José G. Carrasco Updates on Teaching in Miami

Jose taking a selfie in his car.José G. Carrasco is a cool teacher. He is the one that all the students in the school look up to. José is friendly with his students, but they respect him because he exudes authority. He wants to inspire disadvantaged youth to transform their lives by providing them with a good education.

Are you teaching in Miami at the same school we last spoke to you about?

Yes, I am. On top of that, I teach adults ESOL three nights a week. This is a program where they learn trades and prepare for citizen tests. Those extra 10 hours of work are one way of keeping me out of trouble, I suppose. I always do private lessons here and there. This is to help kids who have a problem with math and science.

Following a divorce, you changed jobs to be closer to your two daughters. Do you still live near them?

My eldest daughter is no longer living in Miami. She is actually residing in my old Brooklyn apartment. Keeping her company there is a creature that used to be a pet of mine, Beyoncé the snake. Her younger sister, who just turned 22, still lives close by. She is in her final year of nursing school.

What do Florida schools need to do to narrow the gap with those in New York?

They need to be stricter. Florida schools need to fail their students who are not progressing. By the time of fifth grade, there should be progression. If there isn’t, it’s because they didn’t fully understand what was covered in the fourth grade. Sometimes, there are fifth graders making third-grade mistakes and that shouldn’t be happening. In third grade, you need to show you can add and subtract. If you can’t, you need to repeat the year until you can. Without this noteable progression, then students aren’t prepared for middle school. This is the biggest concern I have about teaching in Miami.

Jose posing with a student.

What advice would you give to prospective teachers?

Follow your heart. Learn your craft. You will find happiness. With these kids, from a low economic stratum, you have to be a teacher, a parent, and a psychologist. You have to do a lot of things for them to support their growth. It’s tough, but it’s a calling. Make sure you have empathy and put yourself in the same place as the kid. Be a facilitator. Believe in inclusion. Set the standard high. I’m the head guy in my school, and I tell my students that the limit is in their heads. They’ve got the same physiogenic tools as everybody else. They got 3s and 4s and kept their levels. We float together or sink together. It’s a family. I even go watch their games.

How do you get your students to memorize mathematical concepts?

You have to be inventive. What’s three times three? Use your fingers to show the students. Not everybody has the same launchpad. Some of them are subterranean. Some you can’t slow down. Don’t dumb it down. Make the classroom a level playing field.

I think when it comes to learning, you have to rationalize your teaching methods. I meet the requirements and want to make sure my kids use rationale. Why do you do this? You have to ask them a lot of questions. Teachers need to be inquisitive with their students.

What do you like to do away from school?

Travel. I went to Angola, a country in central Africa. While there, I was hanging out with my former students. They showed me around, and I even made it in the newspaper. They speak Portuguese which was handy for a Brazilian like me. I was chilling and may have caused some damage. I had a good time.

Previously, I kept pets, such as guinea pigs and snakes. My last guinea pig, Jiyma, I gave to one of my students. Her grandmother had cancer. She lived with her grandma, and looking after the guinea pig became something they did together. 

How painful was it for you to watch this year’s Copa América final? (Argentina beat José’s Brazil 1-0 in Rio’s Maracaña stadium)?

You can’t win them all. Kudos to Messi, though. It’s about time he won something on the international stage. We celebrated with gold medals at the Olympics. Dani Alves was immense in Tokyo.

It has been a while since we caught up with José. It was so reassuring to hear his warm, playful voice again. We could sense the same old, irrepressible José on the end of the phone. You can’t keep a good man down. He’s a credit to the teaching profession. We’re excited to see how teaching in Miami has gone for him.

by Dreams Abroad

What Does It Mean to Be a Good Teacher?

Sarah Perkins Guebert Winning WednesdayAs a child, I always thought that my teachers were magical beings that somehow had lesson plans already prepared and never did any work outside of the classroom except to grade assignments; and that, at least in my mind, never took long. They had the summers off work and could call a substitute teacher whenever they needed one. I was completely wrong in my assumptions, of course, but my true appreciation for teachers — especially good teachers — did not come until I had graduated from college and began working with them.  

What Makes a Good Teacher?

After studying education and observing my own teachers and coworkers, I’ve decided that a good teacher is an obsessed fanatic with what they do; a parent, a tyrant, and a slave.  First and foremost, the teacher has to enjoy their job. They have to be passionate about the subject they teach, in addition to being passionate about teaching itself. They watch their class with a careful eye and foster a positive learning environment. But, the moment the students cease to give their attention, the teacher must call them back to the material with a firm hand and keep them focused throughout the course of the lesson. 

Furthermore, a teacher must be completely and utterly devoted to their work. They must work tirelessly to create new lessons, to better old ones, to grade student work, and to improve themselves as a teacher. In my own experience, I’ve spent sleepless nights perfecting an activity for class or grading exams, encouraged my students to challenge themselves, and had my temper tested on several occasions when students were particularly problematic. It’s chaos, maybe even Hell, but I love it. Am I crazy?  Perhaps, but I’d prefer to say that I’ve caught the “teaching bug.”

Students' feet lined up in a line. What makes a good teacher?

Always Growing

I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’m a great teacher, or even a good teacher. Even with seven years of experience, I’ve discovered that I have a lot to improve in every way imaginable. Despite that, I would venture to say that I have the potential to be a good teacher. Being a good teacher, however, requires a lot of hard work and willpower.  Nevertheless, I am collecting all the tools that I’ll need to become one. So, what have I learned over the course of my career other than the exact ratio of milk to coffee to get me through a long night of grading essays?  

Primarily, I have discovered that language teaching is difficult, because learning a language is an environment in which mistakes are normal and even encouraged. Learning another language is about more than just the language itself, but also a culture, mannerisms, history, and mindset that differ from our own. 

Students working on a craft project

Students have been taught that they should be ashamed of and try to avoid errors or failures while learning, and this instills in them a deep-set fear of attempting to use knowledge that they do not have an absolute mastery of.  As a result, they develop vergüenza, a fear/shame of using the language. I have noticed this in my students, as they are very hesitant to make use of linguistic structures they do not fully understand or control. For this reason, I think that it is essential to develop an open, friendly environment in the classroom that fosters a growth mindset.  

Hidden Capabilities

Many of my students walked into the classroom with the belief that they simply weren’t good at learning languages, or that they simply didn’t have the capacity to learn a language. Moreover, many of them walked in assuming that they wouldn’t enjoy English as a subject. However, many have commented over the years that they were surprised to succeed or enjoy the class. Even when they didn’t correctly utilize the linguistic structures we learned, they were still enthusiastic about activities and quickly discovered that complete mastery of those structures was neither expected nor realistic. In this way, the students were learning and did not see their mistakes as failures. It is my belief that this is one of the most important elements to a successful language classroom.    

Throughout the course of my career, I have been privileged to observe and work with some of my peers in order to better myself and my classroom. After watching and working together with them, I have been able to take away elements of their teaching styles and activities that I thought were effective, and take note of the elements that weren’t. This has also helped me to reflect on my own teaching style and to better myself. 

In doing so, I have realized something that I consider essential: Alone, I can become a successful teacher. I can be an effective teacher. What I cannot be alone is an outstanding teacher. After working with my peers and sharing and developing ideas, I have seen how strong we can be together, and how much more dynamic and complete our activities are as a result of collaboration. 

Finding Balance

Of course, not every element of a language classroom will be perfect. This is especially true in my case.  Sometimes I become too ambitious and attempt to teach concepts that the students are not ready to learn yet. Moreover,  I sometimes find it difficult to avoid focusing on the grammatical features of the language. Methodically learning grammar is the way I was taught languages in school, and it is difficult to break free from the examples shown to me as a learner. 

A good teacher must find balance

I find it quite challenging to avoid relying on what I have learned from my past teachers. I’ve made it my goal to develop a classroom that does not necessarily focus on explicit grammar, but rather challenges the students to think critically in the language. Of course, it seems as though there’s never enough time to develop outstanding activities that foster this kind of thinking. This brings back the point I mentioned earlier: collaboration is key.  When working together, I believe that teachers are capable of accomplishing the impossible.

A Long Path Ahead

All of this said, where does that put me as a teacher? Where do I see myself in the future?  I’ve certainly changed a lot of my beliefs and perspectives throughout the seven years that I have been professionally teaching. During my first year on the job, I was nervous to be in charge of a class of students. I didn’t want to do them a disservice, or be the sole person responsible for their language education. Now, however, I am aware of my weaknesses and continuously work towards improving them. 

I intend to continue working with my peers in order to better myself and to develop a classroom that helps the students to succeed and challenges them to think critically in a foreign language. I intend for them to make mistakes, and a lot of them. However, I don’t want them to see those mistakes as failures. Most importantly, I want my students to walk out of my class at the end of the semester and, even if they dislike English, say “I really enjoyed that class.”

by Sarah Perkins Guebert

A Fourth-Generation Teacher’s Reflections of Teaching

caroline hazelton teach abroad writerWho is Caroline Hazelton? Ever since I met Caroline, she has evolved into much more than just a great teacher. From our initial introduction in class, I knew she was one of a kind. Caroline is more than just a teacher. In addition, she is a colleague, a classmate, a daughter, a mother, and a wife. Caroline is that person you meet who uplifts you when you think you can’t do something but really deep down — you can. This interview reveals her reflections on teaching.

Caroline is the guardian angel who once looked at me and smiled as I could barely say two words in Spanish, and encouraged me to pursue my passion. She is what every student deserves in a teacher. Although she’s too humble to admit it, teaching is in her DNA. There are specific individuals in your life who have the innate ability to see potential in others and encourage them to fulfill their dreams. Caroline is that professional and mentor. 

Who is Caroline Hazelton?

When she’s not teaching adult ESOL learners in the evening, she’s a non-stop, can’t-stop, won’t-stop, busy-on-the-go mom and wife. Caroline is a biological mother to two young girls and a foster parent to a special population called unaccompanied refugee minors. As we spoke on the phone, it became more apparent that years later, she’s a teacher at home to her beautiful children and from six to nine in the evening she dedicates her time to her profession of teaching too. Caroline will continue to build a legacy so her children see a world where we all have access to equal education and diversity is considered something meaningful and beautiful. 

Caroline discusses her educational background in a candid interview, revealing her reflections on teaching. Her responses are measured and thoughtful. Caroline continues to inspire from afar and serve as a role model for future generations in the classroom.  

Reflections of Teaching From a Fourth-Generation Teacher

How much did having teachers as parents and grandparents influence your thoughts regarding what you wanted to be when you grew up?”

I don’t know that it influenced what I wanted to be. Instead, I wanted to be something different. Teaching seemed to be an ordinary thing to do for someone with an education, especially for a woman. All of the women in my family are teachers, except for my sister who escaped to law school!

Now I definitely saw the downsides. I saw my mom come home exhausted, cook dinner, deal with us kids, and then dive straight into grading papers before getting ready for the next day. She cautioned me with the honest challenges teachers face, although she did tell me “you’ll be a very good one and it scares me.” 

reflections of teaching photo of modern classroom desk

But when I took Spanish and fell in love with learning second languages, I realized I wanted to devote my life to helping people acquire language and discover new cultures. I spent a summer in Houston serving immigrant families and teaching ESL to stay-at-home moms. After that, I knew that my fascination with language acquisition was meant to help immigrants and others pave a new life for themselves and escape poverty. But yet, this belief that education can help one escape all kinds of hardship, including poverty does stem from my grandmother and great-grandmother, both teachers.

In Our Blood

See, my grandmother’s mother was a teacher. Even though she dropped out of school as a little girl during the Great Depression to perform child labor to pay the family taxes, her mom insisted she had to keep up with her education so she wouldn’t fall behind. So when she had the chance to go to college, it was to teach — so other kids could find their way out of the kind of poverty she knew. My grandfather had a similar story. And they spent their lives teaching children in our rural, low-income community. 

I think it hit me on lunch duty. One of my co-workers found out who my grandmother was and started crying. Apparently, he had grown up very poor. But my grandmother (his teacher) made sure he and his whole family had Christmas presents. She also taught him to love to learn — and that he could do things through learning. Through her inspiration, this little boy worked hard in school, put himself through college, and ended up becoming a teacher himself. He now inspires other kids and helps them out of poverty through his passion for teaching carpentry.

I have since left my hometown and now live in urban South Florida. Right now I teach English to adult immigrants and refugees. They are full of hope and dreams for a better life for themselves and their children. And just like my grandmother, I firmly believe education is the way to this.

What direct experience do you have of your parents’ and grandparents’ teaching style?”

They grew up in the days where corporal punishment, aka “paddling” was allowed in school! Can you imagine?? The town I was raised in wasn’t far from this. So you can picture my surprise when my first teaching assignment was in a progressive independent school that taught mindfulness and meditation! But as I’ve started thinking about some reflections on teaching, I’ve come to respect all styles of teaching children the way they should go.

I teach different ages and subjects than my family did. Nonetheless, I pass on the same love of learning down to my own children. I read to them daily and choose educational toys and activities over electronics, plus getting outside and exploring nature.

How much advice did you receive from teacher relatives when you announced you wanted to work in education?”

Caroline Hazelton's mom

My mom warned me that I was going to enter an emotionally-draining, never-ending “to-do” lists career. On year eight, while I’m sharing some of my reflections on teaching, I have to agree that she’s right. But, it is so worth it. My grandmother, on the other hand, would have cheered on anything that I did! 

My mom encouraged me and told me I had the “teaching gift” and “all of the traits to be a good one.” She was a huge source of support my first year when I had such a learning curve — I could call her up and we would “talk teacher.” I even enjoy talking to my aunt, a retired teacher about parent/teacher challenges that she dealt with and how they could best be solved. When “teacher talk” begins… my husband and dad go running.

To what extent did you talk about your early teaching career with your parents and grandparents?”

My grandmother passed away during my first year in college, but I talked to my mom constantly during the first year of teaching. She helped me realize how I could nail a lesson, build solid communication with parents, or strengthen a relationship with my students. She taught me how to own being the rookie and take advice from other teachers without doubting myself. Even now, she gives me wisdom.

What would you tell your children if they indicated they wanted to follow in the family footsteps?”

It is underpaid and you’ll need to learn how to manage stress without turning to junk food (my first-year rookie mistake). Despite that, the joy of the classroom, the relationships you build, and the delight in where your teaching will take your students is worth every moment. But you’ll need to do it because you love it, not because it’s what women in our family do. The burnout is real and kids need teachers who love teaching their subject. Otherwise, school will be largely a waste of time. This is probably one of my most important reflections of teaching that I’ve come to.

reflections of teaching, photo of a school library

Describe a childhood memory that has still resonated with you and influences your teaching.”

My mom had this beautiful Barbie house at home when I was about five.  Naturally, my then four-year-old sister and I thought it was for us! But… it wasn’t. It was for her first-graders. The school was in a very poor neighborhood. The chance to play with a nice toy was something the kids would only get in school. We watched that year as she’d collect toy after toy for her kids in need. Through that example, she taught me to be a selfless adult, giving things I don’t really need to those less fortunate. 

reflections of teaching photo of child playing with cars

Who were your heroes and role models growing up as a child?”

My dad, because he loves learning and seems to know something about everything. I could talk to him about any subject. I loved his mother (also a teacher!) and how she managed to teach part-time while also being a mom to her kids. Additionally, I loved my third-grade advanced class teacher Mrs. Sullivan because she pushed me like no other teacher had.

What dreams and goals did you have for your life in high school? And how about after college?”

I wanted to help people and especially those from around the world because I find diversity fascinating. I definitely wanted a family, an intelligent husband, and to see the world. Although I literally had no idea of how things would happen, I assumed by the time that I was 17 that I’d spend a year or so doing Christian, humanitarian, and missionary work overseas, then teach Spanish and ESL. And, yes, my dreams came true!

How do you switch on switched-off learners?”

By involving different types of instruction (large group, small group, one-on-one), different forms of activities for visual and auditory learners and feedback. Asking students to do different tasks that require different levels of thinking. Being willing to go off script and change your plans when a lesson or activity clearly isn’t working out. I also try to plan real-life examples in my language classes and incorporate relaxing activities like music, games or free conversation into my lessons every day.

reflections of teaching, photo of wooden block letters

To what degree do you plan lessons and to what extent do you improvise them?”

What I make sure of is that I always have a plan. I schedule extra activities in case things end shorter than expected or if some sort of technology doesn’t work. I also tend to have a set routine so my time is managed well and students know what to expect. But, if I discover an area that students have a lot of questions about or are really interested in, I’m willing to change my plans so we have more time for these things. 

Caroline has a plethora of ESL teaching resources to utilize in your classroom. Be sure to check them out in our upcoming articles from her. It’s always a pleasure to discover her latest developments. Make sure to catch her first interview with Leesa for more reflections of teaching from a fourth-generation teacher.

Quarantined and Teaching from Home

by Stephanie Best

Typically, those closest to me would describe me as adventurous, spontaneous, adaptable, and tenacious. However, the past few years (and particularly the past few months in quarantine) have deeply humbled me to realize my limits. I have somehow found myself going from fearlessly backpacking foreign countries solo to ordering groceries online because I am hesitant to even go to the grocery store. The sudden change has been deeply unsettling. 

Suddenly, I have gone from constantly being surrounded by students and friends, to teaching online and being quarantined alone. I have never been one to spend much time at home. I would much rather go to the gym or study from a coffee shop than work from home. However, I have had to figure out how to make things work from home. Even as things start to slowly open up, I am trying to only be in physical proximity with the few people that I have seen since the lockdown began. Still, I have found it important to keep connections. 

teaching from home

Finding Sanity Mid-Quarantine

Here are a few of the things that have helped me keep relatively sane during this unprecedented time: 

  1. Video chat: As often as possible, I have tried to be in contact with friends and family via Facetime or other video chat sources. Although maintaining physical distancing has been difficult, this makes it a little easier to feel a sense of connectedness. 
  2. Workout from home: I used to go to the gym most days, but now I have been working out from home. Although it’s much harder to find a routine that works, I have found that having an app or video to follow has been helpful in working out more efficiently than if I just worked out without guidance.
  3. Find a good book or show to watch: I have never been one for TV, but being in quarantine, it has been nice to find something to occupy my mind when things get too quiet. I’ve also enjoyed catching up on reading.
  4. Routine: I’m not best at this, but it’s definitely helpful. Waking up early and making a to-do list has certainly made my days more bearable. 

As soon as quarantine is over, I will be the first to be planning my next adventure. However, until then, I am trying to make the most out of a difficult situation. Perhaps when the dust settles, we will have a newfound appreciation for things that were once taken for granted. 

Teaching from Home

For many students, teachers, and parents, the move to online instruction has been a challenge. Although I have been using instructional technology in my practice from the beginning of my teaching career, the sudden change has been difficult for students and teachers alike. Even before the outbreak, I was already using Blackboard to supplement in-person instruction. However, I had to quickly adapt my courses to be entirely online. It looks as though instruction will continue this way through at least the summer semester and potentially into the fall. Here’s some advice for teachers, students, and parents alike during this time:

Teachers:

  1. Be Empathetic: Regardless of what age/subject you are teaching from home, all of our students are going through rough times. Perhaps your students have new roles and responsibilities or are otherwise struggling. They may not have access to proper technology or wi-fi. They may be experiencing financial struggles, or health issues. Accept late work, and ask your students how they’re doing — how they’re really doing. Be flexible in getting them through the semester.
  2. Collaborate: My experience has been that teachers are good at sharing and working together. Share with your colleagues. We’re all better when we work together. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. 
  3. Be Flexible: Pencil in plans, but don’t be too attached to anything. Things are changing constantly, and adaptability and flexibility are key.

Parents (K-12):

  1. Try to create space at home dedicated to virtual learning. Students focus better if they’re not near their TV, video games, toys, bed, etc. You don’t need to have a separate room. A learning station at the kitchen table can work.
  2. Communicate with your child about their work, but don’t be too involved. This may be a hard line to draw and is an exercise in balancing needs and support. The bottom line is that it does children no favors to do things or assignments for them that they’re able to do it themselves. While it can be helpful to talk through homework, do not do it for them. 
  3. Encourage your children to complete their assignments, but don’t stress them out unnecessarily. Mental and physical health must take priority at this point. We’re all living in unprecedented and highly stressful times. 

woman and girl using ipad

Students:

  1. Make a list each day of the things that must get done. Cross them off as you complete them. It will help you to stay organized and feel a sense of accomplishment. 
  2. Communicate openly with your teachers. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Your teachers are learning as they’re going along much as you, and most teachers take student feedback into consideration.
  3. Pay attention to all instructions. Don’t just skip to the end to try to get through quicker. Listen to the instruction on your modules or the Zoom/Blackboard Collaborate lecture. Most likely, the answers to your questions are there.

kids learning on computers

Quarantined and Teaching from Home

It will be interesting to see how this situation changes education. Perhaps this time will allow us to hone effective use of instructional technology and continue to effectively incorporate it when we are able to return to in-person instruction. 

Using Only the Target Language in a Foreign Language Classroom

 

caroline hazelton teaching ESOLHow did a Southern, non-Hispanic begin her bilingual journey in an English-only rural town? 

Solo español,” replied my Spanish 2 teacher who spoke to us in almost no English right from the beginning.

How have I taught nearly every grade level of Spanish/ESL ever since for seven years?

Only in the language that I am teaching… with some exceptions. I’m here to challenge you both with experience and science for using the target language (the language you are teaching) as much as possible in your classroom. And believe me, you can use it a lot more than you think you can.

Why only the target language?

Learning to listen and speak a language occurs the same way babies learn to talk. They listen to in the language constantly, with images and context to teach them meaning. Then, after hours upon hours of exposure, the babies are ready to speak. As their brain develops, they are able to form more complex phrases, sentences, and ideas as they age. Our second languages are learned in the same way. Our brains absorb grammar through repetition. they absorb meaning through context created by situations and visuals. Finally, they absorb pronunciation through constant exposure and confidence via experience. Because we “acquire” language (that is, to soak it up through the ability to speak and listen, then in our ability to write and read in it), we cannot teach language in the same way that we teach other subjects. We must mimic a caregiver teaching a child to speak.

Enter the language classroom. In the case where the teacher and students both speak the students’ first language, many teachers do not speak in the target language. They do this to get through the lesson faster, to avoid frustrated students, or to build rapport with students. Other times, they simply do not know how to teach in the target language. As a result, you see students who have textbook knowledge of the target language but who are unable to communicate in it.

Remember Phonics?

abc PhonicsWithout appropriate communication in the target language, students haven’t developed an ear for how the language sounds; they haven’t learned enough vocabulary in natural context nor have they developed the confidence to speak the target language. Additionally, students don’t have the opportunity to form an identity in the new language they are trying to learn if they aren’t being exposed to it or being forced to use it — they rely only on their original, or L1, language/identity. Finally, if they don’t see how they are able to communicate in the target language they lose motivation. They feel as if they aren’t learning it. However, a student who is forced to speak the language feels that they are actually learning.

I speak from experience. It started in my high school Spanish 2 classroom where my teacher uttered not a word in English for two hours a day, five days a week. The instructor spoke in an incredibly simple way. He would not answer anyone in English, and only in Spanish. He spoke with gestures, dramatic emotions, and cognates. 

Speaking From Experience

By the end of the semester, I (Caroline) had not only studied Spanish, but could actually speak basic Spanish. I learned more in that semester of high school Spanish alone than I did in any other community college course I took. In those courses, the instructor used a mix of Spanish and English. They missed opportunities to give their students the true ability to communicate in our second language. After moving from my small town to attend a state university to study Spanish and second language acquisition (SLA), I saw more examples both as a Spanish and SLA student of why teachers should use ONLY the target language.

I speak as a teacher. When I speak in the target language at first, I see students of all ages initially very frustrated. I ALWAYS have students who are hesitant to learn the language and resist. However, I insist upon only using the language I am teaching. I have seen their progress. I have seen students score higher on proficiency tests than their level indicated that they would. Ultimately, I have seen my resistors eventually change their ways. 

Success in the Classroom

Every semester, I have ESL (English as a Second Language) students who request to join my class because I insist on using only English. As a university instructor, students have changed or added majors and minors in the language I taught. My students have returned to me bragging about how they asked their counselors to speak to them in their target language. Some of my ESL students took jobs in English. I have taught China’s brightest professionals that they STILL have more to learn because they could only communicate in English and realized that they couldn’t as they wished. Finally, I have had a student upon student thank me at the end of every semester. 

So, How Do You Teach? 

Be your normal teacher self… in the target language. Notably, you are not going to speak like you would speak to native speakers. Aim for a much slower, simpler pace with tons of visual clues to help convey your message.

You first have to speak in the simplest way possible. For example, “We’re all set, so could you please hand in your papers?” becomes “pass the papers.” In the beginning classes, use gestures, gestures, gestures. In intermediate classes, say, “Please pass the papers — we are finished! Thanks!” I suggest sticking to a handful of common requests or words that are most repeated in the target language or in a classroom setting. 

Change Your Expectations

You’ll also have to change your expectations according to the natural stages of language development and to what level of communication each level can reasonably do in the language they are learning. You should try to have low/beginning students listen as much as possible. They should respond non-verbally until they have the confidence and the feel for the sounds of the language to speak. Even then, it will be very similar to a child learning how to speak — first with one-word phrases, then two, etc. From knowledge I’ve gathered from my graduate studies, the development of language is the same for everyone in terms of language stages and whether it’s a first or second language.

Once your students get past the low/beginning stage and into intermediate or high/beginning, they can start to communicate basic needs. The goal now is to increase their confidence in the language. Have students speak in small groups and with yourself as the teacher as much as possible. You should require that all communications with you and their classmates be in the target language with some exceptions so students can make the most of every opportunity. 

Because all teaching is about creating meaning, you need to try to provide as much context for language as possible… visuals, gestures, and culturally authentic material. Creating meaning is important because you want to be teaching at a level slightly higher than the students’ current level. This way they are challenged and can advance forward in an attainable way. 

first language puzzle

So, When Is the First Language Okay?

You never want students to lose their identity. Therefore, I have found that when students (particularly in ESL courses) are speaking about their native countries, idioms, or cultures, the use of their mother tongue is powerful. Plus, some words don’t quite translate the same.

You also have to recognize that speaking a second language requires more brainpower from students. If you want them to do some higher-order thinking that they don’t have the language skills for just yet, you might allow them to use their first language to think through the task, then use the second language once they have the activity mastered. 

Criticisms of Only Teaching in the Target Language

One criticism that gets mentioned of teaching only in the target language is that you don’t want students to miss out on important information — and I agree. For beginning students, you don’t want them to miss out on key information, so I think it’s okay to FIRST say the information in the target language. If, after multiple attempts to clarify their understanding they still don’t understand the concept, it is okay to use their first language. However, just explaining the concept in the first language immediately takes away the opportunity for growth.

I have also seen the usefulness of translation, despite what current language teaching methods (the communicative method) say. When I’m teaching grammar, second-language students often literally translate the grammatical rules of their first language into their second. It can be helpful to compare the differences. I also run into the issue when teaching vocabulary that while it’s better to reply with a synonym or image to stay in the target language, sometimes there is no image or similar word that students know, so a translation can be handy. 

Knowing these situations, my rule with my low/intermediate students is “Only English… except during grammar activities, cultural celebrations, group projects, or if you ask special permission.” 

A Conclusion About Using Only the Target Language in a Foreign Language Classroom

By purposely speaking only in the target language to students, we make language an acquired ability instead of a memorized subject. With careful exceptions, we can also respond to our students in a sensitive way. 

by Caroline Hazelton

Working at a Catholic School in Medellin, Colombia

Catholic School Medellin Colombia

Lamon Chapman graduated from Hamilton College in upstate New York with a degree in Economics. He originally wanted to be an investment banker. However, Lamon decided to move to Los Angeles, California to pursue his musical dreams instead. He enrolled in music classes at the Musicians Institute. Lamon played for a variety of shows and bands while living in Los Angeles. 

He aspired to learn a different language while living in Los Angeles and thought that moving to a different country would help him with his language learning. Lamon decided to move to Ecuador for two months. He traveled from Quito to Guayaquil and everywhere in between. Then, he headed back to LA. 

Lamon decided that he wanted to become more fluent in Spanish and moved to Medellin, Colombia. A close friend of his told him that Medellin was going to be the next up-and-coming place for urban music. Lamon was ready to give his musical talent a new start. However, he also wanted to have another source of income while living in Medellin. After researching, he learned that teaching English abroad could be a good way to make extra income. 

Lamon volunteered at a library assisting immigrants with their English for six months. Prior to that, he had never taught English. After he received great feedback from his peers and students, he realized he was pretty good at it. That’s when he realized he had a skill for teaching others a language and for teaching in general. Soon after, he made his move to Medellin and lived there for five consecutive years, teaching and playing music. His first job while in Colombia was at a Catholic school for six months. 

Meet Lamon Chapman: 

How did you find your job teaching at a Catholic School?

“I found my job through an old high school friend. They were born in Medellin, but completed high school in the states.”

What was the process of getting hired?

“The process was rather involved. I had to pass a reading, speaking, and listening assessment; not to measure my competencies but rather to ensure I didn’t have speaking, hearing, or vision problems. Also, I had to complete a medical exam and a test in Spanish. Funnily enough, I just sat there during the Spanish test and didn’t take it because I didn’t speak or understand Spanish at the time.”

Who made up the population of students that you taught?

Catholic school“The boys that I taught were aged thirteen through fifteen. I taught four classes with an average class size of twenty. 

In Colombia, if you are single and teach at this particular Catholic school, you can only teach the same sex. For, example, I don’t have a wife, so they only allowed me to teach boys. If I had a wife, then I could have taught both girls and boys. The same applies to single women. If they do not have a husband, they can only teach girls.”

What did you like most about teaching these students? The least?

“For me, the blessing of being an educator lies in the opportunity to change someone’s life for the better and develop positive life-long relationships. There was always a sense of pride and achievement when a student would report to me how an activity or classroom experience benefited their life outside of the classroom. Whether it was translating for their parents at the customs office or simply instilling confidence to use the language, it always felt and continues to feel good to hear those stories.

The only thing I would say that I disliked about my job was being monitored constantly by nuns and priests.” 

What did you find to be the most challenging part of teaching at a Catholic school?

“I had a hard time adjusting to Catholic culture. Things like making sure all kids had dressed according to school standards did not come naturally to me initially. I also had a difficult time receiving negative feedback about group activities from the school administrators (nuns and priests). 

Side note: I never interacted directly with the parents… the school had a specific employee assigned to ‘parent relations.’ All the negative feedback came from the nuns that monitored each class and my superior; they didn’t support my decision to facilitate group activities. Additionally, they often reprimanded me for sitting down. They didn’t allow teachers to sit down.”

What are the differences that you saw while teaching at the Catholic school in Envigado, Colombia compared to volunteering at the library in Los Angeles, California?

South Korea classroom“Prior to teaching in Medellin, I volunteered at a library in Los Angeles. I worked with immigrants who had become US citizens and needed to learn English to live and function in Los Angeles. Volunteering gave me a better understanding of what it was like to teach a second language before moving to Medellin, Colombia.

My first teaching position in Envigado, Colombia was at a Catholic school. If I had to compare the two experiences (in general), here is what the main differences were: 

  • Security: Most schools in Colombia have armed security at the entrance. In the US, and at the library in LA, the immigrants did not have security guard protection.
  • Grading: If a student fails a class, the teacher must be prepared to explain why the student failed. They must also give them an opportunity to take a make-up exam and/or additional activities to pass the course. In the USA, if you fail a course… you fail.”

Explain the motivations of the groups of students for learning a second language. Were the motivations the same? How many classes did you teach?

“I taught at a bilingual school… so students were motivated to learn English because it was a requirement. They didn’t necessarily want to and this was the mentality for many kids at the Catholic school. I taught English, geography, world history, and ethics all in English.”

How did you handle classroom management for these classes? Was it regulated by the school because it was a Catholic school?

“I tried to incorporate group activities versus individual assignments into the classroom. I also tried to incorporate the use of technology in the classroom as well. Unfortunately, school officials did NOT widely accept the use of technology. I had to stop doing group assignments and I mostly assigned individual assignments without the use of technology per the request of the school.”

What advice would you give to someone who works with people from other cultural backgrounds?

  • Learn the culture
  • Learn the language
  • Be patient with the adjustment… CULTURE SHOCK is real
  • Accept the differences… don’t fight it or allow it to disrupt your experience
  • Don’t assume that everyone will understand your culture and viewpoints

Are you still living in Medellin, Colombia, and teaching at the Catholic School?  What happens next?

“Yes, I am still living in Medellin. However, I no longer work at the Catholic School. In 2016, I was nominated for a Latin Grammy music award. Since the nomination, I’ve taken my passion for music and talents to another level. This year, four close friends and I formed an entertainment company in Medellin: PRIMEROS 5 ENTERTAINMENT. Follow us at primeroscincoent. We plan and organize entertainment events that are changing the face of entertainment throughout Colombia.” 

At La Presentation College in commune 12 La América, approximately 150 students learn about caring for life on the road.
Photo by Secretaría de Movilidad de Medellín.

Looking Beyond Catholic School

Lamon stayed at the Catholic school for six months even though the odds were against him. His students misbehaved and he couldn’t provide student-centered lessons. Not to mention, nuns constantly corrected his teaching methods and conduct. Later in the school year, Lamon realized he was the first teacher to stay longer than two weeks. The other teachers congratulated him for his success and informed him that he endured the brutal challenge of teaching and disciplining this specific class of fourteen-year-old boys that no one wanted to teach.

Stay tuned for the second part of Lamon’s teaching English as a foreign language journey in Medellin, where he talks about his career of teaching English at a university abroad.

by Leesa Truesdell

Day-To-Day Life Teaching at a Thai School

by Leesa Truesdell

Diego AmbrosioDiego Ambrosio and I had the chance to catch up for his second interview Finding the Perfect International Job. He had participated in a few Thai regional tournaments since we last spoke. He went to Bangkok, Thailand to judge a spelling bee competition and a group of his students participated in a music competition in Pang Na. His group won a gold and silver medal in the competition! He wrapped up his school year and is getting ready for exams. Diego has learned so much about what it is like teaching at a Thai school over the last year. He remembers when he first arrived and how much he has grown as a person and as a professional since that day. 

Read more about what Diego said about his day-to-day life teaching at a Thai school: 

What is a typical day at your school like? 

Each public school in Thailand generally follows the same morning routines before class starts. In my school, students must be present in the main square starting from 7:30 until about 8:10 in order to observe and respect the various routine ceremonies. These include a display of rigorous respect for the Thai National Anthem in a “Stand to Attention” position and music performed by the school band, a Buddhist prayer, and finally a list of ten “commandments” to always remember. The morning ceremony ends with the school jingle played by the music band. Each lesson lasts about 50 minutes (a period) and the school day consists of eight periods. Teachers must stay in the office until 16:30. The school entitles teachers to about one hour of lunch break. There is also a school canteen if necessary.

 

How many people do you work with? How many classes do you teach?

 We currently have nine teachers of different nationalities In the Foreign Teachers English department. There is one teacher from Poland, one from France, one from Morocco, one from Australia, three from the Philippines and one from Canada. The Canadian teacher is the coordinator of the English department. This year I received an assigned eighteen hours per week teaching eight classes for a total of five different courses. However, our contract provides for the possibility of having to cover up to 20 hours of teaching per week. In any case, we must cover the hours of the other teachers if they miss class due to illness or personal reasons.

Are you forming working relationships with coworkers?

I consider myself a lucky person from this point of view because I was able to immediately establish excellent friendships with my work colleagues.  I consider myself a naturally sociable and peaceful person, as well as extremely empathetic. Sometimes we organized meetings outside of school and ate together on special days of the year. For example, last December 26th, we all had lunch together on Christmas Day.

thai teachers

What is your favorite part of the day? Why?

The most pleasant moment of the day is around the first afternoon hours, after lunch. I usually go for a digestive walk around the school campus. The campus has various nature trails. The school has become a lovely place because it sits inside a beautiful natural reserve of mangrove trees.

How is the material being taught to students? Do you use a specific method?

My school follows the conventional teaching method found throughout almost all Thailand English language teaching programs. The lesson plan includes four main phases that we call “warm-up,” “present,” “practice,” and “produce.” 

teacher abroad

The “warm-up” phase is generally short-lived (five to ten minutes) and includes the “call of attendances,” “introduction to the lesson,” a possible “ice-breaker” or “review of the previous lesson.” The second phase, “present,”  is the one in which the lesson is presented. Teachers explain the most important contents in this phase, through the use of projectors, audio-visual material, and obviously, the blackboard. The third phase, “practice,” consists of guided exercises to understand the contents explained, through individual or interactive exercises. Teachers must constantly monitor these activities and assist students the best they can. The final phase, “produce,”  is the final production of the learning contents learned by students. It can take place through the presentation of projects or individual works aimed at the development and improvement of oral skills and content presentation.

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

I always prepare my lessons with care. Preparing ahead helps me feel well-organized. I have everything ready well in advance so that I don’t have to run into unpleasant or unexpected events. As I explained above, I prepare my lessons through a specific template provided by the school which includes the four main processing phases. In addition, I also like to always look for new ideas and materials. Thanks to the Internet, I can always have an endless source of teaching material available. 

Do you work at a bilingual school? Does the school teach English as a subject or throughout all classes?


The English language is taught in all the classes. This means my school is ultimately a kind of bilingual school. However, there are several types of classes that have access to different levels of teaching quality. The two main programs of study for the English language are called the “regular program” and the “English program.” The regular program includes the teaching of the English language, but not through foreign native English-speaking teachers. On the other hand, the English program provides for the presence of native speakers, therefore the enrollment cost is significantly higher.

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


Like any educational institution in the world, Thailand’s school system has parameters for the student assessment during the course of the entire school year. Teachers evaluate students at the end of each semester. My school has two semesters per year. Each student can earn a total value of 100 points. They can earn these with scores from two main units (25 points + 25 points) plus a mid-term exam for a max of 20 points and a final exam with a maximum score of 30 points. Based on the total score obtained, the student will be able to access a grade ranking that ranges from a minimum of 1.5 to a maximum of 4.

I want to clarify an important detail of the Thai school system, namely that students cannot be rejected or repeat the same school year. The school promotes each and every student, no matter what. Whenever a student earns a score lower than 50/100, the teacher becomes responsible for taking care of the student by organizing an extra lesson, project, or exam for the student. The student must complete them as proof of resolution of the low score. Even if the student fails to successfully complete this phase, he will still be promoted. This aspect makes us reflect a lot, since it shows a big flaw in the process of education and growth of the Thai child. There is a very high possibility of an unprepared student reaching the upper levels of an academic course.

Looking back at our first Teach Abroad interview, what have you learned most about yourself in the classroom this year?

There is always something new to learn with each passing year. I can still remember who I was as soon as I arrived at this school and how, day after day, I managed to improve the quality of my teaching together with improved creativity and constant participation within various school events.

Recently, for example, I learned that the morale with which you start your lessons has a decisive impact on the progression of the lesson and on the learning that follows from the students. So it is really essential to always start in the right gear and have the best intentions.

Wrap Up Working at a Thai School

Due to the recent coronavirus pandemic, the minister of Thailand mandated that schools in Thailand be shut down until May. Diego wrapped up his final week of classes by giving final exams. He had originally planned to go back to Italy in April for his break. Since Italy is a major epicenter of the coronavirus, Diego will not be able to go home and plans to remain in Thailand for now.

Stay tuned for more on Diego’s Thailand teach abroad adventure.

 

Teaching ESOL from Experience

by Caroline Hazelton

caroline hazelton teaching ESOLI wonder how you found this page? Perhaps you found it by Google, by social media sharing, or by mere coincidence. Good for you! Either way, I bet the only way you’ll keep reading after this is if you truly care about teaching English for Speakers of Other Languages. Even at that, because I said the word “experience” you are probably in need of such, AKA “teaching ESOL from experience.” 

Right now I’m on Year 7 in teaching languages. I’m always improving my teaching craft. I know what I’m doing and why I’m doing it a certain way. Yet as I handed in my lesson plans this past Tuesday, I realized that teacher jargon doesn’t explain what simple experience can. And yet so much of the way I teach and have been successful from Year 3 onward is because of… experience — that is, “teaching ESOL from experience.”

I originally started this article with a list of teacher advice, but quickly realized you can find that anywhere. Instead, I think it’s best to reflect on the four institutions where I’ve actively taught ESOL and what each ESOL school taught me… through experience. I’ll list each school as “School A, B, C and D” for the privacy of each school.

School A: Finding Your Place as a Professional in School

For Pete’s sake, if you are a new teacher DEMAND A CURRICULUM. You’ll need one to stay organized, maximize learning, and follow the natural flow of language acquisition progression. Furthermore, set boundaries on students. Don’t accept their Facebook requests, don’t let them use their native language in class (even if it is the other language you teach and love) except for emergencies, and if any student starts to cross professional boundaries you must immediately but respectfully set them straight for the sake of your classroom control. Also, especially if you are a young teacher, you must especially look professional at all times.

Professional in School

School B: Don’t Be Afraid to Ask Questions and Set Boundaries

Now that your demanded curriculum is in hand, ask the director/principal specific questions about the curriculum or the school they might be too busy to explain. Make sure to ask questions such as “When does the semester end?” or “How long is the book to be used for?” As much as you love your students, don’t be afraid to correct their English. However, know the goal of each activity and make your corrections specific (like adding a preposition).

Give general critiques (like encouraging students to add more information) so the students aren’t overwhelmed by their mistakes. Again, make sure you set professional boundaries. You love your job, but don’t work for free — make sure you are fairly compensated for your time. If you are not paid on time, immediately contact HR. And finally, always overestimate how long it will take you to arrive to class so you can breathe when you get there.

Ask Questions and Set Boundaries

School C: Use Your Own Experience When Teaching

Own your cultural identity and what it can bring to the classroom. I was the only white teacher in my ESOL department at School C. I owned it. At the beginning, I demanded my intermediate level students only speak in English. I made my students weird American things like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I taught them how Americans butcher Hispanic names in English and hate kisses on the cheek.

Make sure to hand the mic over to your students every once in a while. Let them voice both their cultures and the saddening situations that brought them over to the United States. Let them use Spanish… but only in emergencies or during non-instructional time. And finally, as important as that curriculum is, do not underestimate the importance of authentic cultural material that is relevant to the topic. Bring in the country music, clips of The Office, and Super Bowl commercials.

Experience Teaching

School D: Give Yourself Structure and Take Time to Learn

As an unorganized person, having an organized curriculum pre-planned for me each class helped me see just how learning can be maximized with the right pacing and assessment. I tend to get off task, but staying on topic is crucial for the learner. However, the ability to learn and quickly memorize facts about each student builds a good rapport with students. Finding a balance between staying on task and learning about your students should be found. Finally, students need to hear ways to improve their English. Working with a Chinese crowd at this school, I found it helpful to study common mistakes Chinese English Language Learners make, identify them in the student, and quickly address them with go-to examples. 

Teaching ESOL from Experience

I don’t think there isn’t a day where I’m not learning from my experiences. Just tonight, an argument broke out between two students over a political issue (Venezuelan dictator Maduro seizing and selling homes abandoned by Venezuelans fleeing) and a personal issue (these two students did not get along). After resolving the argument and further discussing with another Venezuelan student about the emotional state of those fleeing, I would like to do some further reading about helping refugees process their emotions. Situations like these help shape my responses to future tense situations. After every day that I teach, I make sure to do a nightly reflection. This helps me know what I’d like to repeat for next semester but also steer away from. 

 

Making the Jump Abroad and Teaching Online

 

Michael ToddMichael Todd was born and raised in southwest Virginia. Before making the jump abroad, he worked an assortment of odd jobs. Michael has worked as a barista and a tutor assisting immigrant children with their English skills. He also has worked various gigs in the arts. Entering his third year in Madrid, Spain, Michael is looking for ways to further put down roots and build a life that goes beyond just visiting. He spends a lot of his time writing, attending literary events and concerts, and searching for good iced coffee.

Aside from his search for community, another goal for Michael’s third year is to travel as much as he can. When we spoke, he was getting ready to travel to Lisbon, Portugal to see The Lumineers in concert. He’s also hit up Munich, Germany to attend Oktoberfest, as well as visited some friends in Lund, Sweden. Where else will he end up? Follow his story to find out!

Side note: during our discussion, I asked him to describe himself with three adjectives and here is how some of his friends, parents, siblings, roommates, exes, acquaintances, and some total strangers described him (in alphabetical order) as adventurous, caring, creative, cosmopolitan, crusty, cultured, explorative, fearless, funny, hairy, honest, intelligent, inquisitive, majestic, pale, pondering, queer, questioning, witty, and unique. 

Meet Michael:

Why did you choose to Teach Abroad in Spain and Europe? 

“I’d always wanted to travel aroundand possibly live inEurope. Finally landing in Spain as my home base was a bit of an accident. My best friend back home recommended I look into an Associazione Culturale Linguistica Educational (ACLE). ACLE is a summer camp that teaches English to kids in Italy. She’d done the same program during university and thought I’d be a good fit for it. Plus, Italy was basically at the top of my list of places to visit. 

Once they accepted me to teach for that summer I thought, why not try and stay longer? I researched some programs for Teaching English as Foreign Language (TEFL), keeping in mind that I needed some sort of visa assistance if I wanted to stay in Europe longer than the three months allowed with an American passport. One of the more promising programs I found was here in Madrid. I reasoned a popular metropolitan city with good travel connections (and very gay-friendly to boot) fit my interests perfectly. To top it all off, I’d studied Spanish during high school. I hoped that integrating into life here would be a lot simpler than, say if I went somewhere like Germany. I would later discover this was not actually the case, but I still feel pretty happy with my choice regardless!” 

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

streets of spain“I’d never really thought teaching would be part of my career path until around my sophomore year at university when I was offered a few gigs around the city. I mostly worked doing summer camps in the arts or by giving specialized workshops in things like prosthetic fabrication (stuff like body parts for theatre productions). That was enough to show me that teaching wasn’t always a grudgingly difficult process like it always seemed to be in high school. This really opened me up to adding teaching to my toolbelt, so to speak, when it came to pursuing a life in the arts. 

Before I moved abroad, I worked freelance in several jobs: barista, figure model for art classes, theatre designer (props, set, and makeup), writer (magazines and local papers), and, yes, teaching. Directly before moving, I worked for about six months as an assistant at elementary and high schools helping children of immigrants with their reading and writing skills. Most of them spoke English very well and just struggled with the written element. Virginia, where I lived, was all about test scores.

I’d also taught a few writing and theatre workshops around Richmond. Some classes I taught were a class on fabricating severed heads (yes, there is a market for that, apparently) and a writing course for LGBTQ+ teens in the area. 

All this is to say, teaching is much like Spain was for me initially. It was an accident I’ve come to love as a supplement to my personal creative practice.”

What did you think teaching abroad would be like? 

“Honestly, much easier, haha. I envisioned effortless classes and loads of free time exploring Europe. Which isn’t to say that teaching English is always difficult, or that I haven’t traveled at all. But our language is slippery and flexible, which can make it challenging to teach at times; there was a ton that I knew without knowing why I knew it, so the first year was a lot about teaching myself before I could teach my students.

More than once I had to honestly tell my students, “I’m not surelet me look into that and we can talk about it next class.” And that’s the hard reality of it: if you haven’t, say, majored in English or some type of education, you’ll probably have a steep learning curve if you decide to go into ESL. Nonetheless, I found that as long as I told the truth about what I did or didn’t know, my students were patient with me. And by the second year, I had significantly fewer gaps.”

Where have you been teaching? 

“I taught my first two years at an academy about 45 minutes outside of the city. Based on my group of friends here, I’d say this is pretty normal. You’re lucky if you land a nice academy gig in the center of the city, or if you get placed at a high school close by. The academy I was at had some amazing teachers but some pretty toxic management. 

michael todd

 

During the second year, I started transitioning to teaching online and left academy life entirely this past June. It’s been so much easier and less stressful to work from homethe preparation has been reduced by probably 80%, and I’m paid better than when I worked in academies here, even with the exchange rate and taxes. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t teach in an academy or as an auxiliar. There are some amazing academies and an auxiliar job can be perfect if you get a good school. However, if I’d known that teaching online existed upon moving to Spain, my first two years here may have looked significantly different. I very much support educating yourself on all your options.” 

What are you doing now? Will you be teaching online this year?

I am teaching online with a company called VIPKid. I teach lessons that range from about 25 to 30 minutes. It’s much more convenient because I can choose my own schedule. Being in the European timezone, my workday much more resembles a regular 9:00 to 5:00 job versus in academy life, where my hours were closer to 4:00 to 10:00 PM. This also means that if I want to go on a trip or something, I don’t have to worry about asking for time off.

What expectations did you have before you came here? Were you afraid to travel far from home?

“I really didn’t have clear expectations. It’s hard to imagine a new life you haven’t lived yet in a place you’ve never been before, even with looking at pictures, watching films, or talking to people who are already there. I was lucky enough to chat with a few people before moving abroad about what their lives were like, where I should look for housing, what pay was like, and so on. If I had any expectations, it was that my life here would be easier and happier than back home (which is not to say that I was terribly unhappy, but rather that I had a very romanticized idea of life abroad). 

As for if I was afraid to travel far from homenot at all. I’d dreamed of it for years. I don’t think anyone felt particularly surprised when I finally made the jump. I think a lot of people thought, “Ah, finally, he did it!”

What were some of your accomplishments of your first year?

“Surviving, haha. Teaching can be a difficult gig sometimes. I spent a lot of my time feeling unsure of myself and feeling like a champion if I got through a class without actually sweating. 

Besides that, I did a fair amount of traveling in my first year. I went to Scotland with a friend for a long weekend, visited my ex in Paris, and also hit up Italy, Germany, and Portugal. I’m also really happy with the fact that I stuck with my Spanish classes on top of teaching. 

Really, probably my biggest “accomplishment” was deciding to stay a second year when I wasn’t sure that this was the right fit for me. Spain, again, was coincidental, and I didn’t necessarily love the experience the first go-round. Plenty of people leave after the first year, or even earlier if they’re that unhappy. I really considered calling it quits, but I’m glad I decided to stick it out.” 

What do you want to achieve for your third year? 

My third year is about traveling more, establishing more friendships, seeking out community, and strengthening the ties I have. Madrid is a pretty transient city. People come and go often, sometimes they feel unhappy, they find other jobs, decide to try other countries, marry, go to grad school… The list goes on. What I mean is, it can be hard to anchor yourself. Initially, I thought I would be more nomadic, moving each year or traveling more frequently. But I’ve learned through leaving America and coming here that community is important to me, and so that’s a big goal for me this year. I’ve found a great writer’s group here through a trilingual bookshop called Desperate Literature and I’ve started auditioning for local productions after probably six years without acting, so I’m excited to see how those things develop. 

What advice would you give to other participants about their first year? What are some of the things they must do and some things they must absolutely not do? 

“That’s a great question… If I had to answer this question as if I were talking back to myself as a first-year, I would say, be kinder to yourself. Stop obsessing over the perfect lesson plan, because it doesn’t exist. Be flexible and focus more on the students themselves than what you’ve told yourself you need to teach. Get out of your apartment more. Madrid is an amazing city for many reasons: it has an NYC vibe in that there are always people out there are always things to do. I didn’t do nearly enough my first year, so don’t make that mistake. Go to the open mic nights, join a sports group, go on hikes, go to intercambios… Don’t forget why you came here in the first place.” 

Italy michael todd

How do you feel about your integration into the Spanish culture so far? What are the steps you have taken to prepare yourself? How did you prepare before you arrived? 

“I did basically nothing before arriving beyond looking at some old Spanish notes from high school, haha. Probably a mistake. But since coming here, I’ve done as much as my life as an English teacher will allow. It can be difficult to fully integrate into this culture when half of your day is in English. But I’ve really stuck with my Spanish classes, and I’m somewhere between B2 (upper-intermediate) and C1 (lower-advanced). It’s a very fuzzy place to be, but I love pushing my limits. Spanish people are also very warm in many ways, but also somewhat flaky. Don’t be discouraged if they don’t immediately line up to be your best friend. If you’re patient and persistent, you can wiggle your way in, and at that point, they’re really loyal. That will be a big part of my whole community-building goal this year.”

Teaching Online and What the Future Holds

In addition to staying for a fourth year, Michael is also currently looking into graduate programs as an option for the near future. He plans to earn an MFA in Creative Nonfiction. Michael will spend the month of April doing a creative writing residency in northern Vermont. He is currently participating in the Writer to Writer Mentorship Program with AWP, which brings together burgeoning and established writers. Michael will be writing for Dreams Abroad so visit our site frequently to see what he will be sharing about teaching online and being abroad. 

by Leesa Truesdell

Remembering the Woman with a Heart of Gold: Micaela Colon

Micaela Colon

Pleased to make your acquaintance. My name is Leesa Truesdell and I am from Coral Springs, Florida. As I get older, I realize that life means more. What do I mean by “more?” Well, it means three little things which add up to a large sum: tell people what they mean to you often, live with purpose and do what you can often, and finally, remember that every person you meet has a story, so listen carefully as they might only tell you once.

Micaela Colon: The woman with the best laugh, softest smile, and a heart of gold. 

I have made my fair share of mistakes over the course of my life. Nonetheless, it is these mistakes that have made me who I am. It sounds cliché, but let me explain. My grandmother, my beloved Tata, is no longer alive to write about how she would want to be remembered. However, I have a soul full of love and a mind full of memories that still feel so raw and real. Micaela Colon passed on January 11, 2017. Yet, I can still hear her voice and see her smile. Those are the memories that will never fade and are tucked in my heart forever. 

The love my grandmother showed me as a child was the kind of love a child could only dream of. I can still see the red swing that I would run and jump on when she took me to the park by her house. We went to the arcade for hours over the summer. One of my fondest memories is going to the cinema with her and sharing popcorn. We used to go to the cinema a few times a summer. Two movies that remind me of her are Chances Are and Xanadu. Tata enjoyed a movie with a good soundtrack. She played the piano and was passionate about a variety of music.

playing piano with my grandmother

Be Mindful

I am telling you about my memories that live on in my mind because as she got older, I remembered her love and I never forgot her. When I got older and was able to drive, I took her out to lunch. Eventually, when I was in college, I called her on all of her birthdays. When we went to lunch, she usually ordered the soup of the day and a half-sandwich combo at Rob’s Bageland near her house. It was one of her favorite places. After she passed, I remembered the things that I did with her as a child and as an adult when it was my turn to care for her. There was no eradication of the sadness but it helped me through it. 

Let me emphasize this — tell people what they mean to you while they are in your life. They will never forget it and neither will you. When I got home from Madrid and saw my mom for the first time after Tata had passed, she handed me a box with things from my grandma. In the box were cards that I had mailed her over the years. She kept all of them. At the time, I did not realize how much a card meant to her, but clearly, it meant everything and more.

Embrace Being Abroad

My grandparents traveled across the world throughout their lives because my grandfather was an aeronautical engineer. His job meant that he needed to live in different countries for years at a time. My grandparents embraced this part of their lives. They did what they wanted and they lived with purpose. They adapted to environments that did not accept them and taught in places that embraced them with open arms. For example, my grandmother taught English in Kinshasa, Africa in the 1970s while my grandfather made friends at work. He attended Rumble in the Jungle. This is something I was not aware of until my late twenties.

Take Time

What Tata wanted most during the older years of her life after Papa passed was attention. Our roles reversed and towards the last few years of her life, I found myself sitting and listening to her about her childhood in Puerto Rico. When her dementia started to progress, she kept her long-term memory and continued to recall her childhood in Puerto Rico. She just couldn’t remember what she had just eaten. It was important for me to sit and just listen to her during these stages of her life. Unfortunately, with Lewy body dementia, the person knows what is happening to them while it is happening.

Shared Moments

I felt at times helpless that she would fail to remember I was there because her short-term memory would not last. She would talk about Puerto Rico and her sisters over and over again. In the end, I felt like I was the adult and loving grandparent she had been to me for thirty years prior to that moment. These moments made me realize how much people have to tell if you listen. Some might not want to share, but those that do might need a friend or, in my case, their granddaughter, to sit and listen to the same story over and over again. As I look back, it only took a few minutes here and there, but collectively these minutes are some of the best moments I have ever spent.

Remembering Micaela Colon

The legacy Tata left me changed my life. It has made me a more mindful person. I tell people what they mean to me more often, I live with purpose, and listen to others regularly. When I got back from Madrid, I became an international student advisor and my sole role was to listen during this job. I also started Dreams Abroad to help others achieve their goals in life. No matter what I am doing in this life, I am always remembering her and using the love she gave me as a guide in my day-to-day actions. Micaela Colon is sincerely missed and never to be forgotten. 

Her legacy lives on through Dreams Abroad and its impact.

by Leesa Truesdell