Keeping an Open Mind While Studying Abroad


Danes communityDanish words are having “A Moment,” with their ability to describe grandiose concepts in a few letters. When I was preparing to study in Copenhagen, “hygge” had just burst onto the scene. Most closely translated to “coziness,” you can now find hygge plastered onto a wide variety of floral candles and fuzzy socks, as I fearfully predicted from my room in Denmark while scrolling through profile after profile on the concept’s ingenious. The New Yorker even declared the year of my study abroad “The Year of Hygge.”

If coziness must be purchased, however, it is not truly hygge. For the Danes, hygge is a reflex: some lit candles here, wearing a warm sweater on a rainy day there, all topped off with making time in your day to do a little something that brings you peace. My host family practiced hygge through nightly family dinners, with lit candles at the head of the table each night. These dinners were the highlight of my evenings, full of conversation sprinkled with wit and wisdom to transition from the hectic day into a hygge night.

Often, we’d talk politics: the 2016 presidential primaries were beginning in the United States, which provided plenty to talk about. Describing his leanings, my host brother said he was considering switching political parties. “Why’s that?” I asked.

“Mine has become too feminist — they’re so radical.”

My face furrowed. My host brother, from the country lauded for its equitable policies, didn’t consider himself a feminist? It was a radical ideology to my host brother, who couldn’t see past its man-hating stereotypes even as Donald Trump demeaned women on live TV and continued to be taken seriously. Infuriated and insulted, I excused myself from dinner to go running, during the night in the middle of Scandinavian winter. Frostbite might be a nice distraction, I figured.

Culturally, coming to Denmark had been an easy shift for me. It was beneficial even: in a country that prioritizes work-life balance, I could easily put my racing mind on pause and focus on myself, rather than making comparisons to others as is inevitable at an ambitious university.

rooftops denmark

Designing Projects Abroad

My classwork at the Danish Institute for Study Abroad was different too. In lieu of nightly readings and papers, students received large-scale projects to focus on for the entire semester. Some of mine included designing and carrying out an activist campaign and conducting a mini-photo display crafted from three shoots of the same stranger. We were far from home. Our studies ensured we were digging deeper into our strange new surroundings, rather than simply collecting surface-level shots of them for social media.

Interacting and Learning about Locals

This philosophy included people as well. Each of my classes had me interacting with Danish strangers. Whether it was extensively as a focal point for the final project or quickly as a random interview subject, we were constantly interacting with the locals. We also met directly with primary sources for class themes through field trips across Europe. For my migration sociology class, one of the trips was to meet with the Sweden Democrats: a political party best known for their unapologetically nationalist stance on immigration with neo-Nazi influences. I felt appalled by their existence, let alone their growing support in Sweden. “Remember, deep breaths,” my host dad said, reminding me to keep a little hygge around before flying into an international incident-creating rage.

Those breathing exercises weren’t necessary. After the Sweden Democrats presented their party platform, my class and I burst into action with questions that dissected their views. We armed ourselves with passion reinforced by the statistics and stories we’d encountered in class. Although no minds changed that day, I left the meeting feeling satisfied. I could hold my own while speaking to someone with whom I so vehemently disagreed with without sacrificing my values.

Sweden Democrats Keeping an Open Mind

Building Communities and Having an Open Mind

My class spent the rest of the time in Sweden with groups doing work that I dream to one day be part of. It included integrating migrants into their communities, building connections between natives and newcomers, and providing legal support for refugees. However, after three years, coming face to face with the Sweden Democrats remains the most impactful part of my time in Copenhagen. With these other groups aiding migrants, our conversations were ones of admiration. To accomplish their missions, however, they need to thrive in a country where the Sweden Democrats had substantial support. They cannot crumble in the face of contradiction.

My Danish professors understood this. In most of my classes at my stateside university, students came together in railing against such viewpoints. However, we rarely discussed how we would respond to someone who held them face-to-face.

In Denmark however, one of my professors in particular embraced differences in opinion as an educational tool. Even though he made his leftist political views clear on the first day, he briefly wore the mask of a right-winger to incite conversation in class. “But what if I thought the migrants were stealing our jobs? What would you say to me?” he would ask, biting back with even more right-wing talking points when we’d answer him. In his class, I learned how to strengthen my ideas through putting them through the test of disagreement.

Prepare for Contradicting Ideas

Knowing how to confront disagreement is also vital to studying abroad successfully. Among all of my pre-departure meetings and checklists, I had failed to prepare for encountering ideas that contradicted my own beliefs. Even in my comfortable homestay, my first reaction to disagreement was to run away. Stereotypes of Denmark trapped me in a bubble that offered a faux-hygge, like that which is currently on-sale at some big-box suburban store or another across the US, that popped as soon as I was faced with something that contradicted it. I feel lucky to have participated in a program that pushed me out of my comfort zone in harmless situations and taught me how to thrive outside any sort of bubble. This is where true hygge begins to grow.

Deconstructing discomfort can begin at home, by learning more about the country where you will spend the next few months. Read the news, speak with natives of the country and with students who have recently returned. Take classes on topics that interest you. Prepare to hear answers to questions you may not like. Above anything, know yourself. While I can preach about my own experiences, everyone’s comfort zone is as different as their own experiences. Knowing where your comfort zone’s boundaries lay is understanding how to engage your surroundings. Know who and when to engage, and most importantly, from whom and when to step away. Protect your well-being above anything.

Ellen Hietsch riding a bike in CopenhagenIntentions Get Lost in Translation

Intentions lose themselves in translation as with any linguistic misunderstanding. Just as studying the language prevents you from constantly searching for the correct word, having a more complete knowledge of your host country can help separate the malicious from the miscommunicated. When my host brother talks about feminism, he does so having grown up in a country that has made greater progress than the US on more visible feminist issues, like equal pay and representation in government. I still disagree with him that Denmark has reached the feminist finish line. However, I now understand where his opinions come from. This opens the door for clearer, calmer conversation.

Keeping an Open Mind While Abroad

Knowing how to understand without justifying has helped me thrive in Denmark and beyond. I’ve continued navigating disagreement while living abroad in Madrid. It’s opened my mind, broadened my friendships, and strengthened rather than morphed my own beliefs through debate. I feel proud to say that I no longer run away from them through the park without gloves on cold winter nights: frostbite isn’t very hygge, after all.

by Ellen Hietsch


The Opportunity to Teach and Travel

by Ellen Hietsch

alex warhall hiking

For a second year in a row, Alex Warhall and I have found ourselves stateside as summer saunters into Madrid. While I’m admittedly glad to be away from the stifling heat, I miss the tranquility that sneaks into Madrid’s normally stuffed streets at the height of summer as most of the city flees to summits and seasides. “Eh, everyone leaves in the summer, you’re not missing much,” friends told me as I complained about being dragged back to the US by bureaucracy yet again. But Madrid in August will always be wondrous to me. It hearkens back to my arrival at the dawn of the month nearly two years ago. Read all about his second interview and teaching at a bilingual school in Madrid, Spain here.

I met Alex on our first day in the city. He appears in all of my most important memories of that magical August. A time when the nightly festivities and languid afternoons spooked away any anxieties we’d had. While aspects of our teaching experiences have diverged, our mindsets about living in Madrid have run parallel from year to year as we’ve grown more attached to the city. What Alex initially considered to be a year-long break from his career stateside has morphed into preparations to teach in Madrid for a third year. Alex has paused from his busy summer job mentoring international high school students in Boston to explain what led to this decision.

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

“The most important thing I’ve learned while living abroad is to enjoy as many moments as I can — good moments and more notably bad ones, too. Living abroad comes with highs and lows. On the one hand, I’ve had the opportunity to travel throughout Europe and beyond. I’ve met new people and built lifelong friendships. On the other hand, I’ve dealt with the stress of apartment hunting while speaking a foreign language. I’ve experienced those awkward lonely moments while solo traveling. I’ve also struggled with being far away from my family and friends back home.

Amid these highs and lows, I’ve seen real growth in myself. When I say that I enjoy the low moments, I don’t mean that I love being stressed out, awkward, or sad. Instead, I mean that I’ve learned to appreciate the moments when I step outside my comfort zone. I know that means I’m becoming the person I set out to be when I moved abroad.”

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

“I feel that I have done quite well in accomplishing my goals while living abroad. Living abroad itself has been a goal of mine for as long as I can remember. So that goal is checked off. Learning a foreign language has been another goal of mine. I’m certainly not fluent in Spanish yet. Nonetheless, I have made major progress for someone who has studied for only two years.

Another goal of mine has been to grow more comfortable with performing in public. This year, I proudly played my ukulele and sang at an open mic night with one of my best friends. I’m excited to continue playing at these events this upcoming school year. Lastly, at the age of 23, I told myself that I’d run a marathon by the time I was 25. This year, at the age of 26, I successfully completed my first marathon while in Madrid. Although I did it a year later than my target age, I am still very pleased with the result. In fact, I find it quite poetic that I ran 26 miles at the age of 26. Living in Madrid has given me the opportunity to accomplish many goals I set for myself. I’m excited to see what this year brings.” 

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 about living abroad for me is definitely the language barrier. Having never studied Spanish in my life until moving abroad, my time in Madrid has been one continuous Spanish lesson. Though I consider myself to be highly motivated when it comes to learning the language, I have my days where I am too tired to translate my thoughts into Spanish. Other days, I prefer to speak in English so that I can express myself more deeply. As a result, I will spend much of my time with my English-speaking friends (mostly because I love their company) because it’s more comfortable for me.

traveling abroad

However, I’ve realized that much of my personal growth in the language occurs when I put myself in uncomfortable situations like going out with my Spanish coworkers despite anticipatory thoughts such as, “What are we going to talk about all night? Will I speak in the correct tense?” My advice for dealing with this struggle is to be confident in the Spanish that you’ve developed, and accept that you may not speak or understand perfectly every time. Making mistakes is the best way to improve. If you do this, it is likely that you will put yourself in situations where you will be able to grow.” 

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

“My advice to other auxiliars who want to travel is to say, “yes.” If you’re unsure or hesitant about buying a ticket somewhere because it doesn’t exactly align with your budget for the month, say “yes.” Buy the ticket. If your coworkers invite you on a trip, but you were looking forward to staying in Madrid for the weekend, say “yes.” Every time I step off of a plane or train or bus and into a new city, I am always glad I decided to say “yes” to that opportunity. If you’re living abroad and you love to travel, but you find yourself hesitating on a destination for some reason, say “yes” to it. I’ve never regretted going anywhere, and I doubt you will. Sometimes it is a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

How has teaching abroad helped with your overall professional goals?

“I originally arrived in Madrid, Spain back in August 2017. I had just left behind my job as a copywriter in New York in pursuit of travel and good memories. Professional goals were not my main concern at the time. However, after spending two full school years working with the same students, I’ve realized that I enjoy teaching young children my native language. With this realization, I have been taking my job as an educator more seriously. As a result, I’ve improved my classroom management and lesson planning skills. It has become apparent that my main reason for returning to Spain is not for travel anymore (which I still do and value highly). Rather, it is to enhance my abilities as an educator. Truly, teaching abroad has raised my interest in pursuing a career in education.”

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

“My sixth grade students and I worked on a performance for their graduation this year. During the final weeks of the school year, the students practiced singing the song “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” while I accompanied them on the ukulele. After two weeks of rehearsal, we performed the song at graduation in front of their families and friends. It went incredibly well despite the fact that we mumbled one of the verses to the song. At the end of the day, I think we captured the mood of the song by laughing it off together. This performance, to me, was the culmination of all the great times those sixth graders and I had spent in class together. I feel a little sad, but mainly proud. After two school years of working with them, I was proud to be part of their graduation.”

picture of spain

Since you are staying in Spain another year, will you be teaching at the same school? How do you feel about that?

“I will be teaching at the same school next year, making it my third consecutive year at this school. I’m really excited to return for a couple of reasons. The first reason is that I get the chance to reconnect with my coworkers that are also returning. The second reason is that I will get to see the growth and development of the students that I have been working with for the past two school years.” 

What is the most important piece of advice you can give someone wanting to Teach Abroad?

“For anyone who wants to give teaching abroad a try, I think it’s important to remember to keep an open mind and limit your expectations. Jump at the opportunity to teach abroad. I learned about Teach Abroad from a friend. When he described the program to me, I was excited to have a similar experience. After I got my school placement and started my job, I quickly realized that my experience was going to different than my friend’s. For example, he was teaching business professionals and only taught three sessions per day. This resulted in a schedule with more free time than mine. I found that my expectations definitely differed from reality. Nonetheless, I found that keeping an open mind allowed me to see the benefits that my school offered rather than fixate on what I didn’t have. 

I have a two hour lunch break where I can practice my Spanish and connect with my coworkers. I also get easy access to tutoring jobs in the neighborhood where I work. Fortunately, I don’t have to bounce around from neighborhood to neighborhood to give lessons in business English. If you’re someone who has discovered Teach Abroad through a friend, just remember that their experience — whether good or bad — will not be your experience. They can give you an idea of what to expect. However, don’t be surprised if your experience is totally different. In all likelihood it will be. Your experience will be unique in many ways that are personal to you. And that’s the beauty of Teach Abroad.”

The Opportunity to Teach and Travel

Alex is a determined person who has found a home in Madrid that fosters the realization of his dreams. After witnessing first-hand the journeys that his open-minded attitude made possible and further understanding his poignant philosophies through our conversations, I’m excited to see what year three holds for him.
If you would like to the opportunity to teach while traveling, connect with our facebook group to ask questions.
mountain view the opportunity to travel and teach

Cafés Are Much More Than Coffee

What is the defining feature of a Madrid café? Trick question, they charm their admirers with their personality instead of their looks. Maybe it’s something about their facade, say a tranquil terrace or cozy work space, that draws people in for their initial cup. However, it’s the ambiance that drives people to sneak little visits in between obligations and stick around all afternoon.

Prior to living in Madrid, I knew that cafés would be a big part of my life. As a former university barista, cafés have always been a usual haunt of mine. Whether visiting the best café in town while traveling for my internship or finding an escape in Midtown Scholar’s labyrinth of books with an iced latte in hand, there’s a good chance I’m hiding in a café somewhere. Sometimes the campus squeezed my spirit just a little too tight after returning from my study abroad. That was when a visit was necessary.

Midtown Scholar was one of many little coffee gems in Harrisburg. Harrisburg is a small city half an hour outside my university. The city originally never captured my interest, that is, until the coffee cart for which I worked started roasting beans from its crown jewel, Little Amps. Now, when I  think about driving my little grey Ford Focus over the Susquehanna toward an afternoon at the coffee shops, it fills me with nostalgia.

Adapting to International Cafés


My café travelings easily adapted to my life in Spain. After finding lodging and transport while traveling, my next question is always, “What is the best coffee shop in this city?” I will then dedicate a day to appreciating it as I would the Harrisburg classic: writing in my journal with an Americano by my side, as I listen for songs to add to my trip playlist. I have my fun elsewhere, of course, but the centerpiece each city offers for me is its café experience.

Yet, I never could have guessed that cafés would be so vital to my desire to make Madrid my home, rather than just another stop on the road. Madrid’s cafés are similar enough to those I was attached to in Harrisburg. This is especially so as specialty coffee from around the world has become more widespread. Think twice before calling them all carbon-copy hipster clones, however. There is a unique spirit to each Madrid café that I have not found anywhere else I’ve enjoyed a coffee.

While the traditional Madrid café will have familiar individual tables for visitors to hold court with their friends, there is also openness in how it’s laid out. There are some patterns: a large table for people to set up with their laptops for the day, a set of stools, or, as is the case in places like Hola Coffee, a staircase sprinkled with books and plants. In a twist on the cliché European outdoor seating that we all crave as the sun strikes down with spring’s coming, Master’s café (my favorite of the moment), has designed a central outdoor terrace decorated with old children’s toys and indoor furniture adapted for this brick-walled wonderland.

coffee in madrid cafés

What Makes Madrid Cafés Unique

Maybe these borderless spaces were first designed for the benefit of the worker, who comes to the café laptop in hand, ready to accomplish. I’ve certainly grown to work best at cafés since moving to Madrid. As a side effect of these open spaces, conversation flows when individuals are brought together by the convenience of space. Many of these workers aren’t so engulfed in their projects that they can’t share a conversation; it’s something that feels more normal in Spain’s outdoor social jungle than the United States’ habit of sticking to what — and who — you know.

On days that I’ve entered a café with a long “Mission List,” I’ve had meaningful moments with strangers. Interactions can range from smirks with the man next to me about the barista’s political conversation, to a lasting friendship that started when I asked a girl if her chapstick was Burt’s Bees.

night madrid café

The social scene: that is what truly prevents any Madrid café from being identical to another. I got hints of this on my first-ever walk around the city after arriving. The owner of a bookshop offered me a bit of the green tea she had just made, just because she felt like sharing it. It was such a surprise to me that I texted my family about it, wondering what made me so special.

drinking coffee cafés

Nothing, it turns out, but that was fine. This is simply what happens at Madrid cafés. Smiles alone are not a satisfactory enough welcome to newcomers; you wouldn’t greet your flatmate like that, would you? With repeated visits, however, the relationships formed at the café can grow into something greater.

Home Away From Home

Take my first Madrid stomping grounds, La Bicicleta. I was initially drawn in by the bike theme and enchanted by the lemon-infused cold brew. However, what got me back four times during my first week alone was their head chef. Among many a café where someone had started a conversation with me, his hangover cures and dos besos advice stood out. Eventually, Bici became a second home as I felt comfortable staying for hours on end multiple days in a row. I’d be greeted with an excited “ELLENNNNN” by baristas on staff. Waitresses simply asked “americano or ginger tea” once they had memorized my favorites. Sometimes, I’d be given a free coffee in exchange for letting a barista play my ukulele for the entire café. Amidst a few massive moves across Madrid over the past two years, Bici has remained consistent.

Cafés Are Much More Than Coffee

The Future of Cafés

Lately, I’ve been a little fearful as I’ve seen entire sections of cafés reserved for brunchers. The laptop crew has been relegated to certain corners in a few cafés that have part of my heart. I worry they will eventually become as regimented as the American ones. Although I still love them, they do not come with side dishes of warmth and friendship. Although I enjoy avocado as much as the next millennial, if these brunch specials mean having to sacrifice long afternoons laughing with spontaneously-made friends, I will pass, please and thank you. I like cooking enough to make some bomb egg dishes in my own apartment.

For now, I will always make time in my week for some café time. I am armed with anything that will help me enjoy a radically balanced life. I’m grateful for the confidence those early café-hopping days have given me. I’m the one smiling at strangers now. It’s helped me to pay forward the kindness that let Madrid capture my heart.

cafés sign filter coffee

by Ellen Hietsch

Teaching Abroad at a Bilingual School in Madrid, Spain

by Ellen Hietsch

Alex Warhall remains a ubiquitous presence during our second year teaching at a bilingual school in Madrid: my flatmates and I have discussed clearing our mini dining room so that he can sleep there, so he can constantly bring us joy with his ukulele freestyling and delicious dinners. It’s no surprise that such creativity has helped him shine as an auxiliar in his return to the primary school where he worked last year. Read all about his first teaching abroad interview here.

Amongst our bops between barrios and open mic night debuts over the past few months, Alex and I have rarely talked about work in depth – unless it was for him to beam with pride about a video project he’d developed and directed. Our conversations are chaotic curiosities, jumping from considering the profound to a stream of Documentary Now references in a matter of minutes. We recently found the chance to catch up on the depths of Year Two at his Getafe Primary School. This is the conversation that followed:

What is a typical day at your school like?

“My schedule is different every day. While I can generally forecast the basic outline for my week, it’s challenging to predict my daily schedule. Surely, I know which classes I will be going to, but what I will be doing in those classes varies. My most consistent tasks during the day are guiding speaking exercises, proctoring oral exams, correcting students’ writings, or playing the role of “examiner” in the mock PET exams. If I had to pinpoint a typical daily occurrence at my school, I would say that during morning break and lunchtime I learn a new Spanish phrase from my coworkers (I would share some of these phrases, but they tend to be inappropriate).

These consistencies aside, there are often more surprises in my day. Some days I arrive at school and find out that I’m going on an excursion. Other days, I’m asked to help students practice their dance routine for Carnival. For the whole month of November, I was directing, filming, and editing introduction videos that we later shared with a fellow school in Madrid. These surprises are what make my days so exciting and my school so fun.”

Bilingual School in Madrid Spain classroom group students

How many people do you work with (auxiliaries included)? How many classes do you teach?

“When I began the school year in October, there were only two auxiliaries—including myself (both American). Because our bilingual coordinator wanted to equally distribute the native English in each of the six grades, we didn’t have overlapping classes during this time. Then, after the New Year, our school gained two additional auxiliaries (both Australian). With these additions, my schedule was revised. Now, I have the pleasure of working with all three of the auxiliares at my school. My revised schedule also has me working with three different classroom teachers: the third, fifth, and sixth-grade teachers. When I’m working with these teachers, I rarely ever run the classroom. Instead, I conduct speaking activities with small groups that reinforce the teacher’s lesson plan or prepare the students for the upcoming Cambridge English exam.”

Are you forming working relationships with coworkers?

“Definitely! This is my second year teaching at my school. Last year, I worked with such kind and sociable people. Unfortunately, they didn’t have permanent positions and, as a result, didn’t end up at the same school. So when I thought about the upcoming school year and the new teachers joining us, I wondered if I would bond with them the same way that I did with those from last year. I soon discovered that the new teachers were also friendly and easy to work with. I’m really grateful for my coworkers and appreciative of the culture at our school, which fosters friendships among coworkers. Some of my best nights out in Madrid have been with my coworkers—from going out dancing to eating churros at St. Gines while waiting for the first Metro to arrive at 6:30 AM.”

Are you forming bonds with students? Does the school foster the creation and maintenance of these relationships inside and outside the classroom?

“Yes, absolutely. I would say my school fosters the maintenance of these relationships inside and outside of the classroom. I spend a lot of my time working with small groups. During these sessions, I have the opportunity to learn more about my students’ interests. It probably goes without saying, but many of my students love Real Madrid fútbol, which is also my favorite soccer team. Often times, we will chat about the previous night’s match, reliving the highlight-worthy goals or complaining about the devastating blunders.

Abroad in Spain

A few of my students share my affinity for the Marvel Comic Book movies. Whenever we’ve seen the latest film, we’ll have informal discussions about it. One of my students enjoys reenacting his favorite scenes. The most impressive part of that is that he does it in English! I also love playing basketball. Whenever the weather is nice and I’m wearing the right gear, I’ll join the students during playground time for a game—it’s the only time I’m the tallest person on the court (and not by much). I’ll sometimes pause the game to teach basketball fundamentals—some students like this and others prefer that I don’t interrupt the game. Either way, we have fun.

Outside of the classroom, I have been invited to students’ gymnastics competitions and fútbol matches, some of which I have attended. I’m very grateful for these moments because I think it improves the teacher-student relationship inside the classroom. I get to see how they behave in a setting where maybe they’re more focused, doing something they’re passionate about. On top of this, they get to see me in a more casual setting and understand that I care about their lives outside of the classroom.”

What is your favorite part of the day? Why?

“As I’ve mentioned before, my class schedule is different each day so I don’t actually have a favorite part of each day, but I do have a favorite part of the week! Every Wednesday and Thursday, I do a language exchange with Mario, the secretary at my school. He is very motivated to speak English fluently and his energy is contagious. The topics of discussion are plentiful and varied. I always walk away from these intercambios having laughed a bunch and learned something new. When my weekend ends that fateful Monday evening, I genuinely look forward to these intercambio sessions. Indeed, these twice-weekly intercambios have drastically improved my Spanish. Thus, they have also improved the quality of my time in school and in Madrid as a whole. I’ve gotten to know my coworker’s way better as a result and I’ve been able to meet more people in Madrid.”

How is the material being taught to students? Is there a specific method being used?

Alex Warhall Abroad“Every teacher has their own style and methods. I work with teachers that have remarkable classroom control and are able to give an attention-grabbing lecture whereby the students—hanging on every word—simply listen, laugh, and take notes. Other teachers who work with me are integrating technology into their lessons. They show educational videos or use interactive games on the smartboard. I also work with teachers who read directly from the textbook, which sometimes works and sometimes bores the students. I think the best teachers are able to read the energy of their students. They teach their lesson in a way that matches said energy. For example, the students typically have a lot of residual energy left from playground time and typically need some time to decompress. One teacher that I work with will read them a short story so that they can just relax and listen.”

How do you prepare your lessons for each class? If you don’t plan lessons, how do you prepare for class?

“At my school, I’m not responsible for planning lessons. Occasionally, a teacher will ask me to give a presentation, prepare a song on my ukulele, or tell a story for the class. In this case, I will take the time I feel is needed to prepare something of quality. If I haven’t been asked to prepare something, then I won’t. Not out of laziness, but because my teachers are always well-prepared. Most days, just before class starts, the teacher will tell me what they would like me to do with the students during the day and then provide me with the materials to accomplish their objective.”

Do you work at a bilingual school? What does that mean to you? What does that mean according to the community of Getafe?

“I do work at a bilingual school. To me, it means speaking English. Always. Occasionally, the students ask me to say “Hola” or “Que tal” or some other Spanish words and phrases. Nonetheless, my job is to continue speaking English with them no matter what—even if they have a low English level. The reason I do so is that if they think that I know any Spanish at all, then they may stop relying on their English skills to communicate with me. To the community of Getafe, “bilingual” means teaching every class in English, except for math and language. It also means speaking English with the students in the hallways, on the playground, and even when disciplining.”

What standards are your classroom teachers using to measure the performance of their students?

city valencia spain“I’m not entirely sure what standards my classroom teachers are using because it’s rarely a topic of discussion between us. However, the work we do with the 5th and 6th graders is aimed at preparing them for the Cambridge Preliminary English Exam (PET). We have been giving them mock exams at the school. I’ve been responsible for evaluating their performances in the four categories of the exam: reading, listening, writing, and speaking. The marks I give them are based on the standards set forth by the Cambridge University English Assessment.”

Does your school have a set of shared goals and expectations for what knowledge and skills will help their students succeed?

“Whether or not my bilingual school in Madrid has a written document spelling out the shared goals and expectations, I’m not certain, but I do have a strong sense that there are three general goals: build their confidence in English, prepare them for secondary school, and show them how to be well-rounded adults. We build their confidence in English by constantly immersing them in the language. To enhance their language learning, we prepare them for secondary school by giving them frequent exams and homework every night. We also teach them useful study habits that will help them manage their time and be self-reliant. Finally, we show them how to be well-rounded adults by emphasizing manners and kindness inside and outside of the classroom.”

Looking back at our first Teach Abroad interview, what have you learned most about yourself since your arrival to Spain and/or Europe both in the classroom and out of the classroom?

“In the classroom, I’ve learned that I struggle with classroom control and discipline. This year, I’ve had a particularly challenging time getting through to the fifth graders. On the whole, they are eager and enthusiastic students. As with any class though, there are a select few who have disinterested attitudes. Getting them to participate, or even listen quietly for that matter, can be an overwhelming task.

As a generally kind-hearted and relaxed person, I find it difficult to dole out punishments, and when I do, it’s hardly convincing. Granted, I’m not expected to discipline at my school. However, I want to be able to help my classroom teachers manage their class when they need it. There are a few talented disciplinarians at my school. I’ve been observing their interactions with the students in hopes of improving in this aspect. Although, I think my reputation among the students as a “funny” assistant will ultimately prevent me from earning their obedience when it comes to discipline.

Outside of the classroom, I’ve learned to let go of my insecurities when it comes to speaking Spanish. I think in the past I’ve missed out on having a lot of great conversations and meeting a lot of cool people because I feared my Spanish wasn’t good enough. I was too fastidious when it came to speaking correctly that I just avoided speaking Spanish altogether. Now, I seek out situations where I can speak Spanish, knowing that what I’m saying is probably imperfect, but understood nevertheless. Consequently, my command of the language has improved and my vocabulary increased. I guess I learned to accept, even appreciate, the failings because those moments are what foster learning.”

What I Learned From This Interview Teaching Abroad at a Bilingual School in Madrid, Spain

Having had a difficult relationship with my school in my auxiliar days, I was jealous when Alex told me about his intercambios and freedom to utilize his creative talents in the classroom. Teaching in a bilingual school in Madrid definitely has so many positives! He has a talent for connecting with everyone he meets that shines at his school too. Combined with his easy adaptiveness to the ever-bouncing expectations of the auxiliar, Alex and his school mutually thrive from the other’s presence. It wouldn’t surprise me if his students were are as thrilled to spend time with him as my friends and I are.

Thanks for sharing, Alex! We at Dreams Abroad are looking forward to your final update at the end of the school year.


Teaching Abroad in Madrid, Spain

by Ellen Hietsch

Meeting Alex my first week in Madrid set the stage for an exciting year. After missing the last metro of the night, we navigated back to our hotel together, only breaking from the conversation in order to sing songs we’d realized we both like. I knew quickly he was someone I’d want to be friends with.

Having fallen in love with traveling in college, Alex decided to give living abroad a shot. He decided to teach English in Spain. His outgoing personality was a natural fit both at the primary school where he works and while getting to know Madrid. Alex and my experiences at our respective schools have been quite different, but our similar passion for Madrid has strengthened our friendship. Curious about his thoughts heading into his second year of teaching, I decided to ask Alex some questions about his teach abroad experience. These are his answers.

Why did you choose to come to Spain and/or Europe?

“In the spring of 2012, I left the United States for the first time and visited Barcelona for a week-long vacation. This experience greatly broadened my worldview. Experiences like seeing the Sagrada Familia church, getting lost in the ungridded streets, drinking beer legally for the first time, snoozing next to the splendid sounds of park fountains, and yes, falling in love with a girl made me realize, for the first time, that there are so many incredible things to see in this world and so many different ways to live life.

Traveling immediately became my passion. I wanted to learn about the world and the countries in it by experiencing life in those places. After this trip, I went to Paris, Florence, Venice, Rome, Napoli, Dublin, London, Edinburgh, and Prague. I enjoyed being in these places, but while there, I never felt that same revitalizing feeling of novelty and excitement that I felt in Barcelona. I suppose my return to teach abroad in Spain has to do with recapturing that sensational feeling.”

barcelona sunset teach abroad alex warhall

Why did you choose to teach abroad?

“My decision to teach abroad was rooted in my love for traveling. I had visited many European cities on vacation, but I had never studied or lived abroad before. I wanted to take my passion for travel to the next level and live overseas. Teaching English in Madrid provided me with the opportunity to create a life in a foreign city with a job that sounded fun and rewarding.”

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

alex warhall friend traveling teacher overseas“I have never taught in a classroom setting before. When I was a teenager, however, I spent five consecutive summers in my home state of Connecticut teaching children (ages five to fourteen) how to canoe and kayak. From this experience, I was confident that I would enjoy working with younger kids in a classroom because I liked their natural energy and curiosity. Right before moving abroad, I was working as a pharmaceutical copywriter for an advertising agency in New York City.”

What did you think teaching in Spain would be like? Where are you teaching?

“I thought teaching English as a second language in Spain would be challenging, but also rewarding. Even before I went to Spain, I found that it wasn’t always easy to communicate with adults, even though we both spoke the same language! Therefore, I surmised it would be even more challenging to communicate with primary school students whose mother tongue is different than mine. I also thought it would require enthusiasm. Young children tend to have approximately thirteen solar-orbits worth of natural, unrepressed energy (fact, not verified). It is my experience that matching their energy is an effective way to keep their attention.

I am currently teaching at a primary school in a small town outside of Madrid called Perales Del Rio. I work with most of the grades at the school, from second to sixth, and it has been verified that these primary school students do indeed have thirteen solar-orbits worth of natural, unrepressed energy, on a daily basis.”

spain architecture church cathedral teach alex warhall

What assumptions or expectations did you have before you came here?

“My mother once told me, “Never assume anything because it makes an ‘ass’ out of ‘u’ and ‘me.’” This motherly wisdom has always been a guiding principle in my life. This is especially so during those times when I have embarked on new journeys. I honestly had no assumptions or expectations before moving to teach abroad in Madrid. This helped me keep an open mind to the novelties of the city and its culture.”

What are your perceptions of Madrid so far?

“My perception of Madrid is that it has so much to offer everyone. Also, the locals are very helpful and friendly. With these two perceptions in mind, I would say that Madrid is an inclusive city, at least in my experience. If you want to relax, you can enjoy one of the many parks here. Personally, I liked sauntering through Parque Retiro or running through Parque Oeste. If you want to go out, you can stay out until the time when you normally wake up. And that’s still probably too early for a Madrileño. Typically, when I am out late and the metro lines have closed, I take shelter at San Gines — the 24-hour service chocolatería — until the metros reopen. You can do these things all while making friends with the Madrileños.”

What are your goals while you are here?

teach abroad goals tips blog

I have many goals, but the main ones are not to make too much of a fool of myself while I try to learn Spanish, make friends along the way, and explore as much of Spain as I can.

What has been the most difficult since you arrived?

“The most difficult thing about my teach abroad experience has been staying committed to the process of learning Spanish. This particular difficulty is odd because the Spanish language is everywhere. It permeates the air. Yet, there are also many native English speakers living in Madrid. So much so, I often find myself spending more time with other English-speakers. Because I spend my time either teaching English or hanging out with my American friends, learning Spanish has been a challenge. I know that this isn’t the best way to improve my Spanish skills. To help, I take a weekly Spanish class (with my American friends, of course) and try to participate in intercambio events. But hey, poco a poco, right?”

What has been the best experience?

“This is a tough question because it seems like every day I find something new about my teach abroad experience that I appreciate greatly. Some days, I can make someone laugh using my limited Spanish skills. Whenever I get something right enough for my joke to come through, I swell with pride. Other days, I travel to a distant area of Spain and maybe take a dip in a thermal bath. Their thermal baths make me marvel at just how many “hidden” gems Spain has waiting to be discovered.

alex warhall mountains traveling blog goals madrid

There are some days I simply go for a walk in a park and I’m overtaken by equanimity. Other days a co-worker will ask me about the English language and why we say certain things. This forces me to think about my own language and ultimately say, “Hmmm. English makes no sense.”

How do you feel about your integration into the Spanish culture so far?

“From a physical perspective, I look the part of a Spanish twenty-something: I pierced my nose, grew my hair out, and bought tighter fitting clothing. I look so Spanish that I am often asked questions about where things are: “¿Dónde está la jháf kudhígkh slwöøocnhf?” My answer, in butchered Spanish, is, “Sorry. Could you repeat that slowly? My Spanish is very limited.” From a linguistic standpoint, my integration needs more work. Seriously though, poco a poco.”

never stop learning teach abroad traveling

Wrap Up

Having spent the weeks leading up to my first year in Madrid fairly anxious, I admire Alex’s open-mindedness about his teach abroad experience. His ability to dive into new experiences with a smile and no assumptions has led to a fulfilling life abroad that will only continue to develop in the year to come. Check back in the months to come for more updates from Alex!

cityscape spain madrid teach abroad


Madrid Was Transformative to My Life Abroad

by Ellen Hietsch

living abroad madrid spain ellen hietsch sunflowers learning

Year one in Madrid was transformative to my life abroad and in ways, I couldn’t have imagined. One of the activities I could do consistently throughout the year was to journal anywhere I could sit down. I’m excited to finally start organizing these thoughts by sharing my insights about living abroad on Dreams Abroad!

Last summer, I viewed my year of teaching in Madrid as a stepping stone toward a career in international education. It is a goal that has only strengthened with time. My expectations for the year were mostly centered around this path. There is, however, so much that I hadn’t considered. It has led to a year that I often describe as “unexpected.” Through a sometimes chaotic, but always rewarding year, I am proud of the person I have become.  

Here are five of the most important lessons I learned during my life abroad:

Don’t Hide From Confrontation

“If there’s one common thread through all of my personal conflicts in Madrid, it is that I avoided confrontation in each one. I have always struggled with directly confronting issues. Unfortunately, being the only American in a foreign environment capitalized this anxiety. Unsure of whether my concerns were genuine or just a result of a cultural difference, I pushed them behind smiles until my conflicts reached breaking points.

what i know now My Life Abroad

After I finally gained the courage to confront a co-worker about a situation I perceived as unfair, I realized that the roots of my anxiety about confrontation could actually be solved by… confrontation. In doing so, the two of us spoke about the situation amicably.

Being open and politely honest about a situation from the beginning prevents dams of pent-up emotions from forming. When confronted early on, miscommunications are more likely to be solved in a level-headed manner that leaves all parties satisfied. Ever since I grew comfortable with honest confrontation, I have had stronger, more trusting friendships. I can more easily see others’ perspectives when I am not blinded by my own strong emotions.”

Everything is a Learning Experience During My Life Abroad

“If you ask my friends and family what the worst thing you can say to me while I believe my entire world is burning is, they will say five words: “everything is a learning experience.” I’m aware of how true it is, hence why I’ve included it — but damn, learning experiences can be exhausting. Sometimes I just want to take a nice, little, self-pity nap for a bit, ya feel? I can reflect after a few hours of listening to Pink Floyd and living off of corner store candy.

Teaching books and supplies

When I say “everything,” I don’t just mean every bad experience, either. No, I mean literally everything — the good, the hysterical, the floating-on-air — everything. While I can identify a few big moments that exemplify my growth, I didn’t become equipped to approach them properly overnight. After difficult days at work, the positive outlooks and coping mechanisms I gained through spending time with my Madrid friends kept me balanced. In turn, having succeeded at work through independence and self-reliance helped me tackle much larger challenges, such as when I was mugged.  

Looking back on my year, I can’t think of a single significant memory that didn’t change my outlook over my time in Madrid. The accumulation of all my friendships and experiences gave me insight. It has allowed me to become someone who can be resilient through challenges big and small.”

Hang On Tight to the Little Things

map learning“There’s a quote from the Netflix series Master of None that I have hanging on my wall in Madrid: “You can’t just expect a big, roaring fire right away, right… you start with the small stuff… kindling.” While it refers to romantic relationships in the series, I have taken to finding kindling in every positive moment of my daily life. Sometimes, I take time to simply write down everything that is bringing me joy at the moment in my journal. I write about specific things that I love about my friends and little Madrid details that stand out to me. My “Kindling Lists” carry me forward when I feel trapped or afraid.  

Small things have the potential to build up into something significant. They can become “a big, roaring fire.” In the fray of chaos and change, while living abroad, the little things that bring happiness are often taken for granted or even overlooked. So much of our experiences are going to waste when we only focus on the large and emotional. Collecting small bits of positivity regularly can be a means of staying grounded when something larger seems out of control. If you take the time to acknowledge them, eventually you won’t even need to make the effort to find them.”

Be Reflective

“During my first few weeks in Madrid, I was met with many of the same challenges I had encountered in college. Determined to not repeat my past mistakes, I found solace in long walks through Retiro Park with my journal. Even as I moved multiple times, the habit stuck, and I now have four full journals.

While I will always rave about writing, it’s not the only way to reflect upon your time abroad. I have friends who used photography and music to document their time in Madrid. There are also one-second video apps that allow you to see how your time has progressed through small snippets of your most important memories. For me, even something like Spotify is vital to my reflection process. Whenever I am having strong feelings, I make a playlist.

sunflowers fields

However you choose to do so, being reflective will help you gain as much as you can from being abroad. In the moment, it can help with processing changes. In the future, you will have something to look back upon that evokes an important period of your life.”

Embrace Yourself and Everyone Around You

“I struggled with self-confidence throughout most of college. Actually, part of what drew me to pursue a career in international education was that my confidence was finally beginning to grow when I left the U.S. for the first time to study abroad in Denmark. For the first time since I was young, I felt at ease. This allowed me to be my authentic self around my friends and my host family. It’s no coincidence that I still count my Denmark circle among my closest friends.

In Madrid, this confidence not only continued to grow but overtook me. I no longer recognize the shy, scared girl I was in college. Putting up a front for everyone you meet is exhausting, and prevents authentic friendships from developing. I’ve found that allowing my whole personality to shine makes it easier to connect with a wider variety of people, instead of a small set I might be trying to fit in with. In the real world, the little boxes of college cease to exist. Madrid was the best place to learn this: the majority of the people I met, both expats and locals, were open-minded and friendly. I met interesting people everywhere I went. This built a mindset in which everyone that I met was a potential friend. After I had set this goal and succeeded many times, my fear of being myself all but disappeared.

I still have bursts of self-doubt sometimes, but having this year to look back upon calms them more quickly than any tactic I’ve used in the past. Madrid has shown me that authenticity is the best path to happiness. My life abroad has just begun and I cannot wait to where it takes me.”

Teach English in Spain

In the spring of her senior year in college, Ellen Hietsch decided to apply to teach English in Spain. After an incredible study abroad experience, she was eager to see how living and working abroad could continue to broaden her horizons and her options moving forward. Ellen was excited to challenge herself personally and professionally and engage with the world in new ways.

Ellen and I met for the first time in Madrid – surprising as we both attended the same small, liberal arts college in Pennsylvania, studied similar subjects, and both studied abroad in Denmark (admittedly at different times). The similarities don’t stop there, though. Imagining that we had similar motivations for teaching abroad in Spain, I asked her for some of her thoughts on the process and her experience thus far. These were her answers.

teach english in spain

Why did you choose to come to Spain/Europe?

“After a life-changing experience studying abroad in Denmark, I started considering a career in international education during my senior year at uni. I had a background in Spanish from high school and was put in contact with Emma. She raved to me about her teaching program, so I decided to apply and was accepted. I had lived in the same small town my whole life and was feeling the reverse culture shock after living in Copenhagen. Plus, I had wanted to live in a large city after graduating. A placement in Madrid was perfect!”

What are your goals while you are here?

“I want to strengthen my Spanish language skills. I’ve made… mixed progress (I may be cringing right now after dangerously messing up a verb tense while talking to a Spanish friend at my favorite cafe a few minutes ago. What’s living abroad without a little public embarrassment?). I’ve definitely improved since arriving in August though, and am feeling more confident speaking about deeper topics in Spanish! Learning a language through immersion has helped me in other unexpected ways as well. It has given me patience in the classroom. Plus, I’m more patient with personal projects I would have easily given up on in the past.

Have you ever taught before? If not, what was your career field?

Unless you count tutoring some children while I was at uni, I had never taught before. I’m interested in pursuing a master’s degree in international education however. Working with students will definitely be something I do in the long run.

What did you think teaching in Spain would be like? Where are you teaching?

“I am teaching at IES La Fortuna in Leganés. When I found out I would be working at a secondary school, I was excited. After the excitement, there were a few flashbacks to my middle school horror stories. It has ended up being nothing like my nerves had expected however. I love being able to work with older students who have a higher English level. I am able to form deeper connections with them. The younger students especially are so full of joy every day too, and it’s the sweetest thing.”

What are your perceptions of Madrid so far?

Ellen at her favorite Madrid cafe.

Oh man, I’m in love with Madrid. It’s huge, but so easy to make your own. I love  being remembered in my regular cafés each time I walk into them. When the crowds get a little much, it’s easy to sneak off to a side street where you will be the only one wandering around. I just bought a bike. I am so excited to use it once it gets warmer and I can discover even more of this wicked city.”

What assumptions or expectations did you have before you came here?

Having such a seamless transition when I studied abroad was both a blessing and a curse. It left me excited to be gaining experiences outside of the United States again. I was also open-minded to whatever came my way. However, I don’t think that I ever considered how challenging living abroad would be when not at a school with all American students. When I was at my most homesick, I often found myself making unfair comparisons between Madrid and Copenhagen. I had assumed that this would be an easy transition as well. I am able to stop myself from doing this now that I have found more balance. One assumption that luckily turned out to be easier than expected, however, was making friends. It actually comes a lot easier for me here than at uni.

What has been the most difficult since you arrived to teach English in Spain?

While coming to Madrid through CIEE gave me an American support group, especially in the first few months, I am the only American at the school in which I am working. This can be an anxious experience, as I have to be constantly considering culturally appropriate responses when resolving workplace conflicts as well as the usual challenges of navigating relationships with co-workers. I am a non-confrontational person in general, but at work, it can be largely driven by fear of “messing up,” which is something I have had to constantly work through for the sake of doing the best job that I can for the students. I genuinely love working with all my classes, and they are a driving force for me to be consciously improving myself.

What has been the best experience?

It may sound ridiculous, but going to my favorite café a few times a week is the best decision I have made here. I always regretted not branching out from American groups more in Denmark, and spending a few days a week at this cafe has given me the opportunity to make up for this in Spain. I’ve made friends from outside the US just by starting conversations with people sitting next to me (SO easy to do in Madrid), and at this point am greeted with “Hi Ellen!” when I arrive.

When I’m feeling a little overwhelmed, I can go and know that in a few hours, everything will be okay again after a bomb ginger tea and talking music with friends who work there. If we’re being honest, not being able to go there regularly is what I fear the most about having to return to the States for the summer!

To Teach English in Spain is an Accomplishment!

Ellen came to teach English in Spain with a clear head and concrete goals – much more than I can say for myself at the same point. She focused on the ways in which she wanted to change and grow, and because of that, she has been able to accomplish many of her goals thus far. I’m excited to see how she will continue to do so in upcoming months. Stay tuned for more on Ellen’s experience in another post, coming soon.

by Emma Schultz