IH Cordoba, past and present

by Simon Armour

The Room 1953

Picture a small room – it’s quite dark inside despite the bright blue sunshine outside, because the two windows are small and the blinds are unrolled and down. The floor is tiled and cold to the touch, with alternate black and white ten-inch tiles which make it look like a chess board. It’s a rented room and obviously doubles as a bedroom – a curtain has been drawn across one end of the room but a pair of slippers and a stray sock on the floor can be seen peeping under it and give the game away. In the middle is a rectangular table covered with a blanket which reaches down to the floor – the six students are sat around it with their legs tucked under to enjoy the under-the-table warmth of the round electric brasero heater. The teacher is at one end, and Eckersley’s Essential English is open at page 45. When the last students have left, the chalk is dusted off the blankets and John and Brita sit down at the table to eat their evening meal of Salmorejo and Spanish omelette.

The Room 2013

Classroom 5 is a large rectangular room looking out onto the street with a see-through glass door – the walls are beige but are mainly covered with boards displaying the students’ work, a phonemic chart and a framed map of the 154 IH schools around the world.  There is an Interactive Whiteboard at one end connected to Apple TV for using iPads, and the textbook i-pack is being projected on the board, as students stand up in turn to drag in the answers to the gap-fill exercise. The board has chunky speakers either side with a short-throw projector hanging down on an arm above the board.  The room has radiators and air conditioning, and there are 12 blue chairs, smart and functional, each with an arm rest. The teacher is checking the register on her iPad, which connects to the school admin program by wi-fi.

The School 1953

In 1953, the school is basically the room. Outside, the students arrive and step through the small door cut into the large oak-front doors which are never opened and pull on a bell attached to the gateway, then walk though the patio and knock on the door. After the last class of the month, they settle next month’s bill with the teacher as the next class gets ready to come in. As summer approaches and the afternoons start to warm up, numbers dwindle.  John and Brita are the teachers, joined by Shaun McCarthy in the spring of 1954, who has agreed to teach over the summer while John and Brita teach in Sweden or guide American tourists round Europe. It is the first English language school in Cordoba and by December, via publicity and word of mouth, there are 60 students.

The Schools 2013

Academia Británica “Centro” from the outside looks like a row of terraced houses in the old quarter of Cordoba, but inside is clearly a school. Apart from the 22 classrooms, there are offices for the receptionists, Director, Director of Studies and Children’s and Teens coordinators, Courses Abroad and the Spanish Department. A computer technician, a caretaker, a librarian and a team of cleaners all work here, and the patios or courtyards are still the focal point, with lovingly tended plants and whitewashed walls. Academia Británica “Sierra” opened in September 2010 and is now just as big as the “mother” school – unlike “Centro” it is a modern building, extending over half the ground floor of a large apartment block. It has smart, plush corridors, glass offices, 16 classrooms and a large administrative team, too – Director /DoS, YL and Teens coordinators and their assistants, IT technician, three secretaries, head of admin/webmaster/community manager, librarian and a team of cleaners –  to cater for the over 1,300 students who pass through the glass doors each week. In winter, central heating is a luxury unavailable 60 years ago, and as summer approaches and the weather warms up, the air conditioning is turned on, but in July and August, numbers still dwindle as the Cordobeses avoid the baking heat and make for the coast or the hills.

The Students 1953

Margarita is 25. She went to a convent school in Cordoba, and since then has lived with her parents in an old house in the Jewish Quarter. Manolo is 29 and is a waiter, and works at the Hotel Palace, which has recently been refurbished – he occasionally has to serve drinks to English speaking guests. Eugenio is 28, a lawyer, who studied law at Cordoba University and now works in his father’s law firm. For all of them, learning English is a window onto the world. From their small conservatively-minded city stifled by the censorship of Franco’s Spain it is a glimpse into a freer, wider world of music, culture and fashion. Something more exciting is going on somewhere else in Europe.

The Students 2013

Rosa is 6. Her mother takes her to the AB three evenings a week at 5.30pm. She chants and copies the movements with all the other children, sings along with characters on the Interactive Whiteboard and is learning to write. Francisco is 16, and is in his last year at secondary school. He has been coming to the AB since he was 5 and next June hopes to take the First Certificate – he’s doing pretty well at school and with his extra English the English classes at school are easy. Alejandro is 28 and unemployed. Although he has just left university with a degree in architecture, learning English will give him the option of applying for a job abroad. The country is experiencing its worst economic slump since democracy returned in the 1970s, and for all of them, English will be a vital tool for getting a better job in the future.

The teacher 1953

Shaun arrives in Cordoba in the spring of 1954. He has met John and Brita in Oxford, where he and John went to university together. John has written to him about Cordoba, its whitewashed houses and cobbled streets, and he has travelled to Cordoba by train and appeared at the door one spring morning with a casual “hello”. John agrees to take him on and explains over a glass of fino wine how to teach Spanish students. He will pick it up as he goes along, and anyway, Eckersley is a fine, solid book. Some language points are illustrated with anecdotes, which the students love, even if they do not entirely understand Shaun’s dry sense of humour.  Behind him, new words are written on a small square blackboard in his neat cursive hand and carefully copied down by the students.

The Teacher 2013

Jenny is now in her mid-thirties. After a degree in English Literature, she took her CELTA course (based on the IH certificate, originally written by John Haycraft in the 1960s) and worked for two years in IH Bydgoszcz in Poland. She transferred to Cordoba through the IH World transfer system, and took the free IHCYLT offered by IH Cordoba before starting to get expertise in teaching children’s classes. Now, she is in her third year at IH Cordoba, and checking her virtual diary on the school Intranet she sees she has a busy week. All the classes are in the school, but mornings are taken up with a wide range of professional development seminars and lesson planning, getting used to the classroom technology and having Spanish lessons. Her textbooks have websites, resource books and i-packs, and there is the school wiki and her First Certificate class’s wiki to check. She has a circle of local friends, goes out at weekends and enjoys trips to other Spanish cities in the fast AVE train.

The city 1953

Most of the Cordobeses live within the original Roman walls, although the wealthier villas have spread to the north, beyond the viaduct along a long street called El Brillante. Life within the walls is remarkably primitive compared with the rest of Europe. As the evening approaches, when all Spanish people come out for their traditional stroll or paseo near the main square, Las Tendillas, old men with wizened faces lead laden mules down the streets, ladies with mantilla headdresses stroll in small groups, gentlemen in capes and large round hats make for the theatre or the bar, and servant girls with pinafores rush home carrying a basket with the last errand of the day. Street vendors wheel barrows of toasted chick-peas and there are obvious signs of widespread poverty with many beggars, some dressed in rags or crippled, hanging around on street corners, while the well-off sip coffee or buy pastries in the street cafés. There is a middle class of lawyers, doctors or businessmen, but this is Franco’s Spain, and the bumbling economic policies have left the black market firmly in charge of the city’s commerce.

The City 2013

The appeal of Cordoba in 2013 might still be its old quarter, which is now full of tapas bars and traditional restaurants, but it is much more than that. First of all, Cordoba has doubled in size and the suburbs have spread in all directions. New blocks of flats appear as the outskirts of Cordoba stretch into the surrounding countryside, and the builders regularly unearth 9th century Arabic ruins as they make the foundations. The Cordobeses now primarily live in flats, and go everywhere by car – to the hypermarkets on the outskirts, to the multi-screen cinema, to a favourite bar. The city centre is largely pedestrian, and young men and women walk quickly or cycle past dressed in t-shirts and jeans as in any European city. The main streets are dotted with fashion chain stores like Zara or mobile phone centres like Vodafone. There are the obvious material signs of prosperity – more cars, more air-conditioning, more shops, more sports centres – and there have been enormous improvements in health care, education and city amenities. Cordoba even had a Communist mayor, Julio Anguita, in the 1980s. However, due to the recent economic crisis, unemployment is currently high and the future looks far from rosy.

Author’s Bio: Simon Armour has been DoS at IH Cordoba (Centro) for donkey’s years, and has taught in the UK, Spain and Switzerland. His work interests include Cambridge exams, pronunciation and teaching with new technologies. Outside work, his main interests are translation, playing Irish fiddle and going on country walks. Donkeys live for over 20 years.