royale. If you haven’t seen it, well, watch it. Japan is up there with Finland, after all!

I whinged against the system when I went to get my driving test renewed. Why tell you all this sorry tale? Well, just to get it off my chest. See, I didn’t win. I didn’t go home with a prize job.

I know I shouldn’t have bothered with the whole process, if I’m just going to call it bullshit. And yet many tell me I should be happy with my performance, that I’ll do well enough next time.


These same folk say that I didn’t spend much time on the exams, to have done so well (I am the nearest to passing – so I am like the best loser!).

There are some who spend years studying for this process. They take time off work to study, put off having kids till they’ve won their job for life.

But I did spend a couple of months of my life doing sweet eff all else with my brain than thinking about this exam.

I spent my life learning English, for one.

I spent a month on and off writing up a curriculum plan for a school year in the subject, and a unit plan from that.

I spent a weekend doing literary analyses of texts,

I spent two months going through the 69 areas they could examine us on. Reading reams of information on everything from linguistics to the circulation figures of the Daily Sun, with the history of the British Isles and America in between.

And let’s just say I’ve been studying a lot of that since I was able to turn on the TV and stare up at the test signal of the BBC till the Saturday morning programs started.

I also decided to read through Leaves of Grass, since Whitman was on the list (got through most of Song of Me, but there’s a good 80% of the book left to go). I found a PD James novel on my shelf, which was a good read, and I went back over my Wordsworth. There wasn’t time for more. Henry James was a bad idea to even try. The Ambassadors went back to the library after the event with just two chapters waded through.

I had the first exam on a Saturday evening at 8pm. Seriously. At least the heat was lessened compared to the sauna the other exams before us must have been. That was the bright side. God forbid they use a school with AC for exams in the end of June and July.

A bingo selection told us which five topics we had to choose from out of those 69 we’d all prepared.

I got lucky.

The Lost Generation. Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Steinbeck and Faulkner.

Now, I’ve never read Faulkner. He’s on the list, but hasn’t made it onto the bog with me yet. But the rest. Well, I’ve been studying those lads for a long time!

I’ve read all of Hemingway, have read his Biographies, been to his house in Oak Park, visited the Hemingway room in the JFK library in Boston and read his letters from the woman who inspired A Farewell to Arms (well, his injuries inspired it, probably, but the girl is more interesting!)

I studied Gatsby for the Leaving Cert., have read most of Steinbeck, including the unfinished Arthurian works. That’s years of study on this topic. I’d gone over the material on the exam website I’d found a few days before. It was all fresh in my head.

We weren’t allowed to take our own pens, so I wrote with a tissue wrapped around the bic, sweating and sliding.

Twelve pages.

I gave them details that weren’t in the website.

They gave me 5.9 out of ten.

Now, considering I was writing in my first language (and I’ve a bit of practice with the old writing lark…), you can imagine that most of the poor Spanish folk around me fell at the first hurdle.

Except the few who’d been studying the system, however they found out about it. And gave the tribunal exactly what they wanted. I clearly didn’t.

Turns out the people correcting the exam are just some poor sods selected out of a bingo ball, and know no more about the topics than anyone else in the system. Less than me, in the case of the three novelists mentioned. But they have a rubric, and anything off that rubric, be it valid info or not, is irrelevant.

Can we see the rubric?

Can we see our exams to see where we went wrong, what we could have improved?

Don’t be stupid! Of course you can’t.

Do you think the idea is to help people get past the post?

You’ve not been paying attention.

As an aside, at this point, let’s think about how often I’ve used my extensive knowledge of the Lost Generation in an English as a foreign language class… or in a Literature class in Spain…

Apart from reminding Pamplona inhabitants that their town is super famous because of the guy whose statue stands beside the bullring, who was an American writer, absolutely never. Nor would I have used my knowledge of the various channels making up ITV, or the details of Cromwell’s stint in power in the UK (though of course I always take any opportunity to tell anyone who’ll listen what an absolute bollox the man was).

The next exam was called the practical test.

I passed that too.

I got 5.125.

So did one other person in my tribunal. The one who knew the system, had studied. I don’t know her, but fair balls to her. She got 8.4 in the first test.

A practical test, let’s remember. On how well your English is.

Well, I got 3 out of 3 on Use of English. Filling in blanks. A breeze for me. Took ten minutes, so I had an hour and a half or more to write the answer to the literary analysis. I wrote my maximum 400 words and explained the shit out of the text.

I got 2.125 out of 5. A fail. What did they want from me? Fuck knows. Perhaps blood. I took a rubber penholder with me, so my fingers didn’t bleed.

Then I spent ten minutes pissing in the wind, as if I could pick up any of the remaining two points.


I know most Spanish teachers who studied English as a language to teach would have studied that, but I only went through the main ideas on the Internet page. It’s not something a native speaker needs to know. In fact, it’s pretty redundant nowadays.

Nevertheless, the task was to translate a text into phonetics.

RP, the tribunal president asked us politely. Please use Received Pronunciation.


I know how to speak in RP when I need to.

I tell my students not to copy the way I say cup, or bus, or Dublin. Instead I show them how to say it the way Donald Trumps newest fan would as she walks along with him admiring the horses.

But when I read the phonetics, it says the symbol is pronounced like you say ‘Mother,” with the same sound for each syllable. Try say it. Go on. I can’t even write how to do it. I’d have to know more phonetics. But I can say it. Though in Ireland those two syllables are very very different! Muder.

Anyway. It was like translating into Braille or Morse code. If you knew it, well enough.

But I was one of only 24 who got through the first round. Out of 300, divided in three tribunals.

So all congratulated me (they’re accustomed to hearing about failure). But as I said, I’d studied most of my life for those exams. And I wasn’t impressed with my scores.

Nobody was impressed with their scores. They were marked down like a deadbeat professor who flings the exam booklets down the stairs and gives the ones which reach the bottom an A and the rest a C.

The oral defence of the programs I’d handed in were the next hurdle.


Everyone seemed to pass that part, if they got to it.

I spent a week going over the thing, memorising it, writing out notes to later transcribe in the preparation time they give you.

But I was nervous. I needed to do this well.

I did it well.

I went in with a smile, stood up on the teaching platform and told them all about my planning, how to do the unit, what the students did, how it helped them, how they were evaluated, what I’d do for kids with higher or lower levels than the average.

All that good stuff.

And they nodded and smiled and took notes. The president filled out her rubric. And when I asked if they’d any questions, I got just one, given in a pronunciation I found hard to understand, after 11 years teaching English to Spanish people.

I answered it. She seemed to accept the answer.

Nobody else spoke, bar the president, who thanked me and I left. I never heard the other three English teachers speaking a word of English. Maybe I intimidated them. Who knows.

I went home happy, and even wondered where I might have to work next year.

I didn’t allow anyone celebrate, but everyone saw it as a given, a foregone conclusion.

But I got 4.15 out of ten. Not the 5 I needed to pass and get that job.

How a tribunal can let someone who’s failing in front of their eyes walk out without asking them a question is beyond me, as a teacher, and it should have been beyond them as teachers (and as folk who’d been through the same process in their own time).

It was a defence. With 15 minutes for questions.

I could have defended anything they objected to.

If I’d been given the chance.

But being given the chance is not the process, of course.

It’s being so perfect that they can’t avoid giving you the point, or they’d be breaking the law.

It’s being forced to have someone take the teaching position (which is open, which needs a person to teach some real kids in a real school in a real town in the region) because it’s simply unavoidable.

So of the 300 people trying to get 31 places, 20 got places (four people failed the defence, me with the nearest to passing).

And the 12 unfilled positions will go to temporary posts, changing each year as new temps come and go. A great way to be educated, with a new teacher every year.

I’m sure the Fins would be impressed.


by the way, you can still get all my books on sale with Smashwords!