Finding Resilience: Working Without Pay Abroad

Kevin Mascitelli in front of a fort.No matter how often you travel, you’re bound to have unexpected challenges. We sometimes revel in these obstacles. Learning how to navigate a new place is exhilarating. Small, menial tasks suddenly offer a newfound sense of accomplishment — navigating public transportation, chatting with strangers, going to the grocery store, and so on. It’s great. What’s not so great? Working without pay for months on end while living in a foreign country.

Thrills and Chills of Traveling

If things go wrong, they eventually become glorious battle scars. Travelers can’t resist sharing their disaster stories, whether it’s being trapped in an airport for 12 hours or an infamous food poisoning saga. These situations are unpleasant but they’re par for the course.

Knowing all this from past experience, I felt like a confident, seasoned traveler. But when I started teaching English in Spain, what I wasn’t prepared for was working without pay for nearly five months.

The Customer is Always Right

Embedded within the cultural ethos of the United States is the phrase, “the customer is always right.” From Sears, to Amazon, to the mom-and-pop pizza place down the street, this saying influences how people treat each other in transactional situations. People don’t always act like this, of course, but this idiom establishes an expectation within the United States.

I knew that outside the land of stars, bars, and backyard BBQ, the relationship between client and server or worker and employer doesn’t always favor the “customer.” Nonetheless, I had built up an intrepid confidence in my abilities to adapt. This was put to the test when I decided to return to Spain to teach English.

Kevin Mascitelli looking down at the street from the roof.

Working Without Pay Abroad

In October 2019, I returned to Valencia, Spain to teach for a reputable English exchange program I had worked for in the past. Although I was warned about delays in payment, I trusted that things would be fine. Besides, my paperwork was flawless. Documents notarized, background checks completed, and files delivered to the proper authorities. But by December I hadn’t received a single Euro. As my savings dwindled, I became worried.

My first instinct was to visit my bank. Maybe they delivered the wrong account information to the government. In Spain, no matter what anyone tells you, banking is mostly done in person. Yes, there are apps and online account portals, but these programs don’t allow you to change or sometimes even verify critical information. This can only be done in person at your bank branch — not just any bank branch — the bank branch where you first opened your account. Because I had previously lived in Valencia, my bank branch was, of course, on the other side of the city. Very convenient.

Euros.

I visited my bank so many times that I thought about getting my banker, Edu, a Christmas present. Eventually, I discovered that the bank had done everything right. There shouldn’t be an issue, and I should be getting paid shortly. When this didn’t come to fruition, I knew I needed to move up the bureaucratic food chain. My next stop: the Spanish Ministry of Education and Sport.

January

Kevin Mascitelli looking down from the rooftop.

My new year’s resolution was to get paid. I was running out of money, and frustrated because for months I had continued to work without pay. A new year forced me to reevaluate the financial stress this was causing. I considered packing my bags for a return trip home. At this point, persistence was my only shot at salvaging this mess.

The Spanish Ministry of Education and Sport was the agency that administered my English teaching program. It took me many exciting hours of combing through government websites to locate their Valencian office — a harbinger of sorts.

When I finally arrived at the office, although I felt very nervous about having such a serious conversation in my second language, I felt a sense of relief. Speaking face to face with the officials gave me hope that someone would act. Once I got through this conversation, a weight would be lifted off my shoulders.

“Two More Weeks”

Plastic seats in a waiting area.The program administrators told me to wait two more weeks, and everything would be fine. When two weeks had passed, nothing changed. This was obviously not a reassuring sign. It was not an easy choice (because I dislike conflict), but I decided to visit the office each week until I was finally able to stop working without pay.

These visits were uncomfortable at best, each time I left feeling embarrassed and desperate for a fix. In high school Spanish class, there’s no lesson on arguing with a bureaucratic system for your salary. Under pressure, my Spanish didn’t feel natural. I stuttered more and couldn’t remember the right words quickly enough. What bothered me the most was that I couldn’t use words to bring levity to the situation. All I could do was ask for help.

Pessimistic thoughts gathered like drops of rain in a puddle. One thing that kept me motivated was believing that messy situations make you stronger in the long run. Displaying grit in a situation fraught with setbacks “builds character.” It wasn’t until a group of English teachers publicly protested in front of the city’s main government building did the program act to resolve the salary issues. When the paycheck finally hit my bank account, it was late February 2020. I thought my days of working without pay in Spain for the next few months were over.

Looking Back, Moving Forward

History proved different, and in March 2020 — instead of a vacation in Italy — my girlfriend and I fled our Valencian apartment to live at my parent’s home in the US. As military medical personnel set up tents in hazmat suits, and police vehicles announced disquieting health advisories, we threw all of our belongings in the dumpster and caught the last flight leaving Valencia before travel was banned for the next eight weeks. We could have waited out the onset of the pandemic in Spain, of course, but given how unreliable my payment was, there was no telling how little support we would have gotten as foreigners.

A waiting room during COVID-19

In retrospect, I am thankful for the challenges I faced during my second experience in Spain. Bureaucratic systems operate differently from country to country, and while each system has its flaws, I had the implicit expectation that things would work like the United States, where the “customer is always right.” Resilience in the face of adversity is something many of us have shown since the pandemic began in March 2020. I hope that we can all enter the next chapter of this collective experience with the same perseverance that we’ve shown this past year.

by Kevin Mascitelli

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.