Archive | September 2011


After several posts all relating to traveling to various places around the world, as either a form of escape or self discovery, I have come to a general thought (sadly not related to my life’s it factor but rather life in general): who is right about us?

As I lived in Spain, I found that people weren’t overly excited to hear I was from the US. I really had to prove that I was there to learn about Spain firsthand while improving my Spanish, and that I was not just a foreign boozer looking to get wasted in different countries. I had heard that Americans didn’t have a great reputation around the world, but I never thought I would feel uneasy about telling people where I was from. I was wrong. Obviously with such a sound conclusion by some of the Spanish people I knew that Americans only traveled to try different drinks around the world, I had to ask why, and this is what I learned:

After numerous stereotypes relating to the general American population, I finally got to their answer. To them, a lot of countries and cultures appreciate the US, but the US does not reciprocate that appreciation of other countries. I immediately got defensive and thought, well of course we appreciate others; how could we have gotten where we are without other countries? They replied to this obvious remark with an example of what they considered to be a typical American from their own experiences. They said when you talk to other Spaniards, most of them are able to tell you the on goings of not only their country, but other countries in Europe and even others around the world. When you ask an average American what is going on in the world, most of them respond with nothing. When you ask an average American the on goings of their own country, more can respond, but the number is still disappointing. And, when having these sorts of conversations with Americans, they almost always had to speak English, not Spanish.

Ok, so to me it was sounding like they are just calling Americans stupid without telling me where they came up with these conclusions, which I was not alright with. My Spanish friends soon remarked that this was not the point. The point was that regardless of the world knowledge maintained by the average American citizen, Americans always considered themselves the best. Some may call this pride, but most people I met in Spain called this arrogance. They said to me that if we are going to make such a bold statement, we need the proof to back it up, which most Americans lack offhand (again, according to the group I was talking to).

So, according to the people I met in Spain, Americans are arrogant.  I am not entirely convinced that this blanket statement is fair.

Growing up, I studied world history for one year in high school. The rest of my history classes focused on American history, which at points included history from other countries, but only as it related to our own. Is that my fault? I don’t think so. In college when I could elect to take world history, I did, but not everyone had to. When I mentioned this to my Spanish friends they thought that to be baffling. They could rattle off American history just as well as I could. I then recited what Spanish history I had come to learn after years of studying Spanish, and they were impressed, but I reminded them that this was an elective for me. I chose to learn this, and not everybody does.

However, as time goes on, more and more opportunities for Americans to willingly travel and learn about the world are arising. More study abroad programs in colleges and even high schools are being offered as a way for students to become culturally aware at an earlier age. Don’t get me wrong, I know that these programs sometimes do not offer the best immersion into a foreign culture, but any sort of immersion is better than nothing, so it is a step in the right direction. Also, there are more ways for Americans to go abroad not just to travel, but to live as well. I’ve talked about teaching abroad a thousand times by now, but it has become such a popular thing for Americans to do in recent years, especially after graduating from college. It could be because of the recession and a lack of opportunities within our own country, but regardless it’s happening. Even international news is easier to obtain with the Internet and the new phases of journalism. Does that mean everybody takes advantage of that? No; but again, at least it’s out there. Not to mention the demand for kids to be bilingual in the states is a growing necessity. I know most countries by now start learning English or any second language at age 5, but again, at least we are starting.

In my opinion, this blanket statement that generalizes the whole population is a bit dramatic. The fact that they were saying all this to an American, in their own country, who was speaking in Spanish, should at least show that, hey, some Americans like to keep in the loop.  Right?

What are your thoughts? For those of you that have traveled around the world, what sort of response did you get for being American? Who is right (if there is a right or wrong here)? And, if we are arrogant, who is to blame? Loaded questions I know, but interesting nonetheless.

First Day of Teaching EVER—what could’ve, would’ve, should’ve been

While the level of freakiness of being a new teacher depends completely on the school you’re working at, there is one thought that goes through all new teachers’ heads the night before your first day: what did I get myself into?

The night before my first day teaching was a whirlwind of emotions. I had just moved into a Spanish home as a live-in English teacher and gotten a job offer at a random school just the day before. While the school was nothing to brag about, I took the job quite seriously anyway.

My first job was through a company that had a school based in the center of Madrid, but I was a commuting teacher who taught business English in a business’s building. I had pretty much mastered the metro system there by that time, so that was off the table as far as adding stress to the coming day. However, I had never taught a classroom of students wanting to learn English before. Oh my God. What was I getting myself into? Up until that point, it was just something I told people I did, not something I had actually tried myself before.

Needless to say, I took what little material and lack of direction the school had given me and tried to create my first lesson plan. This is definitely something I had learned how to do in my TEFL class, but the idea of making a lesson plan for a classroom of real students as opposed to an online discussion board makes for a tad more pressure in the planning process. It was a late night for me.

Considering I had never met my classes before and I had no idea what their actual level of English was, it was hard for me even to zero in on a book to use for the class. So, I used the first class as a day to get to know everyone which seemed easiest to do as a large discussion. My first class was an hour, which for someone who has never taught before seemed to be an eternity, and my second was an hour and a half (talk about a long meet-and-greet).

I reviewed my notes and exactly what I wanted to say to each class about 150 times before I actually walked into the classroom—which finding was a task in itself, but that’s a whole different story. As soon as my students started arriving and looking to me for guidance, I immediately reverted to my second grade shy face and turned beat red. Great. Now I am the timid teacher. Couldn’t have shown a smidge of confidence on the first day, could I? I can be pretty hard on myself…

Explaining my activities took a good two or three explanations before the class grasped my vision, but even after they nodded their heads a mile a minute meaning they understood me, it went completely differently than what I had planned out in my head. Life lesson number one as a teacher: preparing too much is pointless because no activity ever goes according to plan. No one mentioned that on my TEFL discussion board.

Side note: has anyone noticed how teaching seems to be way more like giving a speech to a classroom of confused faces than it is imparting crucial knowledge to people who really care? Half my students always seem to be terribly above the class level and the other half well below. Talk about interesting lesson plans. Anyhow…

Ok, so one activity down, three to go. That should fill up 60 minutes, even though my first activity only mustered up a good 8. Please God, let these activities take longer, I can’t end a half hour early on Day 1…

Sadly, my activities went by so fast (possibly because my students were fond of not answering questions and giving me a unified, glossy-eyed stare), that I had to think of something to fill up the remaining 15 minutes in question. Everyone had always told me I was pretty creative, this should be a piece of cake, regardless of the fact that it took me two hours to plan this lesson. Crap. To this day I don’t know how I filled that time, but I have an inkling it could have consisted of some forced conversations and reaching questions. Whatever. Day one, class one, check.

My next class was a tad more relaxing because I figured I had just experienced the worst. Which, it seemed, I had. Class two was wonderful in the sense that it was my longer class and all my students showed up 20 minutes late and loved talking in their broken English. Hallelujah!  The day is over!!

To the moral of the story: Teaching in general is pretty freaky, especially for me being someone who would rather not give a terribly long speech as part of my daily routine, but it is rewarding. I can’t say that I saw that on the first day, but over the past few years, I have.

So, to all you about-to-be teachers out there: Day one is rough and if it’s not, then day 2 will be. Regardless, enjoy the mess-ups because that’s what makes you learn (cheeseball I know) but more importantly, it gives you pretty funny stories to share with your friends after work (because no one likes to hear how perfect your day was).

If you have any great first day stories or advice, do share!


Teach English Abroad? Teach English Abroad!

Since I was in second grade, I always toyed with the thought that being a teacher was my life’s “it” factor. It allows you to help people, make an impact in their lives, not to mention you get great summer vacations! So, after graduating University, I decided to give teaching a real chance.

One of the most interesting and easy ways to go abroad is teaching English, and for me, these were two things I quite wanted to do. English is such an asset for the rest of the world that often we take for granted the fact that we are native speakers of it. So, my advice to you is: if you want to go abroad and you have inkling to teach, get your TEFL certificate.

There are a zillion different kinds of certificates you can find, all ranging in cost. You can find specific kinds of TEFL certificates based on what a certain school requires, or you can find general certificates that would let you teach anywhere in the world. I got the second and as a result, have been able to travel to different countries teaching English.

I received mine from the TEFL institute. They have classes you can take for a month or so in the country you’d like to teach in, but I chose to do the online class due to my hectic schedule pre-travel. Overall, I learned a lot of good information regarding English rules of grammar as well as teaching tips, but I think that an in-class classroom experience would be more beneficial. You would get more presentation experience and immediate feedback on your lesson plans in addition to a chance to actually put some of your activities to practice and see how well they work before you actually start teaching and using them.

My actual first year teaching experience was quite unique in the sense that I didn’t work at very structured schools immediately. In the beginning, I took whatever job was offered and, sadly for me, that meant that I wasn’t given classroom materials or even an idea of what I was supposed to be teaching my students. I had to assess their level myself on the first day and completely come up with a syllabus and materials on my own (which, as a first time teacher, is a terrifying thought).In the end, it made me learn to be a teacher quickly, but I wouldn’t wish it upon any new teacher.

As I found new jobs, I was able to immerse myself in an environment where lesson plans were checked, I was observed and given feedback, and I was given a list of outcome goals for each class I taught. This structure and commitment has greatly improved my teaching skills, more so than my first experiences teaching or my online TEFL class.

So while TEFL classes range in helpfulness and information, your overall in-class working experience is really what makes or breaks you. You can study personality types, grammar rules, and games for years, but unless you put these ideas into practice and deal with a plethora of students, you never will know how to be a great teacher.

Teaching is terrifying at times, but once you build experience and therefore confidence as a teacher, the rest comes easily.

I am still playing with the idea that teaching could be my life’s “it” factor, but for now I need to see what else is out there.

Let me know what you other TEFL teachers or soon-to-be TEFL teachers have experienced and what programs you’ve chosen to receive your certificates!

To be abroad, or not? That is the question.

After a long vacation of margari—….I mean relaxing, I discovered something: I still don’t know my life’s “it” factor.
I thought for sure I would find it while strolling through palm trees, cruising some ocean waves, or between cocktails, but I didn’t. I can at least say I had a hell of a good time looking for it though.
No matter what I seem to do or where I seem to look for life’s purpose, I always find I am happiest on the journey. That’s probably because I have completely immersed myself in new cultures while trying to find it, and that is something I have always loved to do. So, if there’s one thing I am terribly good at these days, it’s finding a way to go abroad.
While it may not always seem justifiable to leave your own country for a life with little money and slim friends, I always veer in that direction.  After graduating and realizing that working three part-time jobs was less than glamorous, I set off to teach English in Spain. I got my TEFL Certificate, created my international resume, and bought a ticket. Period. That seemed to be enough to start a new life in a foreign land. On second thought… well, let’s not give it a second thought.
So, for weeks in Spain I hauled my gringo self around Madrid’s metro, inviting myself to unscheduled interviews wherever possible. If the building turned out to be an old theater and the office was in one of the semi-converted changing rooms, so be it, I was there. Only after much trouble and finding myself on the verge of admitting this was a terrible idea, I found a Spanish family that wanted an English exchange. After living in a hostel for weeks, I was more than ready for some serious Spanish living. So without blinking, I accepted and ended up living with them for a year. Some might call that lucky, and I would have to agree.
While my living arrangements weren’t even half the battle I had set myself up for, I still managed to make a year’s worth of work for myself while I was there and even met some great people along the way.
I can honestly say putting myself through such life struggles was riveting.  I somehow managed to overcome homelessness, no job, no money, and no friends in a foreign country within a few weeks time. I had never felt so helpless and yet so accomplished all at the same time before.
By the end of my year abroad, I learned a few things: One, teaching is not my life’s “it” factor even though I did enjoy it. Two, traveling abroad and overcoming unnecessary obstacles could be my life’s “it” factor, but that’s quite expensive, and I am quite poor.  And three, I am not the only confused 20-something year old out there.
If you’ve had a similar experience, or any experience living abroad at all, please share!