After all the reviews and advice pieces I have written for this amazing scheme, it was finally time for me to take a crack at interviewing, and who better than my extraordinary form tutor, Maria Castan? Ms Castan (as we at school call her) has had a remarkable life – from being the oldest of three children to a single mother desperately trying to provide for her children in Spain, to volunteering in France for one whole year, to moving permanently to London to pursue her dream of teaching, it’s almost impossible to believe that this was only the life of one person alone. Sitting opposite her, interviewing her at the end of our school day, every member of our form smiled and said goodbye to her as they left from collecting their things from their lockers – something which doesn’t always happen in schools. That’s how you can recognise an amazing teacher – when your students love and respect as much as we love and respect Ms Castan, you know you’ve officially made it as an incredible teacher. Talking to her is like talking to a friend and I am so grateful – we all are – to have her as our form tutor.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in a very small village in the mid-North of Spain, where winters are very, very cold, and I had a very nice childhood with my sisters and my friends. It was a very quiet place and a very nice place to grow up.

Talk to me about your childhood.

My childhood is marked by the death of my father, which happened when I was three years old so I don’t have any memories of him. I had two sisters who were three months old when my father died, so we don’t have any memories or anything. It’s true that all your life, you wonder how your life would have been with your father because you don’t have that. But despite all that, I cannot say that I had a bad childhood, because my mother worked very hard to give us everything and my sisters were lovely as well. I had a very nice group of friends so I had a childhood like everybody else except for that. I remember being happy, playing with my sisters, growing up in my village, going to school and having lovely teachers… I did enjoy my childhood.

Presumably you stayed at school to do your exams?*

I did everything. I stayed at secondary school and I did my “A Level” which was called COL at that time. When you finished that “A Level” course that was called COL, you had to pass an exam to be able to go to university. It was hard.

So then you went to university?

Yes, I studied English language and literature because I wanted to be an English teacher since I loved languages and I loved English. That took five years of study, and then I decided I needed to improve my English, so I came to London because it’s closer than America or anywhere else and I wanted to speak English because I couldn’t in Spain, where everybody else was speaking Spanish. When I came here, I fell in love with the city. I really loved it. I think I decided to give it a try and live here, but I had other plans. I came here for three months and I worked in a hotel, but I had another project in France as well (this was in 2001), and when I finished my work here in the hotel I went back to Spain and then I went to France – that was in September. I think it was three days after 9/11 and my mother was very scared because I had to fly just three days after that had happened. I said ‘don’t worry, it’s just to France, it’s very close’, and I spent one year in France. I worked in a school as a volunteer to improve my French because I love languages, and then I went back to Spain. In my mind, I already had the idea of coming back to London because I really liked it. I just feel free: I came from living with my mum and my sisters, to being in a different country, knowing different people, and having to get by on your own. You don’t have anybody – if you have a problem, you have to get by and find a solution on your own. You also have to make friends and you just have to your life out on your own, because you don’t have your mummy to cry to. So I decided to come back here and I started working as a waitress, because you can’t just magically become a lawyer; you have to start from the very beginning. Then I decided that I wanted to get into education, but that came a little bit later.

Where do you think your love of languages came from?

Madonna. I like her a lot and I wanted to know what she was singing because she sang in English and I had no idea what she sang since in primary school I used to do French. I remember one summer I had the record True Blue, when I was about thirteen or fourteen, and I spent that summer translating the songs with a dictionary. Obviously, you can’t learn a language with a dictionary, but from that moment I started to feel curious about languages. It wasn’t only Madonna – I like music in general and the music I used to listen to was American, like Lenny Kravitz, or even English, like Transvision Vamp. I always wanted to know what they sang because I loved them so much! I loved the images of the bands or the singers, and I loved the melodies of the songs, so I wanted to know what they sang. I also love cinema – I like to see movies and I wanted to see them in their original versions because in Spain everything is dubbed so that all the actors are speaking Spanish. You see Brad Pitt speaking Spanish! That’s why it’s so hard for us to learn languages: we are not exposed to them. It was also the fact that I wanted to leave my village. I wanted to explore the world and see what was beyond that little village, and, of course, if you want to see the world, you want to be able to communicate with people, and English is the main language.

You lived in South Africa for a while as well, didn’t you? Tell me about that.

After I worked as a waitress in London, I started to work as a teaching assistant to get into education because I knew I wanted to be a teacher and you have to study when you don’t have any experience with children. However, before I became a teacher, I went to South Africa. I met my husband here in London but he was younger than me and had to go back and finish his studies. We lived away from each other for a while, but then we decided that we either needed to break up or get married. We had to do something with our relationship – we couldn’t be away from each other all the time. So we decided that I would go there because he had a job as well (a better job than mine) and it was a sort of internship. I went there and got married in South Africa, and I spent thirteen months living there in another country, which was also very exciting. I always told him that I didn’t want to live there all my life – I just wanted to live there while he was sorting out his studies, and then I wanted to come back to Europe. I never lied to him, and he agreed that he wanted to come back here as well. But it was fantastic to live there and to be able to travel to the country, even though I had a big pain in my back and I couldn’t work or anything. That was a little bit boring at the same time, because when we were not travelling (and you cannot travel all the time obviously because of the money), I had to stay at home, and I am not a woman who wants to stay at home as a housewife. That was the toughest part.

What was your first school in England?

I did my first practice in a school called Bonus Pastor, which is in Bromley. Langley Park School for Girls was my second school in England because I did my second half of the practice here and I liked it a lot, from the very beginning. I love the teachers, and I love the fact that the students are so well behaved and you can teach something as tough as languages. It’s very hard to find a school where you can teach languages and the students pay attention because they always think that it’s not so important, but here, the students actually like languages, so it was a pleasure. I’m so happy that I found a job here because when I finished my practice, they didn’t have any positions, so I had to find a job in another school. I worked for two years in another school and I did my NQT (my qualified status), and then luckily I found a job here at Langley. That was one of the best days of my life.

So how long have you been here at Langley then?

I’ve been here since 2014, so almost five and a half years.

Last question: do you have any tips for people currently trying to learn a language?

First of all you have to like it. If you don’t like it, there’s nothing to do. And then, you are so lucky now, because, if you like languages, you are exposed continuously: you have YouTube, you have Netflix so you can watch movies in Spanish, you can watch a series in Spanish etc., so you are more exposed to the language. You have music – in my time we only had records and dictionaries, and sometimes movies, but that was it. Now, you have activities online, you have Quizlet, you have so many things! To me, though, if you are really interested, and if you want to take it past school, the best way to learn a language is to live in a country where that language is spoken. It’s the best way to learn it: to be surrounded by the culture and the language itself. Although it’s true that it’s great to watch movies and to read books and to do activities online and listen to music, if you really want to learn well and you want to be fluent, the best thing is to do is to go to a country where the language is spoken and be on your own, not staying with English people. That’s the best thing you can do.

*Education was a lot different back then in Spain. You finished primary school when you were fourteen, then you decided whether you wanted to move on an work like an adult or if you wanted to stay on at school. There were no GCSEs or anything like that, but there was the option to go to secondary school for four years. You would spend three years where school was a little similar to our GCSE years, and then you could either leave after three years and go to work, or you could do another year of school if you wanted to go to university. That year was a little bit like our A Level years, except that it was only for one year. That is why she refers to this year as her A Levels a couple of times in the following answer.