By Stacey Linehan
A year ago this month, when I packed my entire life into a suitcase to teach English in Spain, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I expected to have a fun adventure. I knew that I loved Europe, and I knew that I would probably enjoy living there, so I figured why not, if I can manage to survive for a few months, it’ll probably be worth. What I did not expect was a completely trans-formative experience. But after returning home to the US from a year abroad, as cliche as it sounds, I honestly feel like a new person.
So, I thought I would offer up a quick list of 10 things that stuck with me after teaching English in Spain.
1) Just go for it because anything is possible
Before my first year teaching abroad, if you had told me that I would be traveling by myself, let alone going to live and work in another country on my own, I would have laughed thinking of it as some far fetched idea only obtainable to those with money saved up and lots of experience. Sure, lot’s of people go abroad to study or teach, but me? I never would have imagined. I went out on a limb and applied for a program I had heard about at a university fair. At first it was something I applied for just to keep my options open, then it became a fascination as I waited to hear back. Once approved for the program I was quite busy scurrying around getting a passport, visas, and plane tickets all taken care of. It had become a reality, a reality which has helped build and shape my character today.
2) I am even more independent than I thought
My plane ride was full of nervous jitters and anticipation. I was wondering where I was going to stay once I got there, if I had packed too much, if I had packed enough, if I was going to be able to communicate with other people, if those people would be friendly, my mind was racing faster than I could land. Once I landed, I ate a croissant, drank some water and relaxed for a moment in the airport before starting my next journey by train than by bus to the village where I would be teaching. I stayed only two nights in the only hotel in the village before finding an apartment. I searched for places on the internet but had more luck talking to people in the street. They were not hesitant to give me phone numbers of people renting houses or apartments and after visiting 5 of them, I picked my favorite and the next day I was all moved in.
3) To a Small Spanish village, I am all of America
It was hard for my students to understand that America is huge and that just the state of Texas alone is bigger than their entire country. What does that mean for me? It means a lot of questions I don’t know the answers to. I’m from Boston and although I have traveled a lot internationally, I’ve never been to Alaska or to Colorado, or even to California. That doesn’t stop students from asking me my favorite beach there or what is it like to walk around in Hollywood?
Which brings me to my next point.
4) It’s okay not to know everything
Sure, I am supposed to be a cultural ambassador for my country but hey, I’m only human right? I’m young and still learning and it is important to let students know that. Don’t be ashamed if you don’t know something in the moment but ALWAYS check back with your students. They will be more impressed with the fact that you took the time to look up their interests during your own free time and that you came back to them with answers. After all, following up with students is one of the most important aspects of teacher, it builds trust with your students and shows them that you care.
5) Sports are international
I play basketball and had no idea how much that would save me in Spain. I asked around if anyone knew where I could play some pick-up ball and next thing I know I am trying out for a semi-professional woman’s team in Spain and guess what? I made the team. Could it get any better? It did, we were paid. Now, I wasn’t getting paid anything over the top but I was getting paid something and earning it playing basketball, the sport I have always loved. I was the only American on the team which was an excellent way for me to practice my Spanish.
6) Making friends is not as difficult as I thought
Traveling alone to a country where you don’t know a single soul can seem like a very lonely thing to do, but it doesn’t have to be. Traveling, you will come across other travelers, some traveling for short periods of time and other who have been on the move for years. Talk to these people, their stories will comfort you and help you realize that life doesn’t have to be lived in one place. My advice for making friends is don’t be shy and if you are shy, pretend not to be. Once you are working you will meet colleagues and things will branch out for there. Join a gym or a club and don’t be afraid to try anything that sparks even the smallest flame of interest.
7) I can make a life anywhere
It is easy to get caught in the comfort of our daily routines and not want to move. Don’t get comfy, get up, and create or find a new comfort. If I can do it, you can too. You will never know how much you could love the things you don’t try.
8) I am a wizard at booking last minute flights and hotels for spur of the moment trips
Traveling in Europe is a lot easier than I thought it would be. There are trains, buses, and cheap flights that can take you from one country to the next in a flash. You can have breakfast in Spain and lunch in Ireland if you want.
9) I can impact the lives of my students
Almost three years later, I still keep in contact with a handful of students who have told me that I have inspired them to travel and thus really got them to practice their English. Since English was a mandatory class in my school, many students didn’t really want to learn it. When I stepped in and showed all the possibilities that open up as a result of knowing another language, especially English, many students finally saw the big picture and were working harder both in and out of the classroom.
10) Smiles are universal
When in doubt, smile and nod. People can see your pleasantness though the smile and this outshines nervousness and uncertainty. People will be more willing to help you when you are grinning and not sulking.