Learning as a Teaching Assistant in Ontinyent, Spain

edgar llivisupa profile photoEdgar Llivisupa is a native New Yorker completing a dual degree in Business Journalism and Spanish Literature and Language. His goals while teaching abroad are to improve his Spanish, test his capabilities as a teacher, and to travel. 

Edgar has been living in Ontinyent, Spain for one school year. Ontinyent is located in eastern Spain near Valencia. He is a teaching assistant at a primary school and will be returning to the same school this September. He enjoys learning Valencian and interacting with the locals. 

Edgar is looking forward to returning for another year. He wants to continue his progress with his students and dive deeper into the Spanish culture and lifestyle.

Meet Edgar 

Why did you choose to come to Spain and Europe? 

“There were many motivations for me to live abroad. Firstly, it had been rare in my life for me to venture outside New York. In fact, I had traveled out of the tri-state area only a handful of times, so I was itching to leave. Secondly, after failing a calculus course I switched my major to Spanish and started taking more intensive coursework. During a literature class, the professor flagged up  the North American Language and Culture Assistants Program. As an American, there was already an innate curiosity to visit Europe. As a descendant of Hispanics, I was also inquisitive about Spanish culture and how much it influenced Latin America. Thirdly, I had a brother living in Madrid. This put me at ease after reading online testimonials from other participants in the program.”

Why did you choose to teach abroad? 

“While I had considered studying abroad in the past, the costs made it seem out of reach. I was never the type to look for grants or scholarships to aid my studies. Alongside that, I would have to pick courses that would grant me credits at my college. Instead, this program gave me the opportunity to work abroad, which made me more comfortable rather than going abroad as a student. I hadn’t considered teaching before, but regardless, I have approached my tasks and responsibilities with an open mind and strived to do my best.”

Have you ever taught before? If not, what were you doing before you decided to move abroad?  

“I’ve never taught before. Rather, I was working very close to home at a pharmacy. It had nothing to do with what I was majoring in, but I wanted some work experience and a reference for the future just in case. Earning my own money felt rewarding as it lessened my dependence on my parents and when I decided to participate in the program, it meant I could start saving for my year abroad.”

What did you think teaching abroad would be like? Where are you teaching? 

“I am an English teaching assistant at a primary school in Ontinyent, Spain, located in the Valencian Community.

I had a feeling that teaching abroad would be extremely difficult as I had no previous experience. And I had been put off it as a career by what my public school teachers had to say about it.

I also had no idea what my students’ proficiency level would be so thank God for the chance to do some homework on them on the Internet. The school’s online blog gave me a great insight into the faculty, the students, and what the school looked like. There were documents on the English classes, their textbooks and other learning materials. I was also heartened to see that the school had recently embarked on a cultural exchange with public schools in Africa. So my arrival wasn’t going to be jarring as they had already opened their hearts and minds to another culture.”

What expectations did you have before you came here?

“I had no expectations coming to Ontinyent. That isn’t to say that I wasn’t looking forward to it. Knowing I had finally made it out of New York meant I was aware that I would have a good time regardless of where I wound up.”

cityscape ontinyent spain

What were your perceptions of Ontinyent during your first year?

“Again, I had the Internet to thank for discovering that it wasn’t amongst the most isolated towns in the region (looking at you there, Bocairent). I saw there was a decently-sized shopping mall with chains like Zara and GAME (an equivalent of GameStop), as well as a movie theater. All of the major Spanish banks were there. And most important of all, there was a train station to Valencia. 

By the end of the first year, I had learned that family is highly valued in Ontinyent. At least once a week, regardless of work or social schedules, the family, from grandparents to grandchildren, will share a meal together.”

What were some of the accomplishments of your first year?

“Moving and living abroad is a big accomplishment in itself with all the changes it has brought  me. I had never lived away from home or on my own before. Suddenly in my own flat, there was no one to clean up, cook, or pay the bills. Those responsibilities all fell on me.

Ontinyent newspaper

Many people had warned me that the town isn’t ideal for young people with few nightlife options or places to hang out. Instead I just traveled to the major cities before returning to the calm of Ontinyent. It was a great balance for me.”

What do you want to achieve for your second year? 

“As much as I strive to plan my life (after all, I first heard of this program three years ago), I have no idea where it is going. This year, I am going to lay foundations  in case I decide to relocate to Ontinyent for good. This includes continuing to study the local language, Valencian, which is a dialect of Catalan. 

I want to attend Spanish language courses. While I know enough to be considered a native speaker, I still lack confidence. So it would help to be more proficient and understand the basic facets of the language. 

Also, while I can assume I did a decent enough job to warrant a warm and lovely “see you soon!” party at my school, I do feel that there is a lot I can improve on. Since I’m returning to the same center, I don’t have to spend the first few months meeting the faculty and students or familiarizing myself with the town. Like I told some of my co-workers, I come back ready to work!”

What advice would you give to other participants about your first year? What are some of the things they must do and some things they must absolutely not do? 

“The most important thing to realize about this program is that it is going to take a while to adjust to living in Spain if you’re not in a major city. You’re not going to easily find foreign cuisine or people who want to, or can, speak English. By the time I acclimatized to living abroad, which for me was around the New Year, I was already at the halfway point of my tenure. Keep that in mind if it takes you longer to adjust to a new surrounding.

Another piece of advice I have, and this is more personal, regards technology. Yes, it makes us all connected but while it is great to talk to loved ones back home, attempt to disconnect once in a while. Enjoy your newfound independence in a different setting.”

How do you feel about your integration into the culture so far? How did you prepare before you arrived? 

“Before my arrival, I explored the town’s tourism website and looked at the traditional dishes, holidays, and festivals celebrated throughout the year. Being in a small town helped me integrate easier than a tenure in Madrid or Barcelona. There aren’t fast-food chains to satisfy my American tastebuds. The stores in Ontinyent close around 8pm. And my town is also multi-generational.

Now that it’s a year later, I can say it was a great change for me. I am happy to be away from New York. Ontinyent was the perfect size for me. Living in big cities can cause anxiety if you don’t have a big weekend planned or spend too much time at home. Choices are limited in a small town. Most weekends entail a simple football match or drinks at someone’s apartment. I appreciated simple living. When I went on trips during vacation or long-weekend excursions, I had a greater drive to explore and enjoy my time away.

Culture Shock Made Easy

Since I am of Hispanic descent, there wasn’t much of a culture shock. The passion for football extended to my family, so I ended up attending a match at every stadium of the eight La Liga teams based in Madrid and Valencia. I was even able to attend the trophy ceremony for Valencia CF’s triumph in the Copa del Rey, the Spanish domestic cup competition.

The lack of a language barrier also made it seamless to fit in. I didn’t have much of an opportunity to stand out as a foreigner. However, with my co-workers and their family and friends, it was always fun to let them introduce themselves in English. I would always follow in Spanish and leave them astonished. It meant I was able to meet everyone in a more personable fashion. They would ask me about my life in New York and how I was adapting. Meanwhile, I would ask them about their life in a small town.

teaching abroad

Looking Forward to a Future in Ontinyent

Alongside that, learning Valencian has helped a lot. Understanding a conversation between two native speakers, saying that I was taking classes, or just switching from Spanish to Valencian continually impressed people. They couldn’t believe a New Yorker was not only interested in their language but was making a serious effort to be proficient in it even as they considered it “useless for my future in the country.” Even today, weeks removed from Ontinyent, I still think in Valencian.   

I had an enjoyable year in Ontinyent, and I’ve met some of the most generous and accommodating people. Because I have traveled around so much, I’ve seen more of Spain in one year than most people I know who’ve had the opportunity to visit in all their years of living in Spain. While I have a hard time measuring how well I’ve integrated into my new town, it has been enough that a few months away is difficult for me. I am eagerly looking forward to my second year.”

An Expat Living and Working Abroad in Ontinyent, Spain

Edgar shares details about his first year abroad living and working in Ontinyent, Spain. He provides guidance for first-year teachers who are just arriving. Expat life is not easy. It can take longer than one expects. After having lived in the Ontinyent area for a year, Edgar feels as if he has made friends at work and started to better understand the language. He is trying his best to learn and understand Valencian and they appreciate his willingness to do so. It takes time. Sometimes expats live abroad for years and still don’t feel a sense of full familiarity within their new home. Edgar plans to try his best in his second year to understand the culture better by perfecting Valencian.

We look forward to hearing more about Edgar’s second year in Ontinyent. Stay tuned for his second update in the late fall. 

by Leesa Truesdell

Teaching Abroad Changes Your Life

 

teacher abroadRyan Gomez has been back in the US for about a month. Recently, we had the chance to catch up about his thoughts since being back home. He was overly enthusiastic per his usual self and really looking forward to starting a new career. Ultimately, the type of career Ryan wants is one that will give him flexibility and mobility while also providing a sense of accomplishment each day. Living in Spain and traveling opened Ryan’s eyes to the idea of having a non-routine within the workplace. For example, Ryan does not want to sit at a desk for eight hours each day. His time spent in Bocairent interacting with various people while doing different tasks helped him come to this conclusion.

Catch up with our last chat about teaching abroad in Bocairent, Spain.

Here are Ryan’s thoughts about his time in Bocairent:

What was the most important thing you learned while living abroad?

“No matter where you are in the world, most people face similar challenges and are aiming for similar goals. The “happiest” people I met in Spain were the ones with close familial ties and meaningful friendships. Having a sense of community and belonging to something bigger than yourself where everyone looks out for each other seems to lead to the most fulfilling lifestyles. Nobody cared what kind of car I drove (I didn’t have one) or what brand of clothing I wore (anything to keep me warm). What kept me getting invited to events and gatherings was my positive and appreciative attitude towards everyone I met. At least, that’s the impression I got.

On a personal level, the most important thing I learned while living abroad is that I know how to learn. I literally moved to another country where I didn’t speak the language and was able to survive and make some great connections. Learning Spanish was a day-by-day undertaking and it changes your life. Along with being immersed in it every time I walked out the door, I practiced on my own for at least 30 minutes to 1 hour each day. I wasn’t even trying to learn Valencian but managed to pull together a decent list of vocabulary and local sayings just by living around it.”

How have you done with accomplishing your goals while living in Bocairent?

“My time in Bocairent was something special and it will stay with me forever. I learned patience and the ability to feel comfortable in uncomfortable situations. The pace of life was a lot slower and gave me a lot of time to readjust my values system. However, when I initially applied for the program my goal was to meet my distant relatives and learn more about our ancestry.

On three different occasions, I was able to travel north and visit my Basque family in their town of Orduña. These were my favorite experiences. Along with traveling to the famous cities of Bilbao, San Sebastián, Burgos, and Guernica, they took me to some of the most popular restaurants in the northern provinces of Pais Vasco, Castille & Leon, and Cantabria. Some of the greatest meals I’ve ever eaten were in Northern Spain. I never thought I’d enjoy horse meat so much! And the fruit is on another level.”

In your pre-departure interview, you mentioned that the main goal of yours was to learn more about your family ancestry and see your family’s plot of land in Basque country. Were you able to do this? What was it like?

“My entire family tree and how mi abuelo ended up in the United States was all drawn out on paper and explained to me. I was even taken to the original Gómez house that has been in our family for almost 500 years! I sat on the same bench in front of the same church where my abuelo and his brother made their first communions over 70 years ago. As a history buff, that was pretty moving. I’ll always consider myself to be an American… but I felt something special in the Basque Country. I felt my roots.”

my families house and the family lineage paper
My family’s house and the lineage paper.

 

What has been the biggest challenge about living abroad and what advice would you give on how to deal with that challenge?

“The biggest challenge I faced while living abroad was being located in a remote, mostly isolated town with no definitive means of transportation. There wasn’t a train station and there were only two bus routes (only one of which had a schedule posted online) passed through once in the morning and once at night. To this day I still have no idea where Bus Navarro comes and goes from… a mystery left unsolved. Also, there wasn’t a local taxi service and very few BlaBlaCar drivers drove by our exit. For most of my traveling adventures outside of the Valle d’Albaida, I had to rely on my fellow teachers driving me to a train station. So the best advice I could give is to introduce yourself to all the teachers in your school as soon as you start!

You never know where a smile and casual conversation might take you. Remember, I was in a small town where most of the population had never even met an American before. My people were more than willing to lend help when they could. They knew I was alone, living in the middle of nowhere. You can’t be too afraid to ask for help. The experience changes your life. Also, if you are situated in a small village, try to be a “Yes-Man/Woman”. If you get invited to something… GO! The best way to get acclimated to your new home and learn the ways to “get around” is to expose yourself to as many experiences and people as you can early on.”

Do you have any advice for other auxiliars interested in traveling while teaching abroad?

“Obviously, you have to travel! And ideally, you don’t want to travel alone. The few sketchy situations I got caught up in were due to the fact that I was John Doe-ing around a major city by myself and got too comfortable with my surroundings in the later hours.

students giving teacher a present changes your life

In regards to international travel, I never left Spain while teaching abroad. I wanted to learn Spanish while living overseas… so leaving to go spend a long weekend in Paris or Rome wasn’t appealing to me. Also, although Spain is a relatively small country geographically, it’s not a very united one. The north has a completely different vibe and culture from the south, as well as the east and northeast. There are five different languages spoken in Spain, so there was plenty to see and do in the Iberian peninsula. Also, because of my transportation issues, I didn’t have enough time to travel to Madrid, fly to another country, feel the place out, and get back in time for work. Oh well, it just means I have a reason to go back for a second round in the future!”

How has teaching abroad helped with your overall professional goals?

“Confidence is everything and it changes your life. Living in an absorbing a new country, learning a new language, traveling to other towns and cities alone, getting LOST in the mountains and navigating my way out, seeing genuine love and laughter in little kids’ eyes… everything associated with this teaching abroad experience has done wonders for my self-confidence. I know I undertook something challenging that most people I know couldn’t or wouldn’t do. It’s given me a little spring in my step that’ll help me achieve my overall professional goals.”

What was your most memorable moment in class? How do you feel now that school is ending?

“There was one Chinese family living in my town and their son was in 1st grade. When I arrived at the school I noticed how lost and unengaged he seemed. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to speak a form of Mandarin and go to a school that speaks Valencian, while also being taught Spanish and English all in the same day. I get a headache just thinking about it.

He never did any of the activities correctly and rarely participated. On a random day, I happened to be spending extra time with him, and through the use of excessive finger-pointing and verrrryyyy sllloooowww talking, he finally understood what he was supposed to be doing. When he looked up, I could see the light bulb had just turned on in his head. He proceeded to go back in his book and completed the same activity for the previous chapters and showed me each time. He jumped and cheered when I said it was all correct. For the rest of the year, he always came to show me his work and he was just an overall more confident and happy kid. That was the coolest teaching moment I had all year and I’ll never forget that “light bulb look.” That’s why teachers are so damn important.

At the End of the Day…

students showing off art

Now that school has ended, I can’t really explain what I’m feeling. I know I don’t want to be a teacher anymore when I move back to South Florida, but I’m also grateful that I got to experience this and it changes your life. These kids, my school, and my fellow teachers were awesome. The past eight months were just really good for my soul. In the age of social media where children walk around with smartphones, depression, and prescription pills, I don’t think I’ll ever meet young people as happy and carefree as the ones at CEIP Lluis Vives… so I’m just thankful to know that they exist in the world.”

What will you miss most about Bocairent?

“The simplicity and slower pace of rural life. The fact that I never passed by somebody without exchanging words with them, even if just to acknowledge each other’s existence. Also, it was pretty fun being a foreigner for once! It was hard to get bored because I was always being exposed to new things.”

What will you be doing next when you move back to the United States?

“Teaching abroad in Bocairent has taught me the power of community and being a part of something bigger than myself. I know I could excel in some sort of sales position working for a random corporation selling people things they don’t really need… but that’s not me. It changes Your Life to want to continue a career in public service. I’m going to try to get into law enforcement when I move back to the United States. I think the skills I’ve acquired working in education and teaching abroad will serve me well in this endeavor.”

What is the most important tip you can give someone wanting to Teach Abroad?

“Aside from the obvious, “Don’t be afraid and just do it!” I’d advise them to think of some goals they’d want to accomplish while teaching abroad and write them down. They could be personal, professional, or both. They should read those goals every night before they go to bed and every morning when they wake up. At the end of each day, they should assess whether or not their actions got them closer to achieving those goals. If they didn’t, ask why. Traveling abroad changes your life in a positive way.”

bocairent spain city changes your life

Teaching Abroad Changes Your Life in so Many Ways

Ryan’s excursion abroad was unique in so many ways. He called my office at FSU asking about the paperwork needed for his Spanish visa. We became instant friends and he became a Dreams Abroad community member. I introduced him to our team in Spain for whatever help or guidance he might need while abroad and he was off.

His experience and time abroad have been very interesting to follow because he went with very specific goals in mind. And, of all of the teachers I have interviewed, I would have to say, he was focused, humble, and dedicated to his mission. I enjoyed this interview very much. I found his answer to question nine to be helpful, especially after doing my own teaching and studying abroad travels: “Read your goals every night and each morning when you wake up. At the end of each day, assess whether or not their actions got them closer to achieving their goals. If they didn’t, ask why.” This is great advice not only for someone living abroad but in general.

Thank you, Ryan, for allowing us to be part of your journey. We look forward to seeing your “What I Know Now” and reading your “Where Are They Now” articles in the future. Best of luck to you! If you would like to travel abroad you can do it. Living abroad changes your life forever so join our Facebook community to learn and ask questions.

by Leesa Truesdell