Spanish instructor perseveres despite many challenges

Tips to become a Spanish instructor

Rosa Yazmin is a Puerto Rican Spanish instructor working in New York City. In this interview, she shares the story of her professional career thus far including the ups and downs of being her own boss and living on a fluctuating income.

What is your job title and what industry do you work in? How many years of experience do you have in this field? How would you describe yourself using only three adjectives?
I am a Spanish instructor with nine years of experience. The adjectives I would use to describe are disciplined, compassionate, and fun.

What’s your ethnicity and gender? How has it hurt or helped you? If you ever experienced discrimination, how have you responded and what worked best? Do you speak another language, and has it been helpful in your career?
I am a Hispanic woman, and my ethnicity and gender have helped and hurt me. They have helped me because businesses want to cater to Spanish populations now that the Spanish market has blossomed. But when I lived in Louisiana, I was discriminated. Even though getting a job interview was hard, I was prompted to work harder and ultimately to move out here to NYC. Because speaking Spanish (I was born and raised in Puerto Rico) is a skill that has made a huge difference in my life, I want to give this skill to others. In that way, my community will also benefit, which is my goal: to make sure I am contributing to help, assist and improve the lives of people in my community by teaching outsiders how to cater to our needs.

Because speaking Spanish (I was born and raised in Puerto Rico) is a skill that has made a huge difference in my life, I want to give this skill to others. In that way, my community will also benefit, which is my goal: to make sure I am contributing to help, assist and improve the lives of people in my community by teaching outsiders how to cater to our needs.

How would you describe what you do? What does your work entail? Are there any common misunderstandings you want to correct about what you do?
I am a Spanish instructor in a private school; we are not an academic institution. So the approach is very individual and unique. I interact with people from all ethnicities, cultural and professional backgrounds, and social and political perspectives on a regular basis. But what I really do is improve people’s marketability in a competitive, volatile work market. How? Not only by teaching people a new language but also by introducing people to the social and cultural dynamics that Spanish populations share. In the process, professionals learn about the insights of the culture. At the end of their journey, they come to appreciate the populations they are trying to reach, and from where I see it, their rewards are not only professional but also personal. I can’t ask for anything more.

On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate your job satisfaction? What might need to change about your job to unleash your full enthusiasm?
About nine. I would like to have more technology used in the process, more software conceived specifically for every field. I would love to have classes via teleconference so I can reach hundreds of people from all over the world. I would like to incorporate more cross cultural training and live interactive scenarios to test-drive my student’s skills in the real world.

If this job moves your heart – how so? Ever feel like you found your calling or sweet spot in life? If not, what might do it for you?
Teaching Spanish was a blind date that turned into true love. I was out of work, depressed and about to pack my bags and move back home. A friend called me one day and suggested to me to teach Spanish in a school where he had worked years earlier. I went to an orientation not very motivated. Although I had never taught anything, I was hired on the spot.

Within months, I had this feeling that I had found a place where I felt comfortable and, more importantly, where I could see the rewards of my efforts immediately. The feedback from students and colleagues was very positive. Students praised me, requested me and I earned Instructor of the Year twice in my school. I felt validated in a way I had never felt before in all my professional life. Students voted, too. I was teaching finance professionals, doctors, CEOs, entrepreneurs, social workers, housewives, celebrities—people I knew had high expectations about my skills. But the real satisfaction came from knowing that if I make my students understand my community better, all of us would benefit in the long run. We (the Hispanic community) would be understood and catered to in a different, more meaningful way.

Is there anything unique about your situation that readers should know when considering your experiences or accomplishments?
Yes. When you find yourself out of work, you fall into what I call an existential vacuum. You feel unappreciated and abandoned. You believe that the skills that landed you the previous job are all you have. Especially, if you have done the job for a long time. But what I have come to understand is that setbacks are nothing but life whispers. There’s something about yourself that you don’t know, that you have yet to discover. We all have hidden talents (not always that hidden, but dormant) that have not touched base with and this is the chance.

When I was looking for a new job, I was on plan C or maybe even D, and then my friend called. What I’m trying to say is that people around you might be great career advisors; they know you. They want to help you, as it was in my case because they might see skills in you that you might not have seen or have put aside. I am very good at what I do, and I know it. It doesn’t matter how I look, how old I am or how much I weigh; all that matters is that I can teach, that I can help someone be better, and that I can help my community in the process. So I can do this until I am eighty. Thi is a great feeling.

How did you get started in this line of work? If you could go back and do it differently, what would you change?
As I said, I started almost by accident. I wouldn’t do anything differently because I now know that losing my job was blinding me from new professional options I had not even thought about. My skills and job expertise didn’t have to be all within one field. Fear was paralyzing; pride was the enemy. What do you mean that I have to take a pay cut, that I have to start again in an entry level positions, that I need training for a new job? I am too old for that. Those self-defeating thoughts can destroy someone’s prospects. I would change my mind set.

What did you learn the hard way in this job and what happened specifically that led up to this lesson?
In this job, the hardest lesson was to believe in myself and that I can do something new out of my comfort zone. I had more skills than I thought. Even before I taught my first class, the secretary in another branch called and asked for an instructor to attend an open house for potential students. Although I had not even finished my training, I was asked and I didn’t blink: I said YES. Once I got to the room where the demo lesson would take place, I started to sweat. But I opened my illustration book and started my class, which was supposed to be about fifteen minutes; we went on for about twenty-five minutes. I was hooked and never looked back.

What is the single most important thing you have learned outside of school about the working world?
How unpredictable life is. How you can make your plans, create a road map to get there, work hard to achieve them, and find yourself kicked out of your own dream with no plan B, lost and scared. Another thing I learned is that the human spirit is the source of all successes. Falling down is inevitable; standing up is a personal decision. I chose to stand up again.

What’s the strangest thing that ever happened to you in this job?
Years ago I taught a woman who obviously was not well. In my line of work, the key is repetition; this way new vocabulary is applied and memorized. This particular student couldn’t remember very simple words. So I asked her common questions in English (I am a Spanish Instructor and was not supposed to do that) to determine whether the problem was that she was a slow student or if something else was going on in her mind. She couldn’t remember her favorite restaurant in NYC, where she had been going regularly for over twenty years. She couldn’t tell me the name of the train station she got off to go home. And every other day, she mentioned the new drawing on the wall of our school that had been there for years. I didn’t dare to acknowledge the issue. Some days she was a bit better and would remember things and enjoy the class.

Towards the end of her program, I realized that all the work we had done might not be of any use after all. But I did learn to be much more patient and compassionate towards people. Also, that a brain is a magnificent machine that should be constantly stimulated so it won’t deteriorate too quickly. Because she was a retired doctor, I wondered if she signed up for Spanish because she knew what was happening.

Why do you get up and go to work each day? Can you give an example of something that really made you feel good or proud?
I get up every day because I never know who I am going to meet, or who will come into my class and teach ME something about life and myself. I get up every morning to work because I have this idea that I am contributing to the lives of my students and their intended target market. The Spanish language is beautiful and rich, and I want outsiders to know and embrace this.

What kind of challenges do you face and what makes you just want to quit?
The biggest challenge is that I work freelance and the pay is not enough. When we have the harvest my heart soars, but when we are at our lows, it’s just tough. Sometimes it’s hard just to break even with the basic expenses. Although I often struggle with the issue of quitting, I do love what I do.

How stressful is your job? Are you able to maintain a comfortable or healthy work-life balance? How?
The only real stress in my job is when there’s not much work to go around. I have an unbelievable (although small) group of friends and supporters that I see when possible. I exercise regularly and love to read a good book. I carry my books around because I don’t have a Kindle or tablet. I’m very spiritual and appeal to the Universal Source of Love almost every day.  Before going into my rants, complaints, and requests, I always give thanks because I believe in a higher power.

What’s a rough salary range for the position you hold? Are you paid enough and/or happy living within your means?
As a Spanish instructor, I am not getting paid enough, struggling most of the time, and hardly making it sometimes.

How much vacation do you take? Is it enough?
I have not taken a vacation in over a year and a half because I don’t have the money. I need to be around in case there are hours available.

What education and skills do you need to get hired and succeed in this field?
You need attitude, great interpersonal skills, good manners, and a lot of patience. You need to be disciplined and thorough and have a Bachelor or at least an Associate Degree.

What would you tell a friend considering your line of work?
Just Do It! It’s a lot of fun and you meet interesting people.

If you could write your own ticket, what would you like to be doing in five years?
I would like to be a virtual Spanish instructor; that is, teach from my home. I would like to have my own business, a teaching software company that develops Spanish learning DVDs, and also give seminars, etc. I would like to be a business woman.

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  • Hola estimada profesora.
    Me gusto mucho tu historia, la encuentro bella y honesta. No sé si estarás de acuerdo, pero se siente felicidad cuando nuestros estudiantes avanzan en su aprendizaje.
    Henry,en Medellin, Colombia.

  • I can relate to her with her feeling discriminated because she speaks spanish as I live in the white suburbs of Aurora, Colorado. I work at a Cicis Pizza and sometimes I must help guest that cannot speak english and if other guest hear me speak spanish they find the need to talk down to me and it is quite frustrating as I am fluent in both laugages.

  • I am really glad she did not give up when people were giving up on her. Rejection and discrimination if something hispanics often deal with. The way we react to that is what differentiates us from truth and falsehood of stereotypes.

  • Its good to hear that people are not giving up. I know sometimes us hispanics have to work a little harder. Does paid off at the end.

  • I was laid off from my job with no prior experience, but was there for one year. I know I was a better worker than the rest. My co-workers were on face book all the time at work,then they get behind on their work and ask around to get them caught up. It sucks.

  • Oh wow. I can relate to this. My father is Hispanic and I know how hard it can be living on a fluctuating income. This woman is really a hard worker, I hope all Hispanics see this and follow her example.

  • I admire how much of a passionate linguist you are. Aside from food, languages are the second-best way to creating bonds and build bridges across communities. I myself am trilingual (English, Spanish, and Italian). I grew up speaking Spanish and English. In my first semester in community college, I took my first course in Italian. I forgot all about it until I ended up in Italy, living and working there as an au pair for a family. I needed to teach my little host sisters English (then 7 and 9), but knew that I would have to learn to speak Italian before I taught them English to open up the lines of communication. I was out in the Italian countryside, nowhere near any major or tourist cities, so I couldn’t cheat…I had to learn the language on the fly. Luckily, Italian is very similar to Spanish (both are Romance languages), and I was greatly encouraged by my host family and community members. My first success with the girls was during a hike through the wilderness. I began by pointing out things we passed and saw on our hike, and saying the word for it in English. The girls caught on quickly and said the word in Italian. From there, we began to exchange words quickly, I in Italian and them in English. Sometimes, we had short conversations…all in English, all in Italian or a mix of both
    I am very much enthralled by languages, and through my academic career I have taken classes in Arabic and French (not fluent in either), and have pursued Hindi after watching by first Bollywood movie. Now, I know languages aren’t for everyone, and that many people in the US do not think that learning or knowing any language besides English is important, but, like the person i this interview said…it makes you marketable. Not only that, it makes you accessible. By expressing interest in learning the language of a people, you are allowing them to impart upon you a piece of their culture. You are privy to certain foods, customs, traditions and information not quickly offered to strangers. You become a honorary member of their community. Finally, language is valueable because it is living artifact of a long history.

  • I feel just the same as a hispanic. I am always going through difficult challenges. Once I do become a veterinarian I will have to also learn to invest in my money wisely since I will like to be one of the vets that help people who cannot afford to pay for appointments. I believe in working towards a goal to help others is what keeps the motivation going. Which makes the obstacles more like experiences that is need to shape ourselves and become the individual that can make a difference.

  • Reading Rosa’s interview gave me the encouragment I needed to pursue Spanish in my career. I hope to be a teacher one day and I’m fluent in Spanish but have always been hesitant to teach it. Rosa has allowed me to see how fun it could be.

  • Being Hispanic and growing up I was also always discriminated against. At times I also felt like it was wrong to show where I came from and I felt it was better to hide it. When I got to high school I understood that there was no shame in being Salvadorian and knowing Spanish but there was shame in not embracing your culture. Now that I am going to a university, I made Spanish as one of my majors and plan on working in a field where I can express where I came from.