Surviving the Storm

Dreams Abroad: Surviving the Storm

Hello, it’s me again (Adele pun not originally intended), your local, friendly, hopefully not-too-hipstery nomad.  (I absolutely loaaattthhhe hipsters but all the internet quizzes tell me that I am one. So Grrrr. ) Originally I had planned to talk about my six month stint as a live-in au pair, but I have discovered that I cannot at the moment do this.  Everytime I try to think of a witty, clinical, cut and dry process to talk about the cultural differences and the conflicts that followed, I find myself just wallowing and wanting to mostly verbally bash the family.  That’s not fair because the problems we had weren’t just their fault.  I think.  ANYWAYS, I said all of that to tell you to stay tuned for next time or the next ( or the next next next time) if drama and negativity is your thing.   Instead I want to focus on something different, lighter perhaps, but no less significant for me.  

A photo of me in Oklahoma before my trip to Spain began.

For Better or Worse

Whatever my experiences here in Spain have been, they have been nothing if not rich.  Perhaps at times they were rich in pain and despair or perhaps rich in joy and wonder, but always poignant nonetheless.  For every moment that I have cried myself to sleep, I have found myself in breathless wonder.  I shall try to convey my meaning as precisely as possible but if things turn out cheesy instead capturing the artistic feeling that I desire, I apologize ahead of time.

The first 10 months of my time in Spain were very difficult for me.  After having gotten settled into the perfect apartment that I found in  Idealista, a popular website for rentals, set up in the perfect village and reveling in finally living in my perfect dream, I got kicked out.  It turned out that the landlord’s mother was going to come live in the apartment and didn’t want to share which is understandable.  I have a hunch that I was being illegally subleased to because after two months and after excuse after excuse, my roommates never did give me the landlady’s contact information.  I suspect that they knew from the beginning and just wanted extra money.  They themselves were in their own strange situation.  They were a couple from Chile with a small daughter.  The mother was supposed to go to England to study English but since she didn’t speak said English, when customs asked if she was there to work, she allegedly misunderstood the question and answered, “Yes.”  They *permanently* denied her entry and turned her away even though the dad and baby were already through the gate. Therefore, they came to Spain for three months before having to go back. Naive, trusting Amanda had no contract, no rights, and barely any money aside from my monthly income and I already had bills back home. That was completely on me.

In orientation, they strongly suggested we get a contract but apartment hunting in Madrid in September specifically and, well, also year round (except in August) is a bitch so I settled. So, after a month of desperately searching for cheap accommodation, I found work as a live in au pair.   I am grateful but I should have just tried to live in hostels for a while. While all of that was going on, two people in my family passed on, one from a drug overdose and the other from cancer.  Complete and total devastation ensued for a time. One death took me completely off guard and ruined me for awhile. The second death was somewhat expected but still very difficult as the person, my grandpa, was and is my favorite person. It is from him that I got the travel bug in the first place. He deserves a post of his own so I will leave it at that for some other time.  Needless to say, these sad events probably manifested in toxic and subtle ways that made interacting in such a new physical and cultural environment more complicated than it had to be.  The last blow came circa April when I found out that the teachers at the school did not want me to come back.  I can not pretend that it was all their fault. I have made mistakes.  But this was a huge shock and disappointment.  With this auxiliar program, if you don’t renew in the same school, then you can’t work in the same region as an auxiliar.  They wanted to send me far south to Murcia!!! The only good thing about that would have been teaching near the ocean and Andalusian culture but even that was thwarted because they assigned me to some dry, isolated desert school.  On top of that, payments to auxiliars in the south of Spain are NOTORIOUSLY 2 or 3 months behind. I had found love and a new life in Madrid just for it to about to be taken away.   I could not afford to get uprooted again and this time so far away.

Needless to say, I was broken hearted for a majority of my first year.  Fortunately, I was able to travel and those experiences among others and the ease of having them are what originally convinced me to stay a bit longer.  Otherwise, before I met Esteban, I probably would have given up and gone home.

What follows is a mezcla of memories that I was able to focus on during these turbulent times. Stay tuned for these memories in my next post!

Love forever,

Amanda (Squirrel)

To see more of Amanda’s posts, click here. Thanks for reading and keep living your Dreams Abroad!

by Amanda Whitten

A Remarkable Experience Studying Abroad in Tallahassee, FL

by Dalal Boland

So, the day had finally arrived and I will be Studying Abroad in Tallahassee. After overcoming multiple obstacles, from the F1-visa not being issued on time, to me rebooking another ticket because of that, I finally managed to get on that airplane where a subtle feeling of comfort had struck me as it was time for takeoff. After an overall flight of more than 16 hours spent on multiple airplanes, I landed in the beautiful capital of Florida, Tallahassee. Due to the overwhelming feeling of excitement, I immediately went on a tour around campus. My acquaintances and I drove under the hot sun of August witnessing the students’ joy of starting their new college adventure. After that, I rented an apartment where I dropped off my luggage and went grocery shopping to buy a few things. After running all of those errands like getting into an American line for grocery shopping, and opening up an American bank account, it was time to settle into the new place I called home: Tallahassee.

studying at FSU

Making Friends and Learning Culture

When school started, I encountered some hard times making new friends, especially since I appeared to be a closed-off person due to my formal behavior/encounters with others. Because of that, I had the chance of becoming close to my instructors. They had the kindest hearts that made me feel like I have a family away from my home country. Then, with time, I started to get to know my classmates. The type of class activities that my classes were based on encouraged me to open up to people, especially since most of the activities involved group work and discussions. To me, each class was viewed as a tool to establish and bolster my social grounds with the people around me. Moreover, I had the chance to learn more about different cultures and even pick up a few words in Chinese and Turkish, because my classes included people from different parts of the world.

Studying Abroad in Tallahassee Has Come to an End

TallahaseeThe time had passed and the chapter of living in Tallahassee was about to come to an end. Even as I am writing this piece, my heart still remembers the difficulty that it felt saying goodbye to my friend that I cherished so much, Mr. Michael Magro. Even though we keep in touch from time to time sharing posts and pictures about our lives, I miss the days that we spent laughing about certain inside jokes that no one understood but us, and the intense feeling that we shared of having to work for late hours in the library with the purpose of putting together a class project.

Leaving This Beautiful City

Finally, the day was here and it was time to pack and leave. Although I did not spend more than two years living in Tallahassee, the memories that I made are priceless. Yes, I admit that there were days I spent sobbing and crying my eyes out because I was missing my family, yet the purpose of going home with a diploma to make them proud always made me hang in there. I would describe the time I spent in Tallahassee as a remarkable experience. It is true that I had left Tallahassee, yet the beautiful memories and the friendships that I have made will forever stay with me.

Learn more about Dalal studying abroad in Tallahassee, Florida in upcoming posts!


Resilience Abroad: Month Three

This soul-searching series showcases my grieving process over the course of the most harrowing and heartbreaking six months of my life. It offers a window into how I worked through the processes of loss and resiliency after the passing of my beloved grandmother. Perhaps it will be of benefit to you if you are struggling to cope with a similar situation.

Tidal Wave 

Leesa Truesdell

As I mentioned in the last article, the waves kept coming and almost engulfed me. I felt like a surfer on the north shore trying to ride huge waves with a ragged, water-logged surfboard. It wasn’t until the third month after my grandmother passed that I realized what was happening. 

I had a friend point out how I had reacted about something. Shortly after this interaction, a tsunami of grief hit and it came crashing down harder than anything I had experienced before. My insides felt like they were on fire but really it was my nerves. 

I was angry. Why? I don’t really know. It is not as if it was happening all the time. The anger came in spurts and occurred for reasons that I can’t even explain. It would start with little things and then, the little things escalated into bigger things. Then, I just simply stopped caring. One of the most important persons in my life was gone, and I couldn’t process it. Period.

At this stage, my work was the only area of my life that was consistent each day.  It was the highlight of my day and, looking back, some of my best memories in Madrid were made at my workspace. I looked at each day in the classroom as my opportunity to channel my inner Tata, which gave me the strength that I needed to move past the sadness and return to the path to feeling semi-normal again.

A New Normal

I couldn’t talk about Tata or what I was feeling in my heart because it was too painful to bring up memories while I was so far from home. Instead, I built intricate walls for protection. I didn’t realize the walls were as strong and high as they were until they caused problems in my social life. 

I lost two friends because of my behavior and realized at that point that I needed to make a change. A bit thereafter, my social life started to come back to a state of normalcy. I began to open up more and the walls slowly came tumbling down.

mareez reyes quote

Month Three: Walls

“I guess it’s like a voice inside my heart; reminding me that there is nothing to fear in the things that I am afraid of.” Tove Lo

Day after day, I walked the streets of Madrid and rode the Metro listening to music on my way to work. I was going through my days trying to work through my loss. The more I walked, the more the music meant to me. 

There was one specific song on Tove Lo’s album in March that really touched my soul one morning on the Metro. It’s called Imaginary Friend, and the quote above is from that track. The song makes you think she has an imaginary friend that she calls on when she is going through a hard time. However, at the end of the track you realize there is much more to the story. This was an important insight for me, understanding that things go beyond the surface. It was a useful lesson that helped me through this time.

Tove Lo: Imaginary Friend

March was difficult in the beginning but it got better. I was on the path to building resilience. My personal life suffered because I was suppressing grief. My friends didn’t know how it was affecting me because my walls were so high. I was not as thoughtful as I could have been about how I handled certain exchanges between us. 

One of my close friends was strong enough to point out how I was reacting to certain things, and pretty much from that point on, I was more aware of things like my deliberate avoidance of using the Spanish language or becoming negative about certain things in life (that I am usually not negative about). Looking back, it was her good-natured spirit that made me alert to what was happening. I became aware of my actions and myself; I realized that I needed to make changes. Shortly thereafter, I signed up for private lessons with a Spanish conversation tutor, Enrique, who quickly became a firm friend.

There Is No Can’t In Resilience Abroad

Enrique and I

During my grief process abroad, I had a tipping point. Before the death of my grandmother, I signed up for Spanish classes at a private academy upon returning from my winter vacation. After a few lessons and the week after my grandma’s death in January, the instructor approached me after class and asked me in Spanish if I would consider moving down a level. With tears in my eyes, I turned to her and said: “Lo siento, eres muy mal profe.” 

I walked out of the academy feeling a bolt of pain in my heart that I think also contributed to the disconnect and soon detachment that I started to feel with the language. But this taught me a valuable lesson which I still draw upon as a teacher. It is so important to get to know your students and their needs.

The instructor did not realize that I was one week out from the recent death of my grandmother. It was so hard to try to make it to class, let alone try to communicate in a foreign language. I tried my best and in the end, it all worked out because I met Enrique. I realized in my first few sessions with Enrique that the previous teacher had caused me to doubt myself and subconsciously I was stalling with words that I had never had trouble with before. 

However, this was an important lesson learned for my self-growth and most importantly, my growth as a foreign and second-language teacher. I mention this part of my journey in month three because this tipping point added to my self-doubt, frustration, and anger. When the tsunami hit, there were many outside factors that contributed to the anger and frustration that I felt while living abroad. I just didn’t know why at the time.

if it doesnt open its not your door

Lesson Learned

If a student is struggling, find out more. Don’t assume it’s their proficiency level right away. Most important, don’t tell them they can’t. Many times we are so quick to doubt or blame others for their shortcomings. ENCOURAGE your students to try their best! Look beyond the surface.

Building The Essential Checklist

Here are some helpful tips that I developed as I dealt with the grieving process abroad

  1. Go out and talk to friends and coworkers etc. Try to retain as normal a routine as possible. You don’t have to share your grief, but it does help to make new memories to help the pain subside.
  2. Cry when it hurts, but don’t let it consume you. Suppressing feelings is not natural. It only results in delayed, and sometimes counterproductive, outcomes.
  3. Seek professional counseling if you feel like you can’t follow your everyday routine and you’re finding that things aren’t getting better.
  4. Avoid internalizing your sadness. Write to your family and friends back home or even to a stranger. Maybe talking to someone you don’t know as well as someone you do will help you release some of the hidden feelings you are experiencing.
  5. Take up a new hobby and find a way to focus on making it as meaningful as you can while you are abroad.
  6. Listen to feedback from friends and family. Be aware of what they say and note whether or not you need to adjust your lifestyle choices. Resilience abroad begins once you understand your behavior and its effects, and how you should adapt to be able to recover from grief in order to become your better self.

March was an incredibly complex month which is why I have broken this piece into two parts. Check out part two for more details.

students abroad

teaching abroad

by Leesa Truesdell


What I Know Now: Amanda

We asked Dreams Abroad members five things that they would do differently if they were starting out on their adventures now. After a year working as an auxiliar (language assistant) in Moralzarzal, Spain, here’s what Amanda had to say:


Here are five things that I know now about working as an language assistant:

1. It was my experience with CIEE in Argentina that led me to choose them for my Spanish adventure. CIEE  is a non-profit company that allows students and teachers to become United States ambassadors. Let’s all just take a brief moment to laugh about the “non-profit” aspect of that. I put two grand on a credit card thinking that was my ticket out of the US once more. CIEE is a middleman and provides support to people wanting to become a language assistant in the likes of Madrid.

Little did I know that the Ministerio de Educación accepts language assistant applications for potential candidates at no cost to many regions in Spain. Pretty neat. So that’s probably my number one thing I would do differently.  I’m not saying that I wouldn’t have used CIEE’s mostly stellar support system, but it would have been really nice to know about this other option.


2. This Facebook group will help you with housing, finding work, legal advice, you name it. It only applies to Madrid, of course, but there are other similar resources covering different areas if you search for them. I went about eight months without knowing that it existed, and it is awesome. Just, please, for the love of all that is holy, follow the rules and search in the previous posts. Chances are that if it hasn’t been discussed in that group already, you are living in a fairytale world where rainbow-colored unicorns roam on candy-coated mountains. Can I come?


3. When I first moved here, I discovered a little Spanish village I fell in love with and moved in.  The rent was cheaper and the village was about 100x quainter than anything I had ever seen in my whole life. Was I right to move there? Absolutely not.  Without a car, it is nearly impossible to get to the Madrid airport in the wee hours of the morning (cheapest flights) without a taxi (which would cost extravagant amounts of moolah). If you have friends in the city, or are wanting to travel, stay within the city borders of Madrid. Here is a little secret: you will fall in love with allllllll of the little villages in Spain. It is actually a constant struggle for me. Not long ago I was teaching in Mataelpino (Kill the Pine!), a little town in the mountains, and it took everything I had not to call my boyfriend right then and there and tell him that his commute to see me was about to get a lot longer. All, or most of them, have old-fashioned bakeries, cobblestone streets, beautiful mountain scenery, purer air, are cheaper to live in, tons of local festivals and have truly friendly atmospheres. All of which is directly opposed to the meth-riddled trap houses and racist-infested small towns in Oklahoma. I’m looking at you, Porum! 

Helpful hint: Don’t be shy about taking on private students in the afueras (Madrid outskirts). From there you can explore those little villages without actually living there. Also, it helps to remind yourself that in the winter, those little towns cease to be anything but cold, sad little igloos where nothing and no one exists outside save to poke your head out once in a while or run to a bus stop to go somewhere warmer and more interesting. Remember, most of those perfect little summer villages around Madrid are in the mountains, and it is FREEZING in December. Sunny Spain? Not in the damn mountains during winter, it isn’t. Ahem!

4. Not only should you get a contract when you rent an apartment, you should make sure that it is valid. My current landlord had me sign an invalid contract and I only found out when I tried to register with the office to become an empadronado. This is a fancy legal term that means that you tell the bureaucrats where you live so you can get access to a few legal rights/benefits. In a few days when I go to get my deposit, hopefully she won’t try to mess me over!

Update: She didn’t, but there are tons of horror stories out there, so I consider myself lucky as usual. In fact with all the good fortune I’ve had, I am considering making ‘Lucky’ my middle name!

When I first moved to Spain, I moved to the pueblo of San Lorenzo del Escorial. Like a big ol’ dummy, I didn’t demand a contract. Three months later, I found myself working as an au pair, taking care of the world’s meanest seven-year-old while combating her demanding parents, all while working my day job so as to survive after having to leave suddenly and move elsewhere. An au pair position is a whole ‘nother can of worms with its own share of horrors and wonders, so we won’t get into that right now!


5. And finally, had I known that my one true love was over here, I would have gotten my butt in gear, saved up harder and faster, and come over quicker! This is cheesy, I know, but he’s super cute. We met on an application called Happn if anyone wants to know. It’s a cool little app that lets you see the people that you almost bump into daily.

P.S. Download the apps BlaBlaCar and Moovit. Between them and Google Maps, you should be set in getting around efficiently.

Amanda was living her second year in the city center of Madrid with her boyfriend. She is teaching online courses and loving life! Amanda’s first segment explains the beginning of her travels leading up to her adventure in Madrid. Make sure to check out where Amanda is today!

Grieving While Teaching Abroad: Month Two

This soul-searching series showcases my grieving process over the course of the most harrowing and heartbreaking six months of my life. It offers a window into how I worked through the processes of loss and resiliency after the passing of my beloved grandmother. Perhaps it will be of benefit to you if you are struggling to cope with a similar situation.

Music In My Heart & Soul

Music In My Heart & SoulDuring the month of February, I found myself listening to the music of Prinze George, Blue October, and Bastille practically nonstop. I attended Bastille’s concert in Madrid at the beginning of the month with a close friend and the performance, especially the virtuoso keyboard playing, entered my heart and soothed me. I felt alive and it seemed OK if I flashed a smile and showed that I was happy. When living abroad, it’s important to have a hobby that you can feel connected to both physically and emotionally. Some of those hobbies could be traveling, dancing, food or wine tasting, music, sports, studying the native language, attending live performances at the theatre (the list could go on forever…).

How I Honored My Grandmother 

I honored my grandmother in different ways and it also helped me very much. While I didn’t realize it at the time, by honoring her, I was simultaneously, although slowly, letting go of the pain. For me, each trip I took, each church I entered and each song I listened to made me feel slightly better. My grandmother had a lifelong love for music and she passed that on to me. During my childhood, she would sing to me before I fell asleep and, ever since those lullabies have long passed into cherished memories, music has filled my heart and remained in my soul.

Month Two: Curbed

“Angels walk among us. Chasin’ evil from us.” – Prinze George

you'll never find peace of mind until you listen to your heart

What Day Is It?

The time after she passed was probably the most disjointed in terms of how I coped while grieving abroad. I didn’t have a specific strategy; I just woke up each day hoping that it would feel different from the last. Some days were different, some felt like my normal routine had returned, whereas others felt so unreal.

For example, one day I was walking down the street, listening to my usual tunes, and I glanced up at a bus. A mother with a baby was getting up on the bus at the curb and she lost control of the stroller. Before I knew it, I had the baby pushed back up on the platform of the bus. It was an immediate reaction. I just moved across the sidewalk toward the bus. 

Had I not moved, the baby would have fallen face-first from the bus onto the ground while strapped into the stroller. The strangest part was that I didn’t utter a single word. I was still in my “numb” phase of mourning where I rejected much of the Spanish language. So, I didn’t talk but just acted. After averting tragedy, there were elderly Spanish women making a fuss about the baby, but I had swooped in and in an instant, picked it up and just kept walking.  It was only after I got home that I actually realized what had happened and writing this is this first time I have even acknowledged it.  Looking back, I really was suppressing a lot of what I was feeling.

Missing What You Can’t Explain While Grieving Abroad

February was cold as winter bit hard and I stayed indoors a lot, which led to internalized emotions. Little by little, I was suppressing my feelings of grief and the daily stresses of being abroad. I wasn’t talking to anyone about them because I didn’t want to be a burden. Making and maintaining friendships while abroad is tough in general. The friends that I did make didn’t know me well enough to understand who my grandmother was to me and how important she was in my life so it was hard to talk about what I was feeling.

Every day that passed, I felt soreness in my heart. It seemed as if a piece of my childhood was gone. Talking to new friends about my childhood and having to explain that in great depth was too much for me. So I tucked it inside for a warmer day.

At A Glance…

Looking back, I realize that this month was supposed to happen this way while I grieved abroad. It was a process that made me mentally stronger but also made me realize that, although I am capable of doing just about anything on my own, I should have been more open about sharing my grief and sadness. The direct result of suppressing those feelings was anger and frustration. If I had shared more about what was happening, perhaps there would not have been the unfortunate miscommunication with friends that happened the following month.

Building The Essential Checklist

Leesa Truesdell Grieving Abroad

Here are some helpful tips that I developed as I dealt with the grieving process abroad:

  1. Go out and talk to friends and coworkers and try to retain as normal as a routine as possible. (You don’t have to talk to them about your grief but it does help to go out and make new memories while you are trying to let the pain subside.)
  2. Cry when it hurts but don’t let grieving abroad consume you. Suppressing feelings is not a normal thing to do. It only results in delayed and sometimes worse outcomes.
  3. Seek professional counseling if you feel like you can’t carry on with your normal routine and things aren’t getting better.
  4. Try not to internalize your sadness. Write to your family and friends back home if that helps or write to a stranger. Maybe talking to someone you don’t know as well as someone you do know will help you get out of some of the sad feelings you are experiencing.
  5. Pick a hobby and find a way to focus on making that as memorable as you can while you are grieving abroad.

My next article will show where I traveled and explored after the death of my beloved grandmother. Thank you for reading and being a part of the Dreams Abroad family!

Grieving Abroad butterfly

by Leesa Truesdell


Going Back to San Lorenzo to Teach

I didn’t think the time would come where I would be writing a wrap-up on Cate’s Madrid adventure. Or, am I? When I said my goodbyes to Cate in June (a goodbye I won’t forget), I knew our time to laugh together would come again soon. What I didn’t expect was that it would be in Florida! Yes, that’s right — Florida! The very place that ignited our first conversation over a year ago and started our friendship. It was great to catch up and see each other outside of Madrid. Read along and see what she has planned next!

Your main goal in coming to Madrid was to learn Spanish. How did you do?

My primary goal in coming to Spain was to learn enough Spanish to be able to have a basic conversation. If I really focus on the concept of “basic,” I think I achieved that. Barely. I certainly added a huge amount of vocabulary and some grammar. However, with less than half of my time there left, I had only just started to try to string together actual sentences. As it is for so many struggling second-language learners, getting out of my own head is my biggest obstacle.”

You also spoke about traveling. Did you get to see many countries while living abroad?

I was much more successful with my goal of traveling! I’m pretty proud of this list, so here it is… I went to: London, Paris, Copenhagen, Gibraltar, all through Ireland, Amsterdam, spent an hour in Tangier (crazy story), and saw a lot of Spain by car and train. Being able to see so much of Europe in such a short time was absolutely mind-blowing.”

In your previous interview, you mentioned that you were speaking and teaching English most of the time. What can you tell us about learning Spanish through immersion?

teaching students in SpainThe process of learning Spanish, or attempting to, was certainly not what I had expected. To be completely (and embarrassingly) honest, I thought that merely by living in Spain for 10 months, the language  somehow would seep into my brain and I’d speak it without even realizing how it happened! Wrong.

First of all, I found the four-week immersion class practically useless, for me anyway. It was too much all at once and I wasn’t able to digest virtually any of it. What progress I did make came from private, weekly lessons and the homework I received. And when everything was said and done, the ONLY thing that caused any of it to “stick” in my brain was actually using it (with Spanish friends). Some people received the gift to easily pick up new languages… I’m not one of those people, but I keep plugging away.”

What was your most memorable moment in class? Do you miss your students?

“There are a few students that I miss and one that I have kept in touch with. For the most part, however, I didn’t form any real bonds with most of the kids. Schools strictly forbade auxiliars from speaking Spanish with students. The language barrier at my school felt virtually impenetrable. I’m sorry to report that the most memorable occasions all felt extraordinarily negative. I saw some extremely challenging students who created some unforgettable scenes. It seemed unfortunate for everyone involved.”

What do you miss most about San Lorenzo de El Escorial?

“I miss everything about San Lorenzo except for the ubiquitous dog poop everywhere. I miss being able to walk to everything. Undoubtedly, I miss the vistas of the mountains and the monastery, the cheap whiskey and wine, and the antiquity of it all. It’s certainly a magical little town.”

What have you been doing this summer?

“This summer… what have I been doing? It was so disorienting to be back that it took me several weeks to really feel ‘normal’ and completely unpack (shame). I went up to spend a few days with my sister in Cape Cod. I’ve helped one daughter and her husband a bit around their house. I helped the other one move to Boston for a new job. Lately, I’ve been driving for Uber on the weekends.”

I think we all want to know… Will you return to San Lorenzo for Round 2?

It looks as if I am going back, for a few reasons. First of all, I have a job there and that’s more than I can say for here. Secondly, I’ll have medical insurance there and that’s a huge deal for an old broad like me. Then there’s the Spanish that I still want to learn and the lifestyle of Spain that I enjoy so much. I’m just not done “adventuring” yet.”

Going back to San Lorenzo to Teach

while living abroad in spain

And, here we go! Of the people I interviewed, Cate was certainly the one I thought would have a different ending. When I asked her for her quote for her second interview, she provided this one, “I stopped telling myself that I’m lost. I’m not and am on a road with no destination, I’m just driving with hope that I’ll find a place that I like and I’ll stay there. I’m not lost, I’m on my way.” – Ahunnaya

After one year of knowing Cate and having the pleasure to call her my friend, I can say without a doubt that she has found her way and is headed back to her “place,” San Lorenzo, to continue her Dreams Abroad.

by Leesa Truesdell

Ups and Downs of Living Abroad: Who’s Bebe?

Bebe Bakhtiar HeadshotSo, you want to know a little about me? Well, let’s get straight to it:

  • If you like mushrooms, I judge you and don’t want anything to do with you.
  • Dancing isn’t “who I am,” it’s actually everything I am. I love to dance, and 90% of the time it’s during inappropriate moments.
  • Somehow, I earned a Bachelor’s and Master’s in education and am fully licensed and qualified to teach students. My whole life is one big episode of Kids Say The Darndest Things.
  • I speak three languages and moved to Madrid two years ago to share my passion for language with the rest of the world.
  • Even though I was born and raised in the states, no one believes me. I always need to clarify that my family is from Iran to “explain why I look the way I do.”

What exactly will I be babbling about?

Coffee con Leche is a personal series I write to explain the ups and downs of living abroad and having to deal with the, well, struggles of speaking more than one language. Trust me, sometimes living abroad can be a whirlwind of bliss and positive emotions… and other times? Well, let’s just say that I’ve thrown my things in my suitcase, yanked out my USA passport, and looked for flights back home on multiple occasions. Despite my amazing life on Instagram (@secretlifeofbeebs – shameless plug), it ain’t easy being an expat.

So, how exactly did I end up living the expat life?

During my University of Georgia days (Go Dawgs!), I studied abroad twice in Spain. I can still remember the beautiful beaches of Valencia and the smell of Sevilla — which is actually awful because there are stinky horses everywhere. Anyway, I sincerely remember every moment of living in these cities. I remember feeling fulfilled. Every day was an adventure, every conversation was (and still is) a challenge, and every second was nothing short of happiness.

Can you guess what I did after I graduated college?

Exactly. I moved to Chicago.

If you know anything about big cities in the states, you know they’re incredibly political. Everything, even down to the classroom, is about politics. I survived three years, did a Master’s program, and then realized that teaching at an inner-city school just wasn’t emotionally sustainable. So, I applied to teach in Madrid, and here I am.

What I’m trying to say is…

I want to share my adventures abroad with you (hopefully, “you” is more than an empty forum where no one reads my articles). I want people to know my story, to understand my story. It’s a long ride, so if you don’t believe in metaphorical seat belts, you’re about to be screwed.

by Bebe Bakhtiar

Advantages of Living Abroad

We asked Dreams Abroad Members what they would do differently if they were just starting out. This, we thought, would shine a light on the advantages of living abroad. After finishing up his first year abroad as a language assistant in Madrid, here’s what Justin had to say.

What I Now Know About Living Abroad

1. I Need to Align My Goals

I know I can be more assertive in getting my point across in my advantages of living abroad. Now I understand that in order to get what I want I don’t need to be obsequious or aggressive. I just need to align my goals with those of the person I am asking for help.

2. Friends are Amazing 

Friends are amazing, but what you really need is a circle of respect. I love my friends, they are always there for me when I’m feeling down and are up for a fun night out. However, when things need to get done, be it for your job or finding an apartment, what matters most are those who respect you and will work with you. Friends don’t always fit the bill in this regard.

friends under sunset

3. If You’re Traveling Abroad You Will Make Mistakes

I have allowed myself to make mistakes. After all, this is my first time abroad. I am in a foreign country. Whenever something doesn’t work out as planned (missed flights, ferries, buses, etc.) I learned to not beat myself up. I am learning throughout this entire experience. Research only helps so much. Hell, that’s why I am writing an article about it.

4. Plan for Yourself and Your Advantages of Living Abroad

When I travel with friends I need to make sure I have my own plan and express my goals. At the end of the day, I really need to take care of myself. Throughout this first year, I realized that my feelings or intentions are not the same as others. Not even friends. This is not necessarily a bad thing. My friends and acquaintances aren’t malicious in their decisions.

explore different cities countries

5. Explore the World Around You

Allow yourself to explore. The advantages of living abroad will always remind you of your first experiences. Living in Madrid has allowed me to take chances that I never would have dreamed of in America. Take a surfing lesson, sure. Go to a horse farm on a Greek Island (more to come). Go for it! Nothing is as hard as it seems once you sit down and research what you need to do to accomplish it. Some things might still be nearly impossible (can I get into Stanford Graduate School, probably not) but at least at that point you have allowed yourself to dream, plan, and grow.

Justin is based in Madrid and just completed his first year as a language assistant and will be working in the Spanish capital for another year. You can follow his work and read more about him on his Dreams Abroad page.

by Leesa Truesdell

Madrid Still Has My Heart as an Auxiliar

Looking back to almost one year ago, I never could have imagined that Justin Hughes-Coleman and I would one day be collaborating and sharing information about his upcoming second year in Madrid! Each time I meet with Justin, I learn a tiny bit more about who he is and, most importantly, who he wants to become. Check out his Part two interview about finding purpose while teaching abroad to catch up.

I’ll never forget meeting Justin last August. He was sweating (as we all were because it was AUGUST in Madrid), and I sat next to him and just felt happy. I share this moment once again because it was the very beginning of what I like to think of as this cool ride that we are on and that we don’t want to end.

Justin has been on the Dreams Abroad team since it’s inception and has successfully wowed readers with his first two blog posts. His soul shines when he writes and readers understand both him and his message.

Meet Justin, the soul searcher and auxiliar: 

I am following up on our previous interview and your last blog post on expressing yourself in Spain.

I think we all want to know…

Are you still the “teachers pet” at your school?

“Hehe, that is so funny that I thought that at one point. No, I no longer believe I’m the teacher’s pet. The last two months have been very eye-opening because of my school’s dysfunctional leadership.”

How are things at school since we last spoke? Anything changed?

auxiliar school madrid

“A lot has changed at my school since then. Most importantly I realized that my school is one of the worst in the town that I work in. I figured this out because the schools are ranked every year based on the pass/fail rates of the English exams and my school has been routinely at the bottom under my current top two senior staff members (director and jefatura de estudios.) This has caused the school to have increasingly lower numbers of students since parents choose to put their children at other schools. This has an effect on the staff as well; most staff members only stay one year at my school and request to leave once the year is over.”

Do you think that is why the Comunidad de Madrid is investing in so many auxiliars?

“I do believe the job has a high turnover rate. However, I wouldn’t say it is entirely the fault of the Comunidad de Madrid. All the schools are totally different in the way they are run so no two schools are alike. An auxiliar would have a totally different experience if they were at a different school. I tell people that if I worked at truly badly run school, I would not renew for a second year because so much of one’s experience in Spain is based on their school.”

Even before our second interview you knew you were staying in Madrid, what made you decide to stay?

“Despite my school, Madrid still has my heart. They recently held World Pride that was two weeks long and it showcased what is best about Madrid, the people. Everyone in Madrid is so open-minded and interested in really getting to know people of all backgrounds. That is something I haven’t found back in America.”

world pride madrid

Have you talked to your school about your role next year? Will you be teaching 8 classes and a homeroom?

“I haven’t spoken to my teachers about next year or any other auxiliar. It will probably be the same process as my first year where I just show up and the administrators scramble to come up with a plan.”

What are your plans for this summer?

“This summer I’m going on a different type of adventure. I am living in Greece for two months. For the first month, I am working on an endangered horse farm on the Greek island of Skyros. The second month I am helping build a yoga studio on the island of Rhodes. It will be such a new experience for me and I don’t know what to expect but I am looking forward to it!”

How did you find these places to work abroad?

I found out about this website called where people who are looking for volunteer work can post an ad and in exchange for the help they usually provide room and board for the volunteers. I knew for the summer I wanted to be by a beach (seeing as how Madrid is quite literally landlocked and I didn’t want a repeat of last summer) so I searched for situations that were near beaches and I stumbled upon the endangered horse farm and yoga retreat in Greece.

workaway info


What was the best experience you had this school year? And the most memorable?

“The best and most memorable experience is when two other auxiliars and I performed a dance routine for the entire school and all the kids ran up and mobbed us after the performance. It was absolutely crazy!”

Tell us more about Justin Time for Life your blog. What are your plans for the blog?

“My plan for this blog is to reach out to those who don’t feel like they really belong in America. I was to give them a perspective of what it is like to live abroad as an auxiliar. I know that all my posts are only my experience and they won’t be the same for everyone that goes abroad but I want to give people a “running head start” in their journey abroad. Moving abroad was the best decision I have ever made in my life and I want people to know that despite whatever challenges they face, it is worth it.”

Auxiliar Abroad and What is to Come

Justin has not only walked the walk from the USA over to Madrid, but he is going to be talking to and assisting others through his blog about how to do the same abroad. The person that I met that scorching August afternoon was and is one very courageous man. Dreams Abroad is ecstatic to be working with him and together we are a team ready to better equip our readers on open-mindedness.

I can’t wait to hear all about Justin’s summer in GREECE! If you are an auxiliar abroad we want to hear from you! Join our LinkedIn group to stay on top of all the amazing Dreams Abroad developments.

by Leesa Truesdell

Teaching in the Community of Madrid: Part Two

by Leesa Truesdell

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” — Maya Angelou

Teaching Abroad  in the Community of Madrid

Teach Abroad is a three-part series that shares the different perspectives of native-born English speakers teaching abroad. In part two, my Dreams Abroad colleagues here in Spain discussed their roles at their schools and what it is like to teach in, and for, the Community of Madrid. Over the course of the school year, we’ve visited several different cities and shared the teachers’ stories. If you missed my first part of the series which I speak about how I adjusted to teaching abroad in Madrid, please take a look.

Meet Leesa, Dreams Abroad Founder:

What is a typical day at your school like?

“Each day at my school is different in the Community of Madrid. I work with a different class and a different grade level each hour of each day. I see my students typically once a week. If they are in my theatre class I see some twice a week. It’s important to make a note of this in the beginning, as my school is not a bilingual school but is a part of the program.

We teach English as a subject which means that I am teaching English grammar or assigning English reading projects. I am not teaching English in science or in any other subject in the student’s curriculum. Since I have a master’s degree in education that specializes in English as a Foreign Language, I feel blessed to be at this school because each day I am using the English language in ways that I never thought I would. I love what I do.”

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

“I work with my vice principal who also teaches English, seven teachers (English coordinator included), and one auxiliar. Auxiliars are language and culture assistants hired by the Community of Madrid to enhance the language acquisition process. Typically, the teacher in the classroom is not a native English speaker. The auxiliar acts as a native speaker and is there to assist with language and culture in the classroom. This, of course, is speaking generally. Some auxiliars are doing more and some less.

I am fortunate to work with a variety of teachers. I have learned a different style or method of teaching from each one. They all use a similar method of teaching however their approaches to teaching are unique. For example, one of the teachers has been teaching English grammar for a very long time and knows how to teach it better than I do. When we work together, we each use our own approaches to teaching. This creates a great rhythm in the classroom. I am so grateful to be working with skilled teachers who know their craft but who are also open to new ideas. This is when teaching and learning become not only beneficial to the student and the teacher but also is fun!”

Are you forming working relationships with coworkers?

forming bonds with students

“We have an online group chat where we ask one another questions or send out community information. However, we do not get together outside of school. Most of my colleagues live in the southern part of the community of Madrid, where we work, but I live an hour north, in the city center. Because we live far from each other, it makes it difficult to do things outside of work. In addition, my coworkers have families with children. On the weekends, they are usually spending time with their kids, being parents.

At work, however, we have a very strong bond with one another and have learned to work well together. I know their methodologies and respect them so I can adapt my lessons to complement their style of teaching. Because there is a level of trust among us, we share lessons and give one another feedback regularly.”

Are you forming bonds with students in the Community of Madrid?

“Yes, I am forming bonds with students in most of my classes. In particular, my second eso classes and my second bachillerato classes. The students in my middle-range classes (such as third and fourth eso), are at that age where they are constantly playing around during class with classmates. In the U.S. this is around 9th grade and 10th grade. Once the fourth eso students pass all required classes and exams, they complete secondary school.

students abroad

Junior and senior year (bachillerato) are optional for students once they pass fourth eso. Students who plan to attend a university must complete all levels of secondary school. This age group, in particular, has been a hard group for me to establish a connection with. No matter how fun I make the lesson their mind is not on English, it’s somewhere else. Most of the time, I can see they are focused on friends in class. Sometimes they’re more interested in what’s happening during a snack or recreo break or with passing notes.

I realize that this is a challenging age and, initially, I felt that perhaps I lacked control of the class. However, since I teach in someone else’s class, I can only use a limited amount of discipline for control and management. In most classrooms, it’s the teacher’s role to know when to let things go and when to step in. Learning is supposed to be fun; however, there are times when students try to test those boundaries. That’s when I become silent. When my students get too loud during a fun conversation, I won’t speak until they get quiet. At first, this made me frustrated, but now, I feel like my students understand that being loud and talkative when I am explaining something they are excited about is considered poor manners.

Establishing Bonds

Overall, my students, in the Community of Madrid, are great and the bonds we established will be some of the most memorable. For example, my English theatre students are all very good students. They work hard so I choose to give them the lead on how they want to work on the play. I go to class and listen to their ideas about what I had previously outlined for us to work on that day in the syllabus. The only way to really get your students to love a language is for them to want to use it.

I use a student-centered approach in this class and it has worked so far because my students come to class with smiles from ear to ear, ready and eager to work. For example, the bachillerato students have been assisting me in co-directing while the younger students have helped with play editing and modifying character roles. I am proud of this group because it is the first full school year class that I have taught while living abroad since receiving my degree.”

Does the school foster the creation and development of these relationships with the students inside and outside of the classroom?

“Yes, my school encourages students to participate in seventh-period activities. I have spent the year working with around ten students in a theatre class. We are working on a play where the students have been able to assist with its production.”

What is your favorite part of the day?

“I don’t have any specific part that is my favorite. However, I truly enjoy working with the bachillerato first and second students. They are at the level where they can really work with the language in creative ways. For example, I worked with a group of students (generally, ages 16-18) on skits, job interviews, debate, and most recently, news reporting. They enjoy these types of creative activities and also work well together in pairs and groups. The more proficient students are able to assist lower level students.

language in creative ways

I also enjoy working with my theatre class students. I work with them once a week for 7th period, which is technically after school. This class is the only class where I am able to teach on my own. It is an extracurricular class and probably the class my students enjoy the most. It’s a great point of pride when a student says they look forward to your next class. I am proud of my work so far with this group and I am certainly taking notes on my curriculum.

I ask myself: if each class were fun and not graded, would every student pay more attention and want to attend? Are we forcing students to do things they don’t want to do and therefore getting poor results (i.e. students with anxiety and stress disorders that lead to bad tests results and poor attendance)?”

How is material being taught to students?

“Each English teacher is different with regard to how they prepare and teach. Therefore, when I am asked to prepare a lesson, I collaborate with the teacher ahead of time on the unit and topic. If grammar is the focus of the week, I make sure that I stick to the grammar point and only the grammar point. Then, at the next class, I work with the grammar in conversation. For example, I just finished teaching the present continuous tense to the youngest group of students in the school. When I teach grammar points, I make sure I have an activity and a worksheet to go along with the grammar point.

Student-Centered Lessons

Because I rotate between classes, I make sure that I am always keeping the lesson as student-centered as possible. On the other hand, most teachers at my school have a tendency to be teacher-centered. Since I do not have full control of the class, I have to modify as best as I can. Sometimes I have to compromise if the teacher wants me to teach the grammar point in a teacher-centered way then create a student-centered activity afterward. For a student-centered activity, I will, for example, get the class paired into groups of two or three and ask for examples of the topic.

This week, I have assigned two different classes two group projects. From there the students will have two weeks to prepare the topic to present in class before our spring break. These projects include bachillerato first presenting their weather reports as news reporters to the class and third eso presenting their Incredible Journey to class. This is a project where each group had to research four to five places they would like to visit and tell the class why, for how long, and what they will do in each place.”

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

“I prepare for each lesson a week before that class. When the class finishes, I take notes about where we left off that day in class and then I coordinate with the specific teacher about my idea for the next lesson. He or she will give me their input and then I make my lesson. I prepare between 10-12 new lessons a week and then continue with the same topic in some of the classes that are doing group work or presentations. Each week, I have about three to five extra hours of planning added on to my work schedule for new lessons. In addition to the lesson planning, editing and directing the play takes about an hour to two hours of planning.

Brainstorming  Ideas

We are now getting into the acting portion of the course so the edits are more or less over. However, each week I brainstorm ideas and think of other ways we can do things before the big production day in May.

brainstorm ideas being a teacher Community of Madrid

I enjoy lesson planning for all of my classes because it means that I have control of what I will be teaching. I like going through each class and designing what I teach. It allows me to be creative but, at the same time, it also keeps me organized week by week. There are many things about teaching that you cannot control however, when it comes to lesson planning, I always have my initial lesson plan in sync with a back-up lesson plan. For example, my school encourages the use of technology in the classroom. But, eight out of ten times, I go into a classroom where the computer is broken or the Wi-Fi has a weak signal. On these days, the back-up plan is used.”

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

“I do not work at a bilingual school. My school has an English department with certified English teachers who teach English as a subject. Since English is part of the core requirements under LOMCE law, all of the students in the school must take English at every level. It is not an elective course.”

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

Spain uses the Common European Framework of Reference (CERF) for languages. The framework states that students must have at least two foreign languages in addition to their native language. Therefore the standards are applied by grade level according to the CERF standards. My school follows these standards in addition to La Programacion (our school guidelines) which they send out to the parents at the beginning of the year. This lets the parents know the aims and specific goals for each department.

My school, in the Community of Madrid, uses performance-based learning assessments, which are quarterly exams based on the book information that has been taught to assess a student’s proficiency. In a student’s fourth year (fourth eso) the student’s proficiency will be tested based on CERF standards. All four skills will be tested (reading, writing, speaking, listening) to asses the student’s overall academic competency. At the end of fourth eso the student has the option to graduate and move on to work, vocational school, or continue on to the next level in secondary school. The next two levels are called bachillerato first and second. The student’s proficiency level at this age in their academics is important in order for them to continue their academic studies should they choose to. Foreign language is a requirement in bachillerato one and two per CERF standards.”

With regard to lesson and unit standards:

 lesson planning Community of Madrid

“Before each lesson, there are no written descriptions of what students are expected to know or be able to do. The aims and objectives are listed in the textbooks and each teacher explains the objectives in their own way with regard to trimester tests. For example, we will have an exam in December on chapters one through four. These cover present simple and past continuous tenses. Obviously, the student should be able to know this material.

The standards are not written on the board and the syllabus does not list a rubric with standards itemizing what each standard is for each chapter. The chapter identifies the aim for the student and the school selects the textbooks based on stages of proficiency outlined by CERF. Each level has specific content that will be taught to the student of a specific proficiency level.

Students are assessed by exams that are given in December, March, and May or June. Standards are not applied to content used in classrooms.”

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

“Yes, each department meets before the school year to discuss the needs of each student. The classes are formed and each department creates their section for La Programacion. This is the main document for the school that allows for collaboration among faculty. In addition, the English department meets once a week to discuss what is needed to ensure the success of its students.”

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

“Since my arrival to the Community of Madrid, I have learned to think on my feet and realize that life does not always go according to plan. If a lesson plan changes due to a technology issue (and it will), I always have a back-up or maybe two. I have also used humor a lot in the classroom. The ‘go with the flow’ mentality that I adopted a few months ago has served me well. A year ago, I would not have been as casual about things that didn’t go according to plan. Now, I realize that I cannot control many of the elements around me. I can only control how I react to them. My job is to be the best EFL teacher I can be in the Community of Madrid.

Continuing to reflect on how to improve while being here has also been very beneficial. I know I make mistakes, we all do, but it’s how we learn from those mistakes. Afterward, is where real opportunity occurs. Then, growth happens. I see this process on a day to basis in my students. That is when I know that they are learning.”

What are your new goals and/or modifications to previous goals for 2017?

Community of Madrid

“My goals are to continue working hard in the Community of Madrid. I will become a better person than I was yesterday. Each day I am trying so very hard to reflect and continue to listen to others about life, dreams, and perspectives. I believe that if we all share consciousness and purpose by communicating frequently than maybe there will be a less negative outcome in our daily lives. Overall, the Dreams Abroad website has been my biggest accomplishment so far. My team is great and I couldn’t ask for more.”

Teach Abroad: Part Three will be the last series for this school year. We will be sharing the series over the summer!

Thanks for reading and stay tuned for more updates on our favorite Dreams Abroad members very soon! If you have any questions about the Community of Madrid please join our Facebook group.