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