10 Weeks Working at an Immersive English Camp: A Survivor’s Story

A few years ago I spent ten weeks working at an immersive English camp in the north of Spain. They call it “immersive” because the kids that attend the camp are meant to eat, sleep and breathe English for the duration of their stay. However, it was also a pretty immersive experience for the teachers, for a variety of reasons, both good and bad. I look back on the time I spent at the camp with fond memories: I met some great people, learned a lot in a short space of time, and earned good money. I’m not going to lie though, it was tough, and sometimes I felt miserable. So, for anyone out there that’s considering a camp job, here’s my survivor’s story… 

The camp was located in the middle of nowhere. There was nothing around for miles except for one village about a twenty minute walk away. It consisted of a few houses, a corner shop and, thank the heavens, a small pub. I didn’t have a car, so the only way to get to the nearest town was by train, which ran once a day on Saturdays, my only day off each week. Including myself, there were 12 English teachers on site, along with a handful of Spanish staff. 

Every Sunday afternoon, a horde of around 100 kids would arrive. The week that followed was filled to the brim with a mix of English lessons, games, and activities. On Fridays, each class would showcase what they’d achieved that week by giving a presentation in front of everyone. Then, after dinner, we’d transform the canteen into a dance hall for the highlight of the week: a farewell disco. The following morning, the kids would head home, and the teachers would hurriedly try to make the most of their free time before the next onslaught on Sunday afternoon when the madness began afresh. The first group were around nine-years-old, and each week they increased in age by a year, so by the tenth week they were almost adults. 

A kind of organised chaos ensued every Sunday evening as the new kids arrived. With the precision of a production line, everyone was registered, given a tour around the grounds, level tested, taken to the games hall for a meet and greet, and then finally escorted to the canteen for dinner. Each week we followed a regimented schedule that accounted for almost every second of the day. The teachers’ roles varied, so everyone did a bit of everything. Some weeks I’d be teaching lessons, others I’d be a “monitor”. This meant that it was my job to wake the kids up in the morning, get them to the canteen in time for their meals, supervise them during meals and break times, and make sure they were in bed with the lights out by curfew. It also meant making sure they didn’t get up to any mischief, which became increasingly difficult as the kids got more hormonal with each progressing week. The programme coordinator told the monitors that we should be sleeping with one eye open, and she meant it. 

There were plenty of great things about the camp. For starters, it was 10 weeks in Spain with all of my food and accommodation paid for, and on top of that they were paying me good money to be there. If you need to save some cash fast, teaching at a camp is a great way to do it: the wages are relatively high and your outgoings are minimal, especially if you pick a rural location like I did. I had nothing to spend my earnings on but beer and crisps, and in rural Spain the beer is cheap and the crisps are free (along with all sorts of other tasty bar snacks – yes, Spain is the best). As such, I saved most of my income.

The location of the camp was absolute stunning; surrounded by mountains, forests, vineyards and rivers, we were complete immersed in nature. In the mornings, a thick mist would often engulf the camp, giving it a surreal, almost otherworldly feel. By noon, the mist would clear to reveal a beautifully bright and crisp day. Situated in a valley with mountains on all four sides, it felt like we were living in a bubble. Adding to this sense of remoteness was the lack of Internet connection; the only place that had Wi-Fi was the staff room, so we were cut off from the outside world for the majority of the time. The sleepy nearby village really was the place that time forgot, and our visits there felt like stepping back in time. The residents, with an average population age of around 75, looked on in wonder (or possible horror) as 12 pasty-looking strangers descended upon their idyllic rural haven every Friday evening, wild-eyed and in desperate need of a nightcap. 

One thing that has to be said about the camp was that it was a highly social experience. Unlike some teaching jobs, where it can take a while to get to know your colleagues, this was a fast-track route to friendship (or so it seemed at first). The location may have been isolated, but living and working in close proximity to 11 other teachers meant that I certainly didn’t feel alone. During the first few weeks, everyone was excited to get to know one another, and there was always a bit of a buzz in the air come pub o’clock. The fact that the camp was only a temporary experience instilled everything with a deeper sense of meaning – an almost premature nostalgia. This also helped to make the less enjoyable bits bearable, as we all knew it wasn’t forever. 

The worst things about the camp were the lack of personal space or time off, the puritanical-esque rules, the food and the weather. The teachers were split into pairs and had to share a dorm room right next door to the kids under their care. Luckily, I’d applied for the job with my boyfriend, so we got to be bunk buddies. I can imagine, however, that sharing a room with a stranger must have made the experience a lot harder for the other teachers. Considering the high-stress circumstances of the job, I cherished having a private space where I could retreat to for a bit of quiet time every now and again.   

There was a strict structure to each day with little time out to unwind, not even during meals or at bedtime. The monitors had it especially rough, as the kids were in constant sleepover mode and wanted to stay up all night chatting with their roommates. The lack of control over our own time was frustrating. Even when you weren’t officially working you kind of were. Wherever you went, you could hear the echoes of screaming kids (sinister, I know). The people that owned the facility were also extremely particular about keeping it neat and tidy, so much so that the teacher’s weren’t even allowed to take a cup of tea to their bedrooms. The cleaners would report back to management if they found so much as an empty packet of biscuits in our bedroom bins, and we were repeatedly reprimanded for such heinous indiscretions in the dreaded Sunday staff meeting. 

Those illegal biscuits, however, were a lifeline. When you think of Spain, your taste buds immediately spring into overdrive at the thought of steaming paella, delicious tortilla, fresh olives and crusty bread. Unfortunately, however, the food at the camp wasn’t quite what I’d imagined. In fact, it was more reminiscent of school lunches than traditional tapas. Of course, feeding 100 kids three times a day for ten weeks is no easy feat, so under the circumstances the chef did the best he could (I’m assuming he had a pretty tight budget). Also, we were being fed for free, so I shouldn’t complain. At the time, however, I often left the canteen feeling unsatisfied or nauseated. Some of the more questionable dishes included pasta with a dollop of congealed mayonnaise and a few crab sticks, or cabbage “soup” that seemed to just be cabbage floating in the water it had been boiled in. 

To make matters worse, everyone was more hungry than usual because we were all cold, all of the time. Despite the fact that the word “camp” immediately connotes summer fun in the sun, this was northern Spain in autumn, which meant it was cold and wet. This was a bit of a downer, especially because most of the scheduled activities revolved around being outside, and the indoor areas weren’t sufficiently heated. 

Perhaps the most interesting and, with hindsight, amusing thing about the camp experience was the psychological aspect of it. Looking back on those 10 weeks now is like watching a rerun of Big Brother: a group of strangers shoved together under unusual circumstances, with every second of their day planned out for them, living in each other’s pockets, cut off from the outside world, and under constant surveillance. It was intense. In one way this made it really special. The teachers bonded immediately and became a tight-knit group as they struggled through the days together and then let lose at the local pub at the weekend. We were like cooped-up animals that had been temporarily set free and there was always a sense of occasion. 

However, there was also a disproportionate amount of drama. Everyone was tired, hungry, cold and far from home, so understandably, emotions were running high. The weekly class presentations turned into a strange kind of competition, where each teacher, eager for their class to impress, tried to outdo one another. At some point there were rumours of future work opportunities, which led to some teachers suddenly “befriending” management. By the end of the 10 weeks the group had split into disparate cliques, one teacher had left early, and another had been fired. Duh, duh, DUH. Why has no one written an immersive English camp based soap opera yet?!

At the end of the day, working at the camp was an experience I’ll never forget. Would I do it again? Sure! However, when asked the question: “What three things would you take with you to a desert island immersive English camp?” my answer would be this: weather-appropriate clothing, earplugs and ten-weeks-worth of tasty snacks. 

Stephanie Saint worked as an EFL teacher for four years before moving into content writing and publishing. She has worked in a variety of countries including South Korea, Spain and Slovakia. She currently lives in Athens, Greece. When she’s not working she loves taking photographs, exploring, cooking, and caring for stray cats.