Ellen Hietsch Talks Teaching English Abroad

Ellen Hietsch Talks Teaching English Abroad

I caught up with Ellen Hietsch to ask her about her year teaching English as a foreign language  in a non-bilingual school. Since the Spanish Ministry of Education does not require prior teaching experience or any special qualifications/degrees to teach English, teaching at a non-bilingual school can be quite the whirlwind. Read on to discover Ellen’s story.

What was a typical day at your school like when teaching English as a foreign language?”

“It was different every day, as I never worked with the same class twice. Mondays were a nice way to ease into the week as I would work entirely with 4th ESO and both levels of bachillerato (the older high school students). I had the same teacher for three out of four of these classes. She mostly wanted me to do conversational practice in groups of three or four students. It was a great way to get to know the students as individuals.

For the rest of the week, I would have a combination of all levels during the day. Sometimes I would receive a request from a teacher, on which I would base my activities, but often not. Each teacher I worked with had me work with the class in different ways.

With one, I had control of the class for the full period. The teacher would aid me with translation and discipline. Another had me working with one group for the entire period teaching English. Yet another would send various small groups of a number that he decided in the moment (the first group could be three well-behaved students while the next could be 12 of the most chaotic). I would then work with each group for up to 10 minutes. One thing that was certain each day was that I would only be working with English classes. My school did not have a bilingual program. Students did not receive English instruction in any classes outside of their mandated English classes.”

How many people did you work with (fellow language assistants included) and how many classes did you teach?

I worked with four English teachers, one of whom was the head of the department and my official supervisor. I also worked with one other language assistant, who had been at the school the year before. I taught 16 different classes with about 20-30 students each.

Did you form working relationships with your co-workers teaching English?”

“Yes, and this was a process that paralleled my growth at the school. While I am confident enough to speak conversational Spanish (even when I know I am nowhere near perfect), the teachers’ lounge was overwhelming for me. This was especially so after having several screaming classes. During my year at my school, all but one teacher outside the English department only spoke Spanish with me. Being surrounded by a language I was not fluent in was certainly more difficult than speaking one-on-one with a stranger at a coffee shop. I often didn’t know where to begin in terms of creating friendships. In the early weeks, my new, extroverted self seemed to disappear into a girl who silently played ukulele in a corner.

That isn’t to say that I was completely unsociable, however! If a teacher reached out to me, I was always excited to talk to them! I am incredibly grateful for them. Gradually, I grew accustomed to both my job and the teachers’ lounge culture. I began to reach out on my own and even join conversations that sounded interesting. I still have a few teachers who I stay in touch with over email and WhatsApp.”

Teaching English Abroad Finding new things to read in Madrid
Finding new things to read in Madrid

“How did you form bonds with your students?”

“In some classes yes, in others not so much. This depended on a variety of factors, including age group, teacher, and English level.

It was easy to form bonds with all my primero classes (ages 12-13). Even though the majority of them had an extremely low English level, they were all still energetic and enthusiastic just to have someone new in the classroom. These were the students most likely to say hi to me in the hall. My segundo bachillerato classes (ages 17-18) wouldn’t be as openly enthusiastic to speak with me outside the classroom, but their higher English level made it easy to get to know them during conversational lessons. From there, it was exciting to get to know them a bit more each week. I could sense their enthusiasm when they’d ask me questions in return.

However, the combination of being at a non-bilingual school and working with secondary students made forming bonds with other groups a little more difficult. Some classes in particular would get frustrated when I wouldn’t explain an activity in Spanish (as a language assistant, I could only speak English with students). Combined with the usual teenage restlessness, this was a recipe for disaster in        some classes. The language barrier often felt like my students and I had a glass wall between us, with no means of breaking it.”                                                             

How did the school foster the creation and maintenance of relationships with students inside and outside of the classroom?”

“Whether or not I formed bonds with a class depended upon the teacher with whom I was working. One in particular, Sara,* was especially understanding of circumstance: she and I worked together with one of the most notoriously difficult classes in the school. As a result of her patience with both the students’ low level of English and this being my first time teaching, they became a relatively easy group to teach. I was so excited when Sara told me that the class had been enjoying my lessons!

However, I didn’t have the same collaborative relationship with other teachers: as I mentioned before, many took a hands-off role with me. Most would show me the lessons they’d want me to use shortly before the class, and then send a group of students to work with me alone. The language barrier between the students and me made this style especially stressful. I worried that the students weren’t getting the most out of lessons when working with me this way, so I decided to approach the English department for support. I just “needed to learn how to deal with it.” He didn’t punish the students and the situation grew worse.

However, this backfired: one teacher in particular, Alejandro,* accused me of wanting to be “lazy.” His classes were the most difficult to work with in terms of student behavior. Eventually, I asked Alejandro for disciplinary advice, to which he responded that I just “need[ed] to learn how to deal with it.” He didn’t punish the students and the situation grew worse, to the point that I had to get the English department head involved. After that, Alejandro quit sending the problematic students for a period of time.

This situation acted as an example of why I value forgiveness. A few weeks after the department head disciplined these students, they approached me with genuine apologies. I told them we could start with a clean slate, and after this, they were friendly in our lessons together and did the work I assigned them. Through every chaotic situation I found myself in, I challenged myself to remain empathetic. Being relatively close in age to these students, I remember how painful being a teenager could be. While it was no excuse for their rude behavior, I didn’t want to l

Exploring the south of Spain
Exploring the south of Spain

What was your favorite part of the day? Why?”

 “I had one class per day with Sara, and it was always something I looked forward to it. She is someone who I admire both as a teacher and a person. I can tell simply by the way that we worked together that she prioritizes the wellbeing of her students above anything. I definitely had to put the most work into her classes; she expected me to create lessons that filled up the entire 50-minute class time. However, she was always clear about what she wanted from me and what worked best with specific groups of students.

If something I was doing wasn’t working, she wasn’t afraid to tell me, and she was also excited to incorporate my ideas into her classroom. While I took on the most active teaching role when I was in the room with her, she provided support with translation and classroom management. I didn’t feel as if I was sinking. As a result, I formed the closest bonds with her classes. I credit her for my growth as a teacher and strengthening my self-confidence and ability to work independently.”

How was material taught to students? Was there a specific method used?”

“As I touched upon before, the way I worked with students all depended upon the teacher. However, there are some similarities across the board too. All the teachers I worked with based their lessons heavily upon the book. They sometimes even spend the entire class doing activities straight from it. I was expected to follow this book-centric method as well. Some expected me to act in a similar way as they might run their class. One teacher would give me a series of pages, allowing me to decide how I would teach them. Another would have me hold conversations using a set of questions that came with the lesson the students were working on. The other two teachers based their requests for my lessons from the book, but allowed me to develop my own means of teaching it. This involved A LOT of English PowerPoints!”

How did you prepare your lessons for each class? If you didn’t plan lessons, how did you prepare for class?”

“Again, lots of PowerPoints. I made them nearly every night of the week. Sara would always give me details about what she’d like in my lessons and feedback about how everything was working. Lesson planning for her became formulaic. I would find a way to incorporate the vocabulary and grammar topics she gave me, while having speaking questions or interactive segments (such as videos) every few slides. This kept the students engaged. Then, I would develop a project involving written, practical English, such as making a schedule or a menu. If something really missed the mark, we would turn it into a game: these kids LOVED anything competitive!

Other teachers weren’t as communicative about what their classes were working on. I had a copy of each grade level book that I shared with the other language assistant, and these became my saving grace. I would keep myself updated on what lesson each class was on, read through materials in the book, and develop quick activities and games based around them. This had its challenges: one teacher in particular would spend months longer than the others on lessons and wanted me to only be working on grammar with his students. I could only make the present perfect tense interesting in so many ways! I would start each new lesson in his class with a PowerPoint explaining the concept. Then, the next few weeks would focus on exercises. Once they got the hang of this, I would give them small writing and speaking assignments that incorporated the grammar topic.”

Eclectic street art in Madrid
Eclectic street art in Madrid

What did working at a non-bilingual school mean to you? What did that mean according to the Community of Madrid?”

 “This means that the only English instruction students receive is through their mandatory English classes. This is opposed to a bilingual school, in which other subjects will be taught in English as well.

Along with being non-bilingual, my school was in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the Community of Madrid. Typically, this would have been an environment where I would have loved to work. One of my goals when coming to Madrid was to get involved in the community in a way that would leave a positive impact. I really hope that I was this for my students. Through conversational lessons, I learned about some of their backgrounds: many were the first generation of their family to attend school in Spain. They were excited to speak to me about their home countries and hear about the US from me as well. Cultural exchange was a wonderful way for us all to get to know one another.

However, I also believe that my school being non-bilingual contributed to some of the lapses in communication I have described. I admire the English department head at my school as a teacher. She is engaging and all of the students respect her. However, she was also spread thin across many roles, including as the head of the language assistant program. Since she often had something else she needed to be doing, we rarely had time to speak.”

What standards did your classroom teachers use to measure the performance of their students?”

“Students’ English skills were measured in four categories: speaking, reading, writing, and practical English. With this in mind, I tried to incorporate a little of each into my lessons. For example, even if a teacher wanted me to specifically work on grammar with students, I would have students incorporate what they learned into a writing or speaking exercise. That way, they could use what they were being taught in a practical way, while getting to practice other skill sets too.”

To what extent did your school have a set of shared goals and expectations for what knowledge and skills help their students succeed?”

“Not that I’m aware of. I never heard of the national standardized English exams that other language assistant friends helped their students prepare for mentioned by teachers or students at my school. The English level at my school was quite low. I always tried to remain patient and positive with my students. I could always tap into being encouraging as a resource when others weren’t available.”

“What have you learned about yourself since your arrival to Spain both in the classroom and out? What has changed since our last interview?”

“I’ve learned just how resilient I am. If someone had told me that I would feel comfortable teaching English with little-to-no guidance (Sara not included) or prior experience, I would have laughed. I spent most of my first month as a language assistant terrified that I would let my students down. When asking for support backfired, I wondered if I was indeed the problem, even as I thrived working collaboratively with Sara. It was a lonely state of mind.

While there is a lot that I wish was different about my relationship with my school, I wouldn’t exchange what I gained from it for anything. At the end of the day, I continued to try my best for the students. After all, I had taken the risk of asking the department head for more support because of my concern for them. Little moments such as a troublemaker being excited about writing about rap music in English, or the past simple tense really making sense to a girl who had been struggling made it all worth it.

Personally, I’ve become more at ease with public speaking and working independently. These are two things that the perfectionist in me would have panicked about a year ago. Meanwhile, I’ve gained confidence. This is something I would never have expected to happen while working at a secondary school. This is only compounded, as I still don’t like to think about my own high school experience.

Each week, I became more comfortable with letting my genuine personality shine, and my students reacted well. When I showed enthusiasm in the classroom despite less than ideal circumstances, they gave it to me in return. As for me, if I could continue to give it my all until the very last day despite such roadblocks, I believe that I am ready to face any future challenges that I will meet.”

to the light art

Despite a lack of support from many staff members, different expectations in all of her classrooms, and a generally low level of English at her non-bilingual secondary school on the outskirts of Madrid, Ellen found a way to persevere and make a meaningful impact teaching English to her students. Even though circumstances weren’t ideal, she did what any good teacher would do – she focused on her students. I’m sure they are better off for having known her. I hope other teachers going abroad to teach English will be better off for knowing her story, too. Stay posted for further updates as Ellen joins us as a blogger starting this fall.

*Names have been changed.

by Emma Schultz

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