A familiar silhouette hangs on the wall of Richard Vaughan’s office.
It is a sketch of Don Quixote, whom Richard professes as one of his personal heroes. “Don Quixote was a dreamer that was out of his mind,” he says. “It was the insane, the crazy Don Quixote, together with Sancho Panza, that covered a lot of real life elements of philosophy, how to be happy and approach life. How to ennoble life.”
I’m better. I teach in a way that Spanish students love!
Perhaps it is a kind of Quixotism that underlines Richard Vaughan’s famed teaching style. “I think there’s a moral, ethical element towards the students I deal with. I can’t let them down. It’s a sense of responsibility, perhaps excessive at times,” he admits. “I’ve suffered because of this to a certain degree, but it has transformed me into a good teacher very quickly.”
Richard Vaughan – or “Baw-gan” as the Spanish call him – is arguably the most famous and most successful English teacher in Spain, a bestselling author, and president of the 35-year old language learning empire, Vaughan Systems, which today employs over 350 teachers, 500 people and churns about 21 million euros a year in sales. The charismatic Texan is a multimedia force majeure as well – a ubiquitous personality in the radio, TV, print and online spheres.
While his tale of success is a remarkable one, it begins with a familiar early chapter, similar to many a young knights-errant seeking adventures abroad.
Back in 1972, when he was a sophomore at the University of Texas in the US, he chanced upon a poster on the school’s bulletin board that bid students to study in Madrid for one year. He took the bait, already armed with 6 years of theoretical Spanish learned in secondary school. He spent an academic year in Madrid, practicing and perfecting his Spanish, and “blowing off my studies in the second semester,” he laughs. He then returned to Texas and graduated with a double degree in Philosophy and Spanish Language and Literature.
He had decided to come back to Spain for another 2 years before pursuing a PhD in Spanish Literature, to gain total mastery of the Spanish language. To finance these two years, he began teaching English.
“Soon, I realized that people liked my teaching style. It was based on a strong sense of responsibility towards the student. Because I was concerned about the progress of the student, I became a good teacher. I didn’t simply teach just to…slide by. Life is too short and potentially rich just to slide by.”
Eventually, he had too many students to handle that he had to recruit other teachers – and thus a business was born.
“I was an artisan, a craftsman of the teaching trade,” he says. Why is he different from the rest of the English teaching multitude in Spain? “Because I’m better,” he replies confidently. “I teach in a way that Spanish students love!”
It’s a love for tough love indeed. In his recent radio program, Cloverdale’s Corner, he joked, “I’m known for being a royal pain in the posterior”. It’s a hallmark of his methodology that champions hard work.
“If you want to learn English with me, you’re going to have to work! What’s the best aerobics teacher in the world? If you’re 20 lbs overweight, and you go to an aerobics class to tone up, what do you want from that teacher? It’s exactly the same, if you want to learn a second language you have to have oral agility with the grammar of the language, and the teacher has to put you through the works until sweat forms on your upper lip.”
The promise of pain is written clearly on the label too, as he makes no guarantee of an easy route. “The only thing I offer you is a minimum of 1,000 hours of hard work. It took me 3,000 hours to master Spanish. Nobody learns a second language without hard effort. Other people say you can and make a lot of money selling snake oil. And people buy it! Because it’s so difficult to learn a second language, people buy hope. And it’s snake oil. An elixir that doesn’t work.”
This painstakingly diligent standard carries over to his teacher recruitment as well, where there’s little hope for the TEFL-certificate carrying legion. “If you want to become a teacher with me, and you’ve taught before, I probably wouldn’t be interested in you,” he says. “I want people who’ve become successful in other walks of life.”
He enumerates pilots, helicopter pilots from the military, ex-rugby players, former concert pianists, or number 150 on the professional tennis circuit as the kind of teachers he looks for. Why would they make better teachers? “Because they have the right attitude towards life and people and towards work. They know what sacrifice is, they know what hard work is in overcoming obstacles.”
The candidates are then put through 2 weeks of rigorous training of 15-17 hours a day – including homework. Almost half of them don’t survive. “We want to create champions, so we have to be hard.”
When a company that was offering computer-based English courses suddenly started closing its learning centers in 2002, a national scandal erupted as over 20,000 students in Spain found themselves not just shut out, but still having to pay the bank loans they took out to finance the course.
Richard then decided he needed to shift his attention from corporate clientele to private individuals and children, and turned to radio for his mass marketing strategy. Vaughan Radio rocketed the company into stratospheric heights and steered a 4 million euro enterprise into a 21 million euro empire.
Richard also experimented with other non-traditional teaching alternatives outside the classroom and from those experiments, VaughanTown began. An hour away from Madrid sits one of the handful of VaughanTowns, simulated English villages where students come to immerse themselves among English speakers – “real people” like housewives and plumbers, and not a teacher in sight.
“It’s very intense. VaughanTown is the one place on the planet where you can find more English intensity and variety than anywhere,” he says. “It’s a very interesting social and cultural microcosm. For the Spaniard the objective is linguistic, for the foreigner, the objective is to have fun.”
Spain’s economic crisis hardly seems to be a factor at all in the company’s continued growth, having chalked an impressive 25% increase in sales this September over the previous year. This, in spite of Richard’s belief that Spain is not quite an environment favorable to success.
“Spain’s a tough country to be successful in. I don’t think that Madrid is more conducive to success than other cities. There are a lot of obstacles, not only bureaucratic but also a lot of obstacles about attitudes towards success. Spanish people are not very keen on successful people. There’s a lot of envy in Spain. So you just have to work your best and pay absolutely no attention to what others may think.”
Richard hardly sugarcoats the idyllic Spanish lifestyle as well.
“When they say quality of life, Spanish people usually think about tapas and night life, but that’s one very small part of quality of life. But if you’re a parent bringing up kids in Spain where a mortgage can be a pain, to buy your house can be the equivalent of 12 annual salaries – it’s tough!”
For him, the worst part about living in Madrid is bringing up children. “Usually you don’t have a front yard or a backyard, you have to personally take them to the park and be with them and sit with them while they play. You want to take them to the school of your choice that’s often 20 kilometers away, and expensive as hell.”
Yet, he likes Spain. “The disadvantages far outweigh the advantages… but I’m happy in Spain.”
In the country that has dubbed him as their linguistic savior, “El Profeta del Inglés”, the biggest lesson he imparts could very well echo Cervantes’ words: ¡No milagro, milagro, sino industria, industria!
Longtime newspaper journalist, children’s book writer, retired fire dancer. I moved to Spain in 2008 for the wine, food, and football.