Teaching During a Pandemic: A Teacher Abroad

By Amanda WhittenSelfie of Amanda Whitten while abroad teaching during a pandemic.

Catch up on Amanda’s first interview before joining her for the second part of her three-part interview!

This has been one of the weirdest years ever for me, not just for teaching, but in general. I’m sure that the same could be said for everyone else, as well. It’s been transformative in a number of ways, which I’ll get to in a moment. This year has affected my relationships with my students, my co-workers, and even myself. One thing is for sure: the world is changing and we must adapt to it. Read on to find out how I adapted to teaching during a pandemic!

What is a typical day at your school like? 

Pre-coronavirus, I typically arrived 20-30 minutes before class because of the public transportation schedule. As soon as I arrived, I’d head to the English department room, my safe haven, and hideout. Then, I’d check to make sure that I had all my ducks in a row and that I knew what I was supposed to be doing for each of my classes. I’d also make any last-minute necessary lesson plans or preparations and basically mentally prepare myself to go into performance mode. If I had any extra time, I’d go downstairs to the cafeteria to have a coffee and chat with any of the teachers already there.

This year, classes ranged from about 9:25am to 2:00pm, which is a pretty easy schedule, I’d say. Some days, I’d have a planning period, and other days I’d have a constant stream of classes apart from one break from 11:10am to 11:40am.

Afterwards, I’d rush home, eat very quickly, and then rush back into the world to go to my private lessons, academy classes, or whatever else I had going on. Of course, I had to adjust to teaching during a pandemic, so that all changed. I spent more time doing hobbies such as painting, and am really proud of how much I’ve grown as an artist so far! 

Teaching During a Pandemic

When the coronavirus pandemic initially began, I’d wake up an hour early, eat breakfast, shower, prepare my headset, laptop, and generally wait attentively to see if any students needed any help or wanted to talk in general. Other than that, I just uploaded their various activities and scheduled them to appear during class time. Kahoot and Educaplay were invaluable online resources for making quizzes about literally anything that the students could complete. 

After a while, other than the occasional video call, I started waking up two minutes before class because I had discovered, much to my lazy side’s delight, that Google classroom could be downloaded on cell phones. Then I could lazily browse and be “present” in class while laying in bed. A difficult and tiresome job, really.  

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

I interact frequently with a nucleus of about four to five teachers, but usually there are many more who actually teach at the school. At IES Pablo Neruda, I had sixteen classes and therefore, had sixteen working hours. 

Are you forming working relationships with coworkers?

I considered myself very lucky at what was, until June 30th, my current school. With a good rapport with all of the teachers I worked with, I developed what I would consider actual friendships with at least three of them. I really admire all of the teachers I personally worked with and basically feel that I won the lottery. All I wanted was to feel respected, appreciated, and accepted here in Spain. They did an amazing job of doing that for me. It was and is mutual. Even while teaching during a pandemic, I can honestly say these were the best coworkers I’ve had so far in Spain.

Amanda Whitten and Leganes while Amanda was abroad teaching during a pandemic

What is your favorite part of the day? Why?

I would say that I had a few favorite groups that I really enjoyed working with. A bachillerato group I worked with always reacted enthusiastically to my activities whether an introduction to country music (seeing these kids goofily sing Garth Brooks literally made my year) or getting into heated debates, I had so much fun. I also really enjoyed teaching my 1st eso kids, which are pretty much 6th graders. They are still so full of excitement for learning. They loved telling me about their favorite foods and what they did on the weekends. How could I not adore them? 

I have a few favorite students scattered here and there: naughty ones who could make me laugh as well as academic and friendly ones who enjoyed interacting with me. All of these students made my days more enjoyable. While I can’t say that I had a specific favorite part of each day, I can say that I had certain highlights during the week. It makes leaving this part of my life behind all the more bittersweet.

How is the material being taught to students? Is there a specific method being used?

It really depends on whichever teacher is in charge. For example, one teacher may prefer to heavily rely on going through the book via a program on the computer. This makes it easy to correct and grade exercises as a group. Others focus on using their book as a guideline, choosing to focus more on activities and conversation. The former may be easier, but it is so much more boring for both me and the students. The latter can be more challenging, but it is so much more fun and engaging, provided the students are interested. 

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

Some classes required no preparation whatsoever. One teacher would give me the page numbers and exercises to correct via the computer program, and that was it. Usually, I was told that I had the freedom to come up with extra activities, but since these instructions were usually given right before class or the day before, I rarely ever knew what we were going to be going over. And for those classes, the activities were meant to “complement” the lesson, not detract. 

For other classes, I would be given a topic to make a presentation on or perhaps a topic to practice conversation around. These practice conversations would be easy enough to research a bit, and perhaps make a PowerPoint if necessary. 

Amanda Whitten pointing at a frog while abroad in Madrid teaching during a pandemic

Still, others would have me go over certain pages in the book, but without an answer key. I usually answered the questions myself before class so that I didn’t embarrass myself in front of the kids, teens, or even literal adults. 

Fortunately for me, I never had to worry about teaching actual grammar at this school, thank goodness. The teachers left the listening and conversation practice up to me, for the most part. And if there’s anything that I apparently have a gift for, it is a gift for gab. 

Do you work at a bilingual school? Is English being taught as a subject or throughout all classes?

I have worked at a bilingual school in the past, but I much preferred working at a traditional school. The reason being is that it’s difficult to teach technical concepts such as art theory or, god forbid, science and math, to even the most academically advanced students. Yes, I much prefer the straightforwardness of teaching ESL English in English classes rather than English through a different subject. I can’t imagine the challenges of teaching during a pandemic at a bilingual school. 

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

If the students managed to speak up at all, they would get a point in their favor in the grade book. This would all add up at the end of the year, and it could hurt or help their grade. It was really all about mere participation, with the exception of when students gave rubric graded speeches. I’m sure that the teachers themselves had more extensive ways of measuring progress. However, in my classes, it was all about showing up and speaking up, no matter how quietly or hesitantly. Honestly, it was good enough for me because, concerning foreign languages, it’s not about the destination, but the journey. And that journey is rocky and full of humiliating errors. So if they even dare to take a step, I applaud them. 

Amanda's work station while teaching during a pandemic.
My work station I set up to teach during the pandemic.

 

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

My answer applies not just to our first interview, but also all the way to the beginning of my illustrious teaching career. I have learned to relax, breathe when rattled, not be a hammer, and be a high five. I have learned that having a good time, even if just playing an invigorating game, can be worth fifteen grammar lessons. If a student is laughing and smiling, then they are learning. 

Amanda will share her plans for next year in a follow-up interview. We look forward to hearing what she has to say and where her future will take her, especially considering her success in teaching during a pandemic. Be on the lookout for her third interview.

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. 

Resource Guide for Teachers: Non-Bilingual Students

I spent the summer before my first year of teaching English in Madrid tossing lesson ideas back and forth with secondary school teachers I knew, and saved a spot in my suitcase for activity books with creative writing prompts and unique vocabulary words. However, being placed at a non-bilingual school with a generally lower English level meant that I would have to shift my lesson planning focus. While this took some time, through trial and error I found compromising teaching methods that were both enjoyable to older students and English level-appropriate. Here are a few of my favorite ESL lesson planning tricks to serve as a resource guide that could be a success at any type of school:

Presentation Resource Guide for Non-Bilingual Students

Ah, PowerPoint. I still remember getting so excited about making my own backgrounds and adding only the wildest animations to my presentations in elementary school. But after 5th grade, my fear of public speaking was more powerful than my love of rainbow gradient backgrounds.

resource guide make teaching plans fun

By learning to tailor my presentations to my students’ needs, I was able to engage them thoroughly and gain confidence in my public speaking when they reacted well to my lessons. My presentations included a little bit of everything.

  • Templates
      • Google Slides: This was my go-to. Its format is straightforward and easy to use.
      • Prezi: A little more complex than Google Slides, students will be amazed by its signature, unique transitions between slides
  • Questions: Adding a question to info-heavy slides gets students involved and keeps their attention
      • ESL Conversation Questions: if you’re at a loss for ideas, this website has discussion question ideas for a wide variety of topics
  • Videos: including a video is a great way to add variety to a presentation! They are great for practicing listening skills and sharing a bit of your own culture.
      • LearnEnglish Teens: I love British Council! Their entire LearnEnglish Teens website is interesting and relevant, especially the Video UK section (under the UK Now heading). Its videos are divided by skill level, so you can easily find something that any class would enjoy.
  • Grammar: If you include review exercises every few slides, new info is certain to stick.
      • English Club: Groups of exercises with a wide range of difficulties and topics. These can break up long stretches of teaching. My students loved getting to come up to the computer to solve a problem.
      • ESL Games World: If students picked up on a lesson really well, I would reward them with a game week. They loved the chance to beat their classmates! This works best with smaller groups so that everyone gets a chance to participate.
  • Projects: I like to conclude my presentations with a project that involves all the new skills students have learned. Students can review everything while getting to express a bit of creativity. Here are some of my personal favorites:
  • Talent Show: Have students write a little description of a talent they have that must include a number of relevant grammar or vocabulary. Then, they can each present for the class. This can be done periodically throughout the year, as they keep adding to their English skill set.
  • Memory Book: Give the students a theme to write about, such as vacations, birthdays, or their school year. Have them pick four specific memories related to the theme, each of which must include a different past verb. They can draw pictures if they want, or if they are completing the activity over a longer period of time, bring in their own.

Contact YOUR Teachers

When I began to encounter situations in the classroom that wouldn’t occur at a bilingual school, I reached out to my high school teachers with whom I am friends with on Facebook. They ARE professionals in the field, after all! Even if your former teachers have never taught ESL, they have years of experience with lesson planning, discipline, and engaging all types of students. They can act as excellent support systems and mentors if you find yourself overwhelmed by the expectations of working at a non-bilingual school. They can serve as your own interpersonal resource guide.

students teaching abroad lesson plans

Competitions for Non-Bilingual Students

A fail-proof way to motivate students is winning, and what’s a better way to do that than through competition? After my competition-based lessons, I’d be able to hear the winning team bragging to their friends for minutes afterward. Alongside the joys of winning, students get to practice teamwork skills in the process. A wide variety of strengths can shine together while playing a game. No resource guide would be complete without these classics.

Here are a Few of My Favorites for Students:

  • Categories: divide the class into teams. On the blackboard, write a theme: this can be literally anything, from general grammar points like adjectives or present continuous verbs, or a specific vocabulary topic. Each group then gets two minutes to think of as many words as possible that fit this category. Students receive points based on the number of correct answers. Whichever team has the most at the end of a few rounds, wins!
  • 20 Questions: this is a great game for students who are just getting started with English. I have even played it before with kids who are on their first lesson, but it can be a great way to introduce new vocabulary to anyone. Divide the class into teams, and give them a word. The teams then take turns trying to guess the definition by asking yes-or-no questions. Whichever team guesses the correct definition gets a point.
  • Scavenger Hunt: this game is best for classroom vocabulary, but if you can get permission it can really be played anywhere on school property. Divide the class into teams and give each one a vocabulary list of things to find and label. If the game is taking place in a larger space, have each team take photos of what they have found. Whoever finds and correctly labels the most things on their list wins.  Bonus: if the game does take place in the classroom, you can keep the labels there for the year and encourage students to always refer to these things in English.

Practical English Lessons

I think one of the most exciting things for me while learning Spanish has been being able to use the language in my daily life. Having yourself in the classroom as a native English speaker gives your students this same unique opportunity. Conversational lessons can be one way to incorporate this well, but teaching practical skills in English can go beyond simply asking students questions.

The best thing to remember in this resource guide about practical English is that just about any topic being studied in class can easily have real-world applications. To practice food vocabulary, have them design their dream menu and then act out a restaurant scene. If they are learning directions, have them tell you how to get to their favorite place in their town. If possible and with permission, you could even start a pen pal program with a class at one of your old schools to practice letter writing: this is a practical English assignment that would actually have an effect in the real world! When students build confidence in various practical interactions, their general conversational skills will improve as well.

Creativity is a Must for Students

Having just graduated from college when I started teaching (and therefore not having been too far removed from high school either), I remember how long the school day could feel. Often, the last thing that students want to do is sit through yet another lecture or complex project.

art class teaching abroad lessons

When I could tell that my students were restless, a creative lesson would be the most productive means of teaching. Mixing up the routine got students enthusiastic and less likely to drift away as the class went on. Students also enjoyed getting to use their language skills to do something other than taking notes.

Go-To Games: a Resource Guide

  • Mad Libs: everyone, including me, seemed to be obsessed with these when I was in elementary school. The basic concept is that there is a story with blanks throughout it. Students select a word from a word class to complete the story without receiving any details of the story. Then, read the story with students’ word suggestions: it’ll likely make no sense! If a student has a high enough English level, they can then write their own Mad Lib. There are plenty of templates online, but you can write your own as well and cater them to specific lessons.
  • Pictionary: another classic that can be played with any lesson. Divide students into teams, and give them words to draw. The rest of the team has to then guess what the student is drawing. If the student who is drawing’s team cannot guess correctly, the other team gets the chance to guess and win a point

art by non bilingual student

 

Get Personal With Lessons

During conversational lessons, I would get excited when students started asking me questions about myself. To an extent, I was an open book with them: toward the end of the year, I even asked one of my older classes for opinions on houses my family had been looking at buying when we moved to New York. Having someone new and from a different country in the classroom is exciting for students, and in my experience, they were super curious about my life.

Even if you’re not willing to share a lot about your personal life with students, there are ways that you can use a personal touch to spark interest in conversational English. If you have a talent, share it with your classes. I often brought my ukulele to classes. If they completed lessons without problems, I would play them a song.

Grammar Lessons – a Resource Guide in Finding Structure

Have your students get personal in their speaking lessons too! During grammar lessons, I included writing assignments that incorporated the topic and always had students share something about themselves. Games like Two Truths and A Lie can also add structure to speaking lessons: have students think of three things about themselves, two of which are true and one which isn’t. Then, make the class guess what each lie is. By encouraging students to direct lessons toward their interests, conversations will happen more organically.

Final Thought For Our Resource Guide: Non-Bilingual Students

Most students I worked with were excited to have someone new in the classroom, especially from a different country! With a strong knowledge of what works–and doesn’t work–for your audience, tapping into your students’ curiosity to make the most of your time together will be simple. I hope this resource guide provided new opportunities for you and your students!

private lessons abroad ellen hietsch
Dress-up from my Halloween private lessons—Marceline the Vampire Queen.

The Impact Teachers Have on the Community

“It is interesting to see the direct impact teachers have on the community.” — Justin Hughes-Coleman

First impressions have an impact, no matter the cultural or social setting. I have noticed that in our group of language assistants, there are not as many male teachers as female. Because of this, I knew I wanted to interview a male participant. I also wanted to interview someone who commuted and worked in the north of Madrid. Therefore, Justin was a perfect candidate. I had not had a long conversation with Justin until our first interview. He struck me as a friendly type. Justin is extremely easygoing with a smile that lights up the room. His first impression was a memorable one.

Justin’s experience in Spain is going to be such a fascinating journey to follow. He is going to be an excellent teacher. His enthusiasm and joy for life will brighten up a classroom. The new challenges that Justin seeks are about to unfold. How exciting.

Meet Justin, the Soul Searcher, and Teacher

Justin hails from San Diego, California. He went to California State University San Marcos. and graduated three years ago. Since then, Justin has worked in retail, finance, real estate and in AmeriCorps as a legal adviser to families.  As Justin became proficient at each job, his mind would start to atrophy from lack of challenge and overlong hours and his  soul remained unfulfilled. Making the decision to come to Spain pushed Justin to take on new challenges. 

Before his journey to Spain, he had never taught before. Justin decided to teach abroad because of the experience of one of his good friends. Because she had done the exact same program in Madrid, Justin knew she would be a great to consult.

He has two major goals while he is here. Justin would like to learn more Spanish and travel through Europe and see parts of Africa.

map of tres cantosWhere are you teaching?

“I will be teaching at a primary school in the northern part of Madrid in an area called Tres Cantos. It’s a one-hour commute from where I will be living in the city.”

What do you think teaching in Spain will be like for you?

“I try not to think too much about it before it happens. My mom is a teacher. She has taught my entire life. We can’t walk into a store in town without one person knowing her or saying hi. It is interesting to see the direct impact teachers have on the community.”

What are you looking forward to most with teaching?

Justin looked up with a really big smile and said: “I am looking forward to preparing lesson plans and seeing how my plans impact my students.”

Justin chose to be a teacher abroad to nourish his soul both professionally and personally. He explained: “In the United States I would not be open to creating new lesson plans in subjects ranging from science to American History because I would have a bias as to what a teacher should do and the limitation on the lesson plans they are permitted to teach.

Tres cantos teaching abroad
Tres Cantos, Spain

 

He added: “However, in Spain, I do not know how their school system works and what is permitted. I can teach from a different perspective that might help the students learn in a different way. So, instead of making lesson plans ahead of time that I might have to change or totally get rid of, I am going to wait for some guidance from my school and use the skills I have learned from my mother to help craft lesson plans that will fit the needs of the school.”

Justin’s ease as he mapped out his hopes for the future masked what I didn’t know then, that he had been going through a difficult time.

What are your perceptions of Madrid so far?

“The people and other teachers in Madrid are very friendly. I am not used to that. Even strangers are personable. While looking at a piso, a receptionist at the building started speaking to me and asking me about my day.”

Justin’s perceptions should be tempered by the observation that while Spanish people can be very friendly, they can also be very direct. He has a charm which is instantly endearing as I discovered in the course of our conversation.

teachers-teaching-studentsWhat assumptions or expectations did you have before you came here? Have you found them to be accurate or inaccurate?

“I thought Spanish people were going to be more “svelte” looking people, like you. But, in general, they aren’t.”

For those of you who do not know what svelte means (me included), it means thin in an attractive or graceful way. I have to say, thank you, Justin (blushing)!

As we built up our connection, Justin opened up more.

What has been most difficult since you arrived?

“Piso-hunting has been the most difficult. People canceled appointments that I reserved minutes before I arrived. They won’t call to cancel the appointment in advance. Now that I have a piso, the hardest thing to get used to is the directness of the Spanish culture. An example of this was when someone told me I looked very messy on the subway (in broken English-Spanish). I was drenched in sweat.

On the flip side, they aren’t very forthcoming with information or specifics. Getting detailed information from potential landlords during the search was extremely challenging.”

teachers in spain

What has been the best experience of being a teacher abroad?

“Meeting all the new people and fellow teachers, Americans and Spanish alike.”

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

“I have integrated more easily than I thought I would, being a teacher. When I got here, I thought it would be very difficult to get around. But that is not the case. I hope to embrace the soccer culture and understand it better. In general, the Spanish lifestyle is slower. When you go out at night you pace yourself. I feel like in America, you either go hard or go home. It’s about getting drunk. Here, it is about enjoying your friends and enjoying the evening. I’m looking forward to that.”

Justin took the leap of faith to go to Spain to find himself. The self-discovery process in Spain is going to be a great one with Justin. One thing we can be sure of, Justin will be encountering and embracing many new challenges in the upcoming months. He will be making friends and meeting other teachers abroad. We will check back with him halfway to find out more.

Stay tuned for our next connection.

by Leesa Truesdell

Personal Growth Teaching Abroad

by Leesa Truesdell

Catching up with Lynnette for our second interview was not like any of my other interviews so far. When Lynnette and I initially met at my CIEE orientation in August of 2016, as mentioned in my first interview with her, she was someone I had to meet. When she spoke, people listened. I realized what my immediate desire to speak with her was for: it was a connection. I am sure many others felt this same sense of connection with her over the course of our orientation because of the candor of her character. She is authentic and she wants people to know her story.

Build your own dreams, or someone else will hire you to build theirs.” – Farrah Gray

As we look back at Lynnette’s time here in Madrid, we see that her first year of personal growth teaching abroad was a “honeymoon period.” She was in “survival mode” during her second year and from what she explains, an uphill battle for her third year.

What stood out the most about Lynnette after our first interview was her reason for being in Spain. She said she finds joy in helping others. Lynnette continues to thrive on her quest to do just that, but one variable in the equation has changed. She is working to help herself in life so she is better equipped to help others. When I spoke with her and we discussed these last few months, she said, “you can write all this – all of this. I want my story to be real.”

Meet Lynnette, the authentic veteran:

What is a typical day at your school like?

“It takes me about 40 minutes to get to school by train. I usually go over the day and see what materials I need to bring with me for the first two hours of class. When co-teaching, I am in charge of the daily routine which is usually at the beginning of class.

In first grade classes, I’m working on jolly phonics and different games to review their vocabulary. If I have infantil, what we know as preschool, most of our routines take the form of musical play. They are usually my most unpredictable classes but the most fun because the children are learning a little bit of everything and they are more creative.

Second grade classes have a daily routine that is usually more physically interactive. I usually create activities where they have to move around and work in groups. Then I have “coffee break time” which is very important if you are working in a Spanish school. It is a social half-hour for teachers. After the break I usually prepare the rest of my classes. By lunchtime I have all my lessons prepared for the next day. I am currently pursuing my master’s degree, so during my lunchtime I work on my curriculum design for my class or any homework I may have.”

personal growth teaching abroad madrid

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

“I co-teach with seven other teachers and two other auxiliares. Each auxiliar is in charge of a particular grade level. I have infantil which consists of four- and five-year-olds. In primary I have all of the first and second grade levels. In secondary, I teach 4th ESO which is the equivalent of sophomores in high school.”

What is communication like in and outside of school?

“Communication in the school is something that I have to make more of an effort with. I work in a cooperative school, meaning the teachers are on an equal playing field with administrators. This requires a great deal of communication. Outside of school I only socialize with one of the teachers, partly because it is her first year and we have the same teaching methodology.”

Are you forming working relationships with coworkers (auxiliares and teachers)?

“Yes, I am and always have. I think this is the reason I have stayed in Madrid for almost three years. Creating relationships is essential in any job. It also makes the working environment pleasant because you work hard towards common goals you share with your colleagues.”

Are you forming bonds with students?

“I think it’s important and essential to form bonds with your students mainly because students don’t learn well from people they don’t like. Therefore, you have to be sure that if you want to work with children you are able to deal with the responsibility.”

Does the school foster the creation and maintenance of these relationships inside and outside of the classroom?

“I believe the school tries to work with auxiliares in a professional manner. Furthermore, being in a cooperative school means everyone has their own schedule and time is very limited. So the best time to foster those relationships between your co-teachers is coffee break time.”

What is your favorite part of the day?

“My favorite part of my day is working with my two more challenging classes, and they are complete opposites. First, my five-year-olds in infantil because they are unpredictable and learn so fast. Second, my 4th ESO class (15-year-olds) because they keep me young and I learn from them. These 15-year-olds are in that stage of life where they just want to be heard.”

student five year old painting

How is material being taught to students?

“I had two weeks of observation at my school. I went to classes on my current schedule and observed the teachers, figuring out how I would best work with each of them. I was proactive and asked them what they see my role being in their class. I have been lucky to be with teachers who believe in cooperative learning. However, as auxiliares, you have to be very perceptive, understanding that some teachers just teach from the book. There are two reasons for that. One is the mandated law that the teachers finish the books. Secondly, you have to understand Spain’s history. Spain was under a dictatorship for 40 years. The educational system that was in place at the time was meant to teach basic necessities like sewing classes for women and the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Thinking outside the box was definitely frowned upon. The teaching style in that time was very teacher-centered.”

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

“I am a planner by nature so even on my first day I arrived at school with an animated video and an icebreaker game. For my weekly plan I usually try to organize my different grade levels and plan one grammar game or phonics exercise. I always work on ready activities like popcorn reading. Each week I introduce the new subject and by the end of the week I am doing either a summative or formative assessment.”

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

“I work in a school that is certified bilingual according to the Community of Madrid. However, I have to say there is a very interesting thing that my school does in order to not have a disparity caused by learning the natural science materials in English: they also teach a natural science workshop class in Spanish.”

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

students books abroad learning

“That really varies by teacher. Some of the teachers use summative assessment meaning they have an exam and they give a grade. Some of the younger teachers use formative assessment, which is more informal. It really depends on the teacher.”

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

“The school was established in 1985 so they do have a clear vision and I feel very spoiled with my school. The teachers meet every week to see if they are sticking to the curriculum. The policy is that each grade level is supposed to cover the same material at the same time and that both teachers must take the exam on the same week.”

“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 outside of it?

“I have learned that personal development is never-ending. Specifically, I was recently diagnosed with stress anxiety disorder brought on by the number of changes I have gone through in the past two-and-a-half years. However, despite my issues, I still would not want to be anywhere other than Madrid. I feel that I am learning a lot about myself and the culture around me.

Working through the more challenging facets of personal growth I feel that, despite everything, I have adapted well. As part of this process I am learning to respect and retain my authentic self while allowing for growth and development.”

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

“My goal is to finish my Master’s in International Education. In a couple of years I can see myself helping and consulting people to be better teachers and students of English as a Foreign Language. I would like to provide seminars on how to guide students through learning as well as helping EFL teachers adapt to their new home.”

Personal Growth Library

While speaking with Lynnette I realized that some of her initial goals are changing and Lynnette is, too.

I followed up with Lynnette about her concerns for possibly losing, or somehow altering her authentic self. She shared that she has realized that self growth is going to happen and she welcomes it, but the pace of the process has caused her “stress related anxiety” about which she spoke. Growth, while always positive, is not always painless.

Personal Growth Teaching Abroad

In the end, Lynnette has been using this third year to hone her teaching craft. She realized that she had ‘skated’ through her first two years, leading her into the harsh awakening she experienced at the beginning of her third year. For many of us, it’s often that we cannot see what is actually happening until our body lets us know. This was the case for Lynnette. Lynnette’s autopilot burned out and she needed to resupply herself with the mental resources needed to live abroad. The transition happened and for Lynnette, like most humans, she was trying to survive and adapt while simultaneously trying to hold on to who she was two years ago back in the U.S.

Lynnette’ personal growth has come a very long way in three years teaching abroad. She is enjoying both her Master’s degree work and the work at her new school. She says her new school has embraced her and given her the responsibilities of a teacher. With the responsibility, Lynnette has been able to focus on her own methodology while using what she is learning with her masters.

While some of Lynnette’s goals have changed since our first discussion, what’s been most eye-opening for me is the transformation of a young woman finding her way abroad in a new professional environment. Since the first time I met her at orientation, up until now, I would compare Lynnette to a caterpillar that is just about to break free from her cocoon to become a butterfly. She is well on her way to personal growth teaching abroad and her new dream aboard.