So I recently moved to teach English in Spain in a secondary school. Every day I learn something new, meet interesting people and surprise myself in what I can achieve/not panic about. And while I cannot speak for everyone embarking on the same journey as me, I have compiled a list of my top 5 unexpected effects of teaching abroad.
Yes, there are cultural differences, the Spanish eat different food, they go to bed later, they don’t have carpets in any of their houses etc. etc. I knew all about this before I came, I have been to Spain on holiday you see. I was ready for the salad which is coated in oil, the warmer (and altogether more pleasant) weather and the fact the Spanish eat dinner at 10 o’clock in the evening.
The following are the aspects that I was not altogether prepared for.
The Language Barrier
First things first, I completely underestimated the language barrier. In all honesty, and with perhaps a little smugness, I believed I was moving to Spain with a reasonable understanding of their language. Having achieved a rather hard-fought-for B at A level, my Spanish was once at a relatively high standard. 5 years later and I am proving to be somewhat rusty.
This threw me in my first week here but I am improving thanks to a combination of organised lessons with teachers, general conversation and the fact that I live with a host family. I have found it helpful to have a notebook on me at all times in which I can write down a particularly useful phrase such as ‘I’m tired’ or ‘it looks like it’s going to be a nice day’ or ‘what are we having for dinner?’ (the latter being one I use most regularly).
On top of this, I have moved to Basque Country to teach English and thus am having to learn Euskera, the oldest language in Europe. This a whole new kettle of fish. So far I have learned the greetings and can count to 10. “Poco a poco” (little by little).
The Celebrity Status
I was not prepared for the celebrity status of being the Language Assistant, both at home and in host family life. I have met more friends and family than I can remember, and I have been asked about myself so often that I almost started to make up more interesting or exciting answers, as I was so bored of hearing myself say the same thing over and over again.
My first bus journey to school was terrifying. I was very aware that all eyes were on the new stranger who had joined them on the bus. I then spent the next week being introduced to every class that I would teach, some of whom were encouraged to ask me questions in order to get to know me a little.
Having been at Larramendi Ikastola for about 6 weeks now I am no longer the ‘newbie’ but am still a talking point. I am still whispered about on the bus, students regularly call out “hi” to me wherever I go and even shout my name from 1st floor classroom windows. I’m currently perfecting my ‘Queen wave’.
Speaking of the Queen, never before in my life have I felt so English. Not American, not Scottish, English. My tutor misread my CV and told everyone at the school that I was from Scotland. I told them I would sound very different if that were true and quickly asserted my true heritage.
So, I regularly find myself correcting my students for using American words instead of English words, such as sidewalk, candy or vacation. I systematically say ‘that’s very English of you’ should someone wear flip flops in October or drink more than one cup of tea in a day. And every Sunday I cook an English breakfast for my family. In my, I love London t-shirt. It doesn’t get much more English than this.
The only instance when I haven’t felt so keen to advertise my Englishness was during England’s untimely dismissal from our own rugby world cup. We don’t talk about that.
In short, I have been tired all the time. I am tired when I wake up in the morning. I am tired when I finish a class. Furthermore, I am tired when I get home from school. I am tired after family activities. I am tired of living life in Spanglish (or Euskerish). And I am tired when I should not be tired. I AM TIRED ALL THE TIME.
But I wouldn’t change this experience for the world. Again, I wasn’t expecting this but I was stupid not to realise that it comes with the territory. I often have to say to myself ‘you have moved to a new country, you have started a new experience and you don’t speak the language, of course you are going to be tired!’
On top of this I am playing with my host family’s children, seeing friends, meeting extended family members, going on day trips. You get the picture. But I am most definitely enjoying every minute.
Teach English in Spain: The Pressure
I am almost a fully-fledged teacher with some vague experience and very little training (I did a TEFL course). Yet I have been given the responsibility of helping with the education of 500 students. This brings a certain amount of pressure!
In addition to teaching in the secondary school, I take after school classes 3 days a week with 6 to 8-year-olds. This is way harder for me, and is proving to be quite a challenge and brings about more pressure than my other classes. It all goes well until a child persistently attempts to sit on his head during class, takes his t-shirt off during a game or suddenly bursts into tears. Put me in front of a class of sassy 16-year-old girls any day!
Plan Lessons to Make Them Fun
There is also the pressure of making my lessons fun. It is complicated to teach English in Spain for the first time. I am perhaps spending a little too much time at the moment on planning my lessons. The reason may be that I am still getting used to the levels of my students and what can be achieved in 45 minutes. But so far I have managed to include an episode of Friends, a song by George Ezra and a clip from Back to the Future.
Spend hours preparing a 15-minute activity, check. Be so tired you can barely function, check. Cook an English breakfast, check. Perfect your Spanglish, check. Assert yourself as fun new English Language Assistant, check.
These are just 5 unexpected effects of teaching abroad. If you have enjoyed reading this article, I recommend you take a look at 10 Funny Reasons to Choose Spain to Gain International Experience and 6 Tips for Living in Spain.