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.


Teach Abroad in Spain


It’s about putting yourself out there to make it the best you can!” — Morgan Yearout

I met Morgan Yearout over the summer in our online pre-departure course which required uploading information and writing in a course discussion board. It was there that I got to know Morgan (virtually) through her posts, which were often up within a day or two. I enjoyed reading her posts and it became a weekly routine for me; read the assignment then read what Morgan had to say.

Over the course of the weeks leading up to our arrival in Spain, we became friends. We would talk outside of the course framework and discuss our upcoming life-changing journey. It seemed beyond coincidence that, after arriving at the airport in Madrid, I ran right into Morgan! First impressions mean a lot, and she’s confirmed everything that I believed from our online interaction. She’s someone who has a bright spirit, which will uplift your own to new heights. I used to think of myself as a planner, and then I met Morgan. She brings planning to a new level. A level that makes you think, well, hey she’s got this. Why duplicate efforts? Let Morgan plan the trip since she loves doing it!

Oh and she’s got a laugh that is contagious. HONK HONK!

Meet Morgan, the Go-Getter:

morganMorgan is from Moses Lake, Washington. In her adolescent years, she grew up in a town called Royal City, Washington. She considers this the place where she grew the most as a person. She later attended Washington State University. “Go Cougs!” as Morgan would say!

Why did you choose to come to teach abroad in Spain?

“I had the opportunity to visit Spain twice in the past four years and Spain captured my heart despite my brief encounters. I longed to return. It’s hard to articulate my feelings with words but essentially Spain is everything and more I could want in a place to visit and reside. It’s a beautiful country that has unique differences in each region. Each place varies from the other in terms of food, pace of life, architecture, day-to-day routines, and historical influences. The reason I moved here for a year was that my previous two-week stints weren’t enough to experience it all. I was also looking for a different kind of challenge. I am always pushing myself outside of my comfort zone and learning a new language was something that would be a real struggle for me. Duolingo just wasn’t going to cut it!”

What are your goals while you are here?

“My main goal is to feel rooted here and learn Spanish. I would also love to teach abroad in Spain. I want to check off a couple of European bucket list items too. These items include a road trip through northern Spain, going wine tasting in Rioja, visiting Morocco, and Portugal (again) to get scuba certified.”

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

“I was a Senior Manager for Revenue Management at Hilton Worldwide. Essentially, I was responsible for training and developing team members to be most effective at hotel rate setting and supporting them in their career growth.”

What do you think teach abroad in Spain will be like? Where are you teaching?

“I think it will be challenging from the perspective that I won’t necessarily know the subject matter well or have time to prepare for a lesson. I am uncertain about what the political landscape of the school will be but I hope to build relationships with the teachers easily. Based on my experiences in Spain so far, I don’t think it will be that challenging. I’m excited to be teaching at a bilingual high school though! It’s an age group that I can relate to from my experiences back in the States, I have done plenty of community service with this age group. My students should have a foundation of English already established. I will be working in Madrid city center. I do not have too far to commute.”

Why did you choose to teach abroad in Spain? Why did you choose Spain over other countries?

“I thought it would be a good opportunity to immerse myself into the Spanish culture, learn Spanish, and explore Europe in a cost-effective way! I initially started applying to South Korea because the pay is better and it would be a potential culture shock and a greater challenge for me. Then, I deliberated on why I would really want to teach abroad and what I want to gain from it. Also, at the time of my application, I was in a really rough spot at work, getting sick and nauseous almost every day from stress and lack of sleep. I was looking for a way out to still get paid, take a break, and re-evaluate my life decisions since life flies when you’re doing the “8-5” rat race. I finally decided to teach abroad in abroad in Spain was the best for me and my health.”

What would you like to accomplish while you are in Spain?

“The main things I want to accomplish are to experience Spanish culture and not just as a tourist, I want to see what sticks and what doesn’t long term for my own lifestyle changes based on the Spanish way of life. I want to travel extensively, build long-lasting friendships, and converse decently in Spanish.”

What are your perceptions of Madrid so far?

“So far my perceptions are that it is a hard-working city, siestas are necessary to keep the balance of work and family. Locals live a life of moderation in everything they do. For example, working out, drinking and eating AKA not overindulgent (obviously there’s going to be outliers), very community/relationship-based, and they are a social society. They have a deep understanding of their roots, appreciation/pride, minimalist, resourceful/conservationists, and tons of green space. I love all the outdoor activities the people of Madrid engage in. Madrid has a plethora of cultural experiences with museums, theatre, matador, monuments, dance performances, and classes.”

What assumptions or expectations did you have before you came here? Have you found them to be accurate or inaccurate?

“I typically live in a way where I keep expectations and assumptions low so that I can just experience things as they are and embrace them. That being said, my perceptions of Madrid I have stated and I have found most of them to be accurate for Spain except I didn’t expect this city to be so vibrant and full of life. I imagined it would be more like a typical big city with a lot of buildings and people; but truly, this city is electric, especially at night!

I also didn’t realize how much of an emphasis on work/life balance there is. Especially when it comes to maintaining strong family and friend relationships. They really make time for each other and it’s a rarity to see a Spanish person not with at least one other friend or family member unless they are en route to meet up. It’s a very cohesive society based on what I’ve been exposed to.”

What has been the most difficult since you arrived?


“Truly, not much. I think it’s all about the perception of the struggles we encounter. I think dealing with the government red tape with getting the Visa, needing a passport to get a SIM card, and the last-minute sexual assault form was a nuisance but well worth it!”

What has been the best experience?

“I have several: Running through Retiro Park and seeing new sites every time that take my breathe away, running along the river and enjoying the various vibes of leisurely folk picnicking, the skate park, the playgrounds, the runners, people on roller blades, walkers, and bikers on the trail, and the café vibes; so much variety! Other best experiences have been finding quality friends in Madrid through the CIEE program to explore the beautiful city and other parts of Spain with. It’s beginning to feel like I have a family here in a very short period of time and I am blessed for that.

I also really appreciate my living experience since I am doing Babel Bridges and have a fabulous host family to house me all year. The parents have a 13-year-old and 10-year-old boy and they are like my “brothers.” They are so warm, welcoming, and kind. The Mother and Father are also so pure-hearted, sharing, patient with communication barriers, and open-minded. I have been accepted into the family as one of their own since day one and I cannot be more grateful.”

How do you feel about the integration of the culture so far? Are there things that you have embraced or are hoping to embrace?

“I feel well integrated based on my time here. It’s about putting yourself out there to make it the best you can! I have a host family so that by default has helped a lot. I also am involved in private Spanish courses so I can converse better with locals. But overall, I think I’ve embraced the culture and had a pretty good idea of what I was signing myself up for before I got here.”

Morgan knew from the moment she stepped off the plane (and probably way before that) what her goals were while living in Spain. It was clear in her pre-departure posts online, and now after we arrived that Morgan wants to challenge herself beyond the point of planning. She wants to go above and beyond what she normally would in order to prove to herself, and herself alone, that she is not only willing but she is able to push herself outside her comfort zone. Morgan has already crossed off two of her bucket list items. She took her road trip to northern Spain and she frolicked with the camels in Morocco. I can’t wait to see what adventure and story she has for us next time.

Stay tuned for our next series of Teacher Connections in 2017! We will follow up with our cadre of teachers that we interviewed to learn more about their life in Spain.

by Leesa Truesdell