"If you don't like something, change it. If you can't change it, change your attitude." - Maya Angelou
Do me a favor and hug the next teacher you see because this profession is not for the faint-hearted. As a teaching assistant in a primary school I have learned this firsthand. I've struggled with maintaining my motivation. I've struggled with being creative as the curriculum is planned out for me 95% of the time. The majority of my students complete activities out of structured workbooks with various themes such as school supplies, familial connections and places in the city. They also listen to corny, yet effective, English songs that help them remember how to cross the street, the different rooms in a school, food, etc. When I envisioned teaching English in Spain, this is not exactly what I had in mind. Yet, it has become a daily routine that I love...most of the time because let's be real every job has its bad days.
I had to face reality: my students are under the age of 12 and still in the early stages of bilingual education in a non-touristy area of Spain. Learning English is a newer concept in Logroño and my school that is no more that 6 or 8 years old. The topics I thought I would cover when I applied for teaching in Madrid with high school students had to be thrown out the window. Plus, the transition coming from a university setting where we drank wine and discussed institutionalized racism to teaching kids Jolly Phonics was more difficult than I imagined. I felt like I was failing my students when really I had to adjust my teaching style and content for the population I'm living in. I needed to focus less on what I expected to be doing and focus more on what my students needed me to do. That simple change has made a big difference with the rapport between myself and students, as well as teachers. Of course, Ms. Angelou said it best.
Though it's not everyone, I find that teach or volunteer abroad programs attract many applicants who have a white savior complex. 1) I didn't come to Spain wanting to make everyone think more like I do. 2) We need to value our differences just as much as our similarities. 3) Have you met Spaniards? They are opinionated and set in their ways so little ole' me wasn't changing that. However in the classroom I wanted to be the educator I loved growing up; those who integrated the curriculum with current events. Phrases like "make an impact" and "change the world" are just buzz words we use on the program application. What we don't know as we write that 500-word personal statement or a statement of purpose is the real work and life experience to come. You can fantasize about your next 10 months abroad up until the day you leave, but nothing can prepare you 100% for anything so when the fantasy changes it scares people. You can become overwhelmed or overcome the challenges and as an auxiliar in Spain you have to be flexible; it's the Spanish way of life. Though frustrating at times, the pros outweigh the cons and I have attained skills that only being here could have given me.
Make Your Lessons Unique
Being the "fun teacher," I have found a few small, fun ways to educate my students to fulfill my "English Teaching Assistant" title and bring aspects of U.S culture they may not get from the media to embrace the "U.S Cultural Ambassador" title. A few months ago my 2nd grade classes discussed healthy food. From carbohydrates to proteins, these 7 year olds were learning complex concepts in their second language (kudos to them). To put my own twist on the lesson I decided to do a healthy snack demonstration using "ants on a log." If you are unfamiliar with the infamous snack, it's raw celery with peanut butter in the middle and raisins on top. Each student made one and guess what...the majority of them HATED it. One kid even told me he would rather do his homework than eat it and another dramatically passed out and said I was trying to poison him! Did this bother me? Not at all. Exposing my students to something new is what I'm here to do, whether they enjoyed it or not! They learned new vegetables in English and we bonded over their dramatic disdain as a class. My work here was done for the day.
Don't Underestimate the Appeal of Arts and Crafts
Coloring is the most persuasive tool on the planet for a classroom. Whether it's pre-school or 6th grade, my students love when I incorporate art projects into the lessons. After my Thanksgiving presentation we created hand turkeys of all colors and designs. I showed some examples to give my classes an idea, but in the end I let their creativity soar. Coloring is a great way to switch up their routine with worksheets and workbooks, just make sure it's related to the overall lesson. It's also the perfect opportunity to talk with students as you walk around the class to check their progress. Conversation and coloring go hand-in-hand, plus they'll be so excited to show you their work of art.
Incorporate PowerPoints, But Make Them Interactive Too
As I said earlier, this isn't college anymore. Those lovely PowerPoint presentations filled with a combination of words, pictures and graphs will only get you so far with primary students. Mix it up by using a PowerPoint for 10 or 15 minutes, then have a game or arts and crafts activity to get them engaged and speaking in English. I've done presentations on types of food in the U.S. to build their vocabulary and compare it to Spain. I've done "Speed Friending" where students asked each other about their interests in English. These interactive activities can be difficult because they tend to instantly talk if I post a question with words they don't understand and can't translate to Spanish, but it's worth a shot. I found that my 3rd to 5th graders LOVE to read aloud in English so PowerPoints can be good content to practice English reading. I try to do more than lecture them because they are still kids with short attention-spans!
Find Balance Between Your Vision and their Needs
Besides Kwanzaa, the other major holiday I wanted to cover was Black History Month. Clearly students know about Christmas and Easter, but these holidays are lesser-known and not celebrated by the masses. I wanted to bring my culture in the classroom in a way that made sense to them. For Black History Month we created a wall of equality and diversity to represent the dream of The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I presented about the origin of Black History Month and the work of Dr. King, which also included explaining racism and segregation to my students who never heard of these terms. By saying how I couldn't have been their teacher in this time or that they couldn't go to school with another black student in the class opened their eyes a bit. They may never have the chance to join a protest in the U.S, but it was insightful time for my class and amazing to see them process what life was like for black people during the Civil Rights Movement. Finding ways to incorporate culturally aware lessons for students to enjoy has fed their need to learn and my need as a Fulbright.
I still have a few months left, but it's been a year of learning. Every teacher has their own experience, but I think we can all agree that teaching is no joke and there's always room for improvement. I've learned how to explain concepts in ways children can actually understand because as corny as those songs are, they're retaining the information. Every week my students test out words and phrases they learned with other teachers such as saying "you're welcome" after I say thank you. That's progress because they didn't know that back in September. It's a nice reminder that when it comes to language, whether it's your native one or your third one, we all had to start somewhere. Attitude is everything, education is about learning and growth doesn't happen overnight. I've seen firsthand that it's about creating a foundation for them to build upon as the year progresses. I may never see my students again after this year, but I hope that my presence in their classroom has been beneficial.
I know it has for me.
How was your first "big kid" job experience? What's advice you would give to a new teacher?
I'd rather splurge on a good meal than a nice hotel, wine than water and plane tickets than club covers. Traveling and eating are my two favorite things, so follow my journey to see where I go and eat next! I'm just living my best life.