Finding Purpose While Teaching Abroad

“The only thing I know is this: I am full of wounds and still standing on my feet.” – Nikos Kazantzakis

Last time I sat down with Justin Hughes-Coleman, it was August in Madrid. Although we were both sweating bullets at the time, my first impression of Justin stuck with me. I spoke about it in the first article of the Teach Abroad series. Justin and I did not know each other but he quickly revealed himself as someone who was using this time abroad to search within to find his purpose.

The Justin sitting in front of me five months later appears different to how I left him in August. His Madrid story was just beginning then. Now his goals are more defined. He went from soul searching to soul defining.

I asked Justin to think about his favorite quote for this series. When he sent me this, at first, I did not understand why. Why did this sunny-side-up, laid-back, enthusiastic young man send me this quote?

Here is his response to the quote listed at the top of blog

“I only found this quote shortly after arriving in Spain. When I was scrolling online, this quote popped up next to a drawing of a woman sitting in her bed in what appeared a very pensive mood. The quote resonated with me and my battle with depression over the years. It represents my growth from thinking I had to be perfect to forgiving myself and fully accepting who I am. The quote isn’t overly optimistic and fits my personality type, positive but pragmatic.”

arriving in Spain

I have had the pleasure of getting to know Justin and agree with him  that we all need to be more aware of those around us. We should take the time to understand our friends’, families’, and students’ needs. The bottom line is that looking at Justin from the outside, you would never know that he has had his battles with depression.

Justin is doing great in his job and he was excited to share his journey with us about finding purpose teaching abroad. He is exploring new ideas and defining who he wants to become a little bit more each day.

Meet Justin, the soul searcher

Finding Purpose in schoolWhat is a typical day at your school like?

“Each day I have a totally different schedule. So my days are pretty distinct, but usually I have one class that I see every day so I consider them my “homeroom” students.”

How many people do you work with (language assistants included) and how many classes do you teach?

“I think there are around 15-20 teachers at the school. There are also lunchroom staff and groundskeepers but I don’t know how many. There are three other language assistants. I teach eight different classes at different frequencies each week.”

Communication in the school and outside of school

How are you forming working relationships with coworkers?

“This is actually a funny question. Apparently last year my Director didn’t like any of the language assistants and didn’t talk to them much. This year I am constantly asked by her if I can help on projects and I tutor my Director’s son once a week. The other language assistants make fun of me and call me “teacher’s pet”.  I get along with all my teachers even though communication can be extremely difficult at times due to the language barrier. My fellow language assistants and I exercise together twice a week and are planning a vacation together this spring.”

Are you forming bonds with students?

“I love kids. However, I honestly didn’t think I would love these kids as much as I do. I’m very close with many of my students and they are always saying hi and coming up to me outside of school. However, I do need to work on being stricter. Yet I know I can because I see other teachers who are strict with the kids and the kids still want hugs after class.”

auxiliars students abroad

What does the school do to foster these relationships inside and outside of the classroom?

“I don’t know if it is just my personality but I really don’t see the “mean” side of Spaniards I have been warned about from various people, including one of my fellow language assistants. Now I don’t know if teachers talk about me behind my back but to my knowledge all my teachers are very friendly and professional. If they see something I can improve on, they come up to me and tell me directly.”

workbooksHow is material being taught to students?

“The students do the vast majority of their work from workbooks, either hard copy or on iPads. They do have projects they do for each class, about once a month where they have to work with a group in the class.”

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

“I don’t plan many lessons but teachers will ask if I would like to lead the class on a certain day. So I try to come up with fun activities for the kids. That way they learn the material in a high-energy state. For example, I was teaching the kids numbers so I made a bingo game and the kids were so excited. On the exam, most of them got all the numbers questions correct.”

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

“I do work at a bilingual school in Tres Cantos, a suburb in northern Madrid. I like the concept of bilingual schools and wish we had them in the USA. There are some flaws with it, for example teaching Spanish history in English makes it feel distant for the kids, but overall I think the concept is excellent.”

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

“Other than overall competency of the material, the 3rd, 5th and 6th-grade teachers are using the Cambridge Assessment language proficiency materials to measure the kids’ English skills. The test preparation pretty much dominates the time I spend with the kids and it is a measure that determines which secondary school the kids go to after primary.”

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

“I am not quite sure. The teachers definitely coordinate their intended lessons for the kids with other teachers but I’m not sure if there is an overall shared goal with the teachers.”

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

“I have definitely become more confident in my overall ability just to live life. Looking back, I got an apartment in a country where I don’t know the language. Every day I am talking to Spanish teachers and sometimes Spanish parents about different materials and lessons for their students. I travel to different countries, and around Spain, without the aid of a travel guide. Also, I have learned to trust myself more and allow myself forgiveness if I do make a mistake. I have made friends easier with people while abroad and can even maintain friendships back in the US.”

What are your new goals and/or modifications to previous goals in the new year?

“My new goals this year is how to stay a second year, especially survive over the summer without a steady income. I would love to run a half marathon, also. Furthermore, setting a personal goal of becoming 100% fluent in Spanish is on my list. I am continuing to work towards my overall goal of being a data scientist when I return to the States.”

Finding Purpose and goals

Finding Purpose Is Just the Beginning

After speaking to Justin about his first semester at school, it was clear that he has settled into his life in Spain. Finding purpose while teaching abroad is not the easiest. I recall Justin in August scrambling over finding a piso and five months later it’s irrelevant. Although his piso hunt is history, his journey has just begun. I asked him his thoughts about his journey now compared to our first interview and he smiled. He knew for certain that he was going to reapply for a second year in Spain. All in all, Justin looked great, sounded happy, and is working on defining the purpose of his soul searching while staying true to himself.

I can’t wait to see what the future holds for Mr. Brightside. Stay tuned to find out more. Finding purpose can be a struggle, so join our Facebook page. You can keep up to date with our articles and members.

by Leesa Truesdell