My Greatest Challenges as a Teaching Assistant in Spain

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I want to start this post by saying that I fully appreciate how easy my job as a teaching assistant in Spain really is. I only work 12 hours per week, I’m not required to teach anything beyond proper pronunciation, and expectations for my performance are relatively low. This post is not meant to be a list of complaints.

However, I would like to talk about the most common challenges I’ve faced in the classroom this year. I imagine these are things that teachers at all levels might deal with.

Challenge #1: Blank Stares and Unenthusiastic Learners

Here’s the scenario:

You’re asked to bring in a presentation about some aspect of American culture for the next class. The goal of the presentation is not necessarily to teach students about America, but to help them practice listening to and speaking English. That means the presentation should be as interactive as possible.

You stay up all night crafting your presentation. It’s on an interesting topic, there are plenty of engaging pictures and videos, and you’ve also prepared quite a few questions to encourage further discussion. You put the finishing touches on it and think to yourself, “they are going to love this!”

As you break into your presentation the next morning, you’re met with the usual awkward silence that most classes begin with. That’s OK. You know that it usually takes a little bit of effort to get the conversation flowing at first. But ten minutes in, and after a few simple questions to break the ice, all you see is the blank stares of 20 teenagers, or maybe even a few of them blatantly ignoring you.

Your mind races for a solution. Am I speaking too fast? Is my topic boring? Why doesn’t the professor seem at all concerned that this is happening? How can I possibly fix this???

This is a scenario I’ve faced quite a bit in the last two years, but even moreso this year.

There are classes that just seem to flow, almost as if the teaching gods are smiling upon me. Students are awake and engaged, asking and answering questions with hardly any prompting. There’s learning, there’s laughter, and most importantly, there’s lots of English being spoken.

Then there are classes like the scenario I described above. The students either don’t understand what I’m saying or don’t seem to care enough to listen. Sometimes it’s a mix of both.

Over time, I’ve gotten used to this variation in student engagement. I’ve even had the same presentation evoke both types of reactions depending on what students I was giving it to. I guess it’s just part of the classroom experience.

Challenge #2: Adjusting for Different Age Groups and English Levels on the Fly

This challenge is closely related to the first one.

This year I am working with 10 different teachers across almost as many subjects. The ages of my students range from 12 to 17 years old, depending on the class. So I might go from a class of 16-year-olds who are proficient in English to a class of 12-year-olds who are just starting. Sometimes it’s the opposite, with the younger students having a higher level of English than the older ones.

This means I always need to be conscious of how I’m speaking to students. There are some classes where I can speak how I would to a native English speaker, but there are others where I can only use one or two different verb tenses to explain things.

I struggle with this challenge less and less as I get more experience in the classroom, but it’s something I still need to be very conscious of.

Challenge #3: Knowing How and When to Correct Students

My main responsibility as a teaching assistant is to help students with their pronunciation. The difficulty with this really comes down to one key fact: English is NOT a phonetic language, while Spanish is. This means that English pronunciation is very difficult for most of my students, especially ones who haven’t spent a lot of time listening to English.

Maybe I’m weird, but correcting my students makes me a little uncomfortable. Speaking English in front of the class already seems like such a nerve-wracking experience for many of them. The last thing I want to do is discourage them by pointing out their mistakes in front of their fellow classmates.

Things would be easier if I could work with students in a one-on-one setting, but unfortunately, that’s not an option at my school. Each class has about 30 students and the hour we have is rarely enough time to get through the lesson, let alone work with students individually. Still, that’s my main job description, so correcting students is what I have to do.

Since last year I’ve been trying to figure out the best way to correct a student’s pronunciation without singling him or her out in front of everyone. Each class is a new learning experience for me, but some of the methods I’ve tried so far are:

  • If a student is struggling a lot, only pointing out the one or two pronunciation mistakes that I think are critical.
  • Identifying common words that students might struggle with before the class starts, and then working on them with the whole class.
  • Taking notes on pronunciation mistakes during the class, and going over them with the whole class at the end. This means letting students make mistakes in the moment without correcting them.

I’m still not sure which of these methods is most effective. I guess only time and experience will show me.

 

The tone of this post might seem negative, but I don’t necessarily view these challenges as bad. Every challenge I faced in the classroom last year, while not always comfortable in the moment, helped me grow as an individual and a leader. I know that dealing with these current challenges will do the same.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mindfulness in the Classroom

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“The point of power is always in the present moment.”

-Louise Hay

I briefly mentioned in my last post how mindfulness and meditation have helped me in my job as an English Language Assistant in Spain. I want to elaborate on that a little bit.

Prior to coming to Spain in the fall of 2015, I had almost no experience in a classroom setting. I worked with children (ages 5-11) at a summer camp before I left, but that didn’t make me feel the slightest bit qualified to help teach English, especially not to the 100+ Spanish teenagers and adults I would soon be meeting. My lack of experience, however, wasn’t the main source of my anxieties. What really scared me was having to speak in front of a classroom.

The fear of public speaking is something most people are familiar with. It was never my biggest fear, but my previous experiences with it weren’t overly positive. I can recall countless class presentations in high school and college where I could hardly speak unless I had all my lines written on a note card. As soon as I stepped in front of the class my heart would start pounding, my palms would sweat profusely, and I would imagine every one of my classmates judging the shit out of me. While I was fortunate enough to never completely bomb a presentation, I was sure as hell relieved when they were over.

Fortunately, as I grew older and a little more confident, my social anxiety started to decrease. This meant that a classroom full of spectators no longer had the sweat-inducing power that it once did. Still, even with my increased confidence, those first few weeks in a Spanish classroom were quite difficult.

Speaking in front of my classes brought with it a ton of different thoughts and emotions, the majority of which were negative. From the moment the teacher introduced me, my mind began to tell me negative stories about what the students thought of me. Every look of confusion meant that I was totally unqualified to be standing in in front of them. Every little snicker from a 17-year-old indicated that no one would take me seriously. Every time a student looked bored (in a mandatory English class, I should add) my mind told me that my words were falling on deaf ears. It was negative story after negative story.

As you can imagine, those thoughts only made speaking and giving presentations all the more nerve-wracking. Instead of paying attention to what I was saying, I was focusing on how each student was reacting to my words. I wasn’t worried about giving the most value, though. I was more concerned with not being judged by them. So I stuttered and stumbled over words. I lost track of my thoughts and where I was in my lesson.  And most of all, I got really freaking stressed out. I left each class with tense knots in my neck and shoulders, my mind occupied with all the mistakes I had surely made.

You could say that working as a teaching assistant was becoming a rather grim experience. This is where mindfulness came in.

About a month into my stay in Spain, I started to get back into mindfulness and meditation. I hadn’t meditated in almost two months, and it was showing in both my personal and professional life. Fortunately, I had enough awareness to see that I was letting the stream of thoughts in my head control me and that I didn’t have to keep doing that.

So I slowly began applying what I knew about mindfulness to my job. It was nothing fancy. I simply started paying attention to the different thoughts I was having during class. Noticing how negative they were, I then tried not engaging with them when they came up. So when I would see a student with a bored expression on his/her face, my mind would still say, “Oh crap! What I’m talking about must really suck.” But instead of latching onto that thought, I would just let it be and bring my focus back to the present moment.

This wasn’t an instant fix. At first, I could only stay present for a couple minutes before getting lost in my thoughts again. But as the months passed, I started to notice some positive changes. My classes were flowing more smoothly. I could give presentations without stumbling over my words or losing my place. Those pesky thoughts popped up less and less, and even when they did it was easier to bring myself back into the present. By the end of the year, I felt like I had done a complete 180.

I’m now two months into my second year of assisting. I work at a different school and with a different group of students. While it took me a couple of weeks to adjust, I continue to see the benefits of mindfulness in each class. My nerves are pretty much gone, and every day I feel a little bit more relaxed in the classroom.

I’m far from perfect. My thoughts still get the best of me at times. But as I continue to make meditation a core habit in my life, I know I’m on my way to becoming not just an engaging speaker, but someone who can really make a difference in the lives of my students as well.

The Start of a New Teaching Adventure

Three weeks ago I began my second year as an Auxiliar de Conversación (English Langauge Assistant) in a school just outside of Seville, Spain. After only a few weeks of classes, I can already tell that this year will be a unique experience.

As much as I enjoyed my first year as an Auxiliar in San Sebastian, my actual classroom experience was less than gratifying. I split my twelve hours per week between two different schools: a vocational school in which English classes were mandatory and a college preparatory school (bachillero) in which students chose English as a course of study. As you can imagine, there was a pretty big difference between the levels of engagement in the two schools.

The students at the college preparatory school were around 17 years old. In general, they were very motivated, and almost all of them were already proficient in English. This meant that my main role in the classroom was to simply provide students with an opportunity to practice their English. I did this primarily through discussing cultural differences between the U.S. and Spain. My biggest challenge throughout the year ended up being finding ways to keep them engaged in discussions.

The vocational school was a different story. The students’ ages ranged from 16 to 50, and their English levels were just as varied. I had students that only knew a few words in English and others who were almost fluent, though those were the minority. As if those factors didn’t make things difficult enough, the general attitude towards learning was pretty negative as well. Students would blatantly not pay attention during class, refuse to speak or complete assignments, and openly laugh at other students for making mistakes.

In general, both schools were disorganized, though the vocational school was far worse. What discouraged me the most, however, was how often the professor I worked under at the vocational school would tell me how bad (both in their behavior and their English levels) the students were. And this was in front of them! I’m no teaching expert, but given his attitude, it was no wonder the students rarely gave any effort, let alone performed well.

Still, despite these frustrations, I did learn a lot during those nine months, and I felt as though I helped quite a few students at both schools.

A New Environment

I’m happy to say that this year looks to be a much better experience. I’ll only be working at one school this time, and it’s a secondary school. Secondary schools in Spain have students from 12 to 16 years old. Those four years are the last years of obligatory schooling that Spanish students have.

Other than the age group, another big difference is that I will be assisting in several different subjects: math, biology, music, geography, and English. Each of these subjects is taught in English, and my primary role will be to correct grammar and pronunciation. This is great because I hardly remember anything I learned in those subjects, especially in math.

I'll be teaching in a small town outside of Sevilla called Valencina de la Concepción

I’ll be teaching in a small town outside of Sevilla called Valencina de la Concepción.

From the moment I was given my class schedule, I could already tell that this would be a much more organized teaching environment. The director of the English program was very straightforward with me about what I’m required to do in the classroom and how my schedule will look.

So far I’ve assisted in pretty much all of the classes that I will be in, though due to national and regional holidays I’ve probably only worked about six or seven days. Still, outside of being completely lost in the math class (how the hell do you write in scientific notation?), my classroom experiences have been pretty good so far. The students have all been respectful and most of them seem pretty eager to practice their English.

Overall, I have a really good feeling about this school year. But regardless of what my classroom experience ends up bringing me, I know that it’s 100% my responsibility to make the most out of this year.

 

 

If reading this post made you curious about how you can teach English in Spain, you can check out this video I made on the Auxiliar de Conversación program. Let me know if you have any questions!

 

¡Hola Sevilla!

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After 12 hours of flying, two nights in Madrid, a missed bus, and a seven-hour train ride, I finally made it to Sevilla last Saturday. While my journey was long, I knew it was worth it as soon as I caught a taxi towards my hostel.

It was around nine in the evening, and every street we drove down was full of people – families, couples, and groups of all ages – enjoying the perfect weather. As we passed by the beautifully lit river that runs through the city, I thought to myself, “This is a city I can call home.”

Exploring the Night Life

A major reason I enjoy traveling so much is the opportunity to stay in hostels. Not only are they super cheap (I’m always on a budget), they’re also one of the best ways to meet awesome people from around the world. I’ve probably stayed in about 10 or 15 hostels, and pretty much every stay has left me with some great memories.

As soon as I checked into the Black Swan Hostel that night, any jet lag or exhaustion I was feeling immediately disappeared. I was ready to experience what nightlife Sevilla had to offer. Fortunately (though not for my health), my hostel hosted free nightly pub crawls, so I signed up, ate some tuna and half a baguette, and started socializing.

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First night out. I’m the tall one, by the way.

Overall I was really impressed with the night life in Sevilla. The drinks are cheap, the people are nice, and it seemed like something was going on every night we went out, which is pretty impressive considering Sevilla isn’t a huge city like Madrid or Barcelona. While out I met a variety of people, including a ton of local Spaniards, several people from around Europe, and probably a few too many fellow Americans. I was even fortunate enough to meet quite a few people from my teaching program.

The Apartment Hunt

My first week in Sevilla wasn’t all fun and games, though. One of the conditions of the teaching program I’m in is that we have to find our own housing. This proved to be a considerable challenge.

When I did the program last year in San Sebastian, I was extremely lucky and found an apartment with very little effort. One of my students happened to have a friend with an available room literally two minutes from my school.

Things weren’t so easy this time around. Starting that Sunday, I called every ‘anuncio’ I could find, each one coming back ‘ocupado’. Apparently, apartments fill up quick down south, and it didn’t help that this was the start of a new school year; there was a huge influx of foreign students studying abroad, plus all of my fellow teaching assistants who were looking for places.

After turning down a place on Wednesday that was in a decent location but would have cost more than half my monthly paycheck, I started to feel the panic set in. “What if it takes weeks for me to find a place? I can’t afford to stay in a hostel that long.” “What if I run out of money???” “What if I have to go back to the states?” These worries and more began settling in my mind. So I did what any mature adult would do in that situation: I went out and got really drunk that night.

As luck would have it, this strategy paid off and I found a room after only two calls the next day. The room was small and the apartment had pretty old appliances, but it had everything I needed, was only five minutes from the bus station I would have to commute to work from, and was decently priced as well. I said “si!”, paid a 300-euro deposit, and moved in the next day.

What did I learn from this experience? Sometimes you just get lucky. Also, very little sleep combined with lots of drinking for six days means you’re definitely getting sick.

My new digs.

My new digs. Please excuse the mess.

As soon as I moved into my new place, the jet lag and six nights of going out caught up to me. As I write this I’m recovering from a chest cold that’s kept me inside for the past few days. However, things are looking up and I’m very excited for the weeks to come.

The view from my rooftop. I could get used to this.

The view from my rooftop. I could get used to this.