Teaching English in Southern Spain

From Japan to Spain

I remember huddling for warmth under a mountain of blankets in my frigid apartment during the winter of Japan, wondering how I was going to escape the cold. It was my second year in Fukui, Japan teaching English at a junior high school with the JET Program, which is a government-run initiative that employs native English speakers in public schools all over Japan.

At first, getting up early to scrape the snow off my car was exciting for me as a southern California girl who had never really experienced weather. But soon I was eager to go somewhere warmer and try out a different culture, so I started doing some research on where to go next.

Thanks to a suggestion from a friend of a friend on Facebook, I found a similar program called “North American Language and Culture Assistants in Spain,” which places native English speakers in public schools. Unlike Japan, however, where they pay for your flight and help you organize your life when you arrive, participants in the Spanish program are responsible for finding their own housing, getting a bank account and phone, and organizing their own transportation. The JET Program is a full-time job with a yearly salary. In Spain, most participants make 700 euros a month for working just 12 hours a week, which gave me plenty of free time in the afternoon and on 3-day weekends to teach private classes for extra money, pursue my hobbies, and travel.  

I cherished this free time, and I noticed that most of my friends with full time jobs don’t have as much time to pursue other interests. During my 2 years in Spain, my hobbies – sports, music, Spanish – were equally as important as my work at the school, and I developed my skills and abilities.

At times I felt desperately lonely. I would ask myself, “What am I doing here away from all my friends and family?” I felt this intense burden that I was alone, and I couldn’t make friends easily. But the feeling passed, and I continued to learn and flourish. I would force myself to go salsa dancing alone and meet new people. Even though it was terrifying at first I never regretted those times I forced myself to do something alone.

My first year I lived in Almendralejo, a town in the autonomous community of Extremadura which borders Portugal, famous for wine and jamón (ham). With a population of 30,000, Almendralejo is not at all a tourist destination. To escape the flat and dry landscape I would often visit Seville on weekends – they had an ultimate frisbee team who I practiced with – which was only an hour and a half away by bus.

I taught at two high schools and one elementary school in Villafranca de los Barres and Hornachos, which were even smaller towns. I bummed rides from my Spanish coworkers to get from Almendralejo to my workplaces, and the 30 minute journey was a good chance to practice my Spanish. At first I was shy and sometimes sat in the car without saying anything. 

Even though I consider myself an extremely extraverted person, somehow the language barrier diminished my outgoingness. A challenge I faced throughout my 3 years in Spain was how to overcome shyness and fear of speaking Spanish with locals. I had a few rare interactions where Spaniards made fun of me for a mistake I made, and I took it personally when I should have just laughed it off.

Almendralejo was small and oftentimes I found myself excruciatingly bored (no ultimate frisbee or salsa dancing there!) I was forced to find ways to fill up my copious free time. I memorized all the streets and walked all around that dry little town. To combat boredom I learned how to juggle, lifted weights at a local gym, went to a dance studio for zumba classes, and studied Spanish.

Luckily I became close friends with the 10 other English teachers living there, which was detrimental for my Spanish acquisition but good for my spirits. I lived with Margrit, a vegetarian yogi from New York who regularly practiced meditation, and Fede, a Spanish university student. You can read more about my first year in Spain here

After a solo Christmas vacation to Andalucía, I decided I wanted to live in Málaga. When I reapplied to the program in February I requested my application to be transferred to Málaga. Thankfully everything went smoothly, and I moved there the next summer!

Sunsets in Málaga were spectacular.

My Life in Málaga

In Málaga, I worked at an elementary school near the beach. I opted to have only Spanish roommates to increase my opportunities for speaking Spanish. My first year I lived a 40 minute walk or bus ride from my school with two Spanish women in a neighborhood called Capuchinos. I still felt shy and self-conscious about my Spanish – especially my accent – and signed myself up for group Spanish classes twice a week. After a few months they hired me as an  English tutor in exchange for my Spanish classes.

My second year I moved to Huelin, a neighborhood closer to my school. My housemate was a friendly Spanish man named Alfredo. We shared a spacious apartment next to a park and a 5-minute walk to the beach. I paid 300 euros per month for my own room.

I played on a co-ed ultimate frisbee team called Camaleones  (Chameleons) that practiced twice a week. We traveled together to tournaments all around Spain, and I spent a lot of time with them laughing and practicing my Spanish. Being part of the team was a huge part of my experience in Spain and I hope to go back someday and play with them again.

It was so much fun being part of an ultimate frisbee team!

Looking back, I learned a lot and had so much fun living in Spain, and I will always cherish these years of my life. I am sad that I had to leave abruptly and early due to the COVID virus, which caused all schools to shut down in early March and the country went into a strict lockdown. When I left, citizens could only leave their houses for the grocery store or pharmacy. I opted to fly home to California two months early to be closer to friends and family.

Becoming the Healthy Habits Teacher

My first year teaching at the elementary school in Málaga, I realized that I prefered working with younger kids to teenagers (I worked with junior high school students in Japan, aged 11 to 14).With my ukulele and activity sheets with blanks for missing lyrics that they had to listen and write in, I taught the entire school a few songs with my ukulele:  “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” “We Are the World,” and “Count on Me.” It was so gratifying and beautiful to hear the whole school singing these songs at the end of the year assembly, even if the 6th graders purposefully howled the “ooh ooh”s at the end of Count on Me and sounded like a pack of wolves.

At the start of my second year, my school in Málaga decided to give me an entire subject just for myself, which made me feel proud and like I had proven myself.

Since all schools were required to teach “healthy habits” for at least 30 minutes a week, my school assigned it to me. It was such a fun challenge! I was grateful for the opportunity to be creative and make my own lesson plans and curriculum. 

I worked with about 200 third to sixth graders between the ages of 8 and 12 and visited each of their classes for 30 minutes once a week. There were about 25 students in each class. To begin, I asked each of my students to make a mini-book and decorate the cover. The purpose of the mini-book was to take notes during my classes which would help them retain the information I was sharing. Whenever I walked into the room, all the kids would say, “Amber’s Mini-Book!” and pull out their books

To start my Healthy Habits curriculum, I compiled a list of healthy habits and discussed them with my classes, and asked them to copy it in their mini-books.

Healthy Habits:

1. Eat fruit and vegetables

2. Do sports

3. Practice good hygiene

4. Have good posture

5. Sleep for 8 or more hours

In my following classes I delved into the list in more detail: I asked them what fruits and vegetables they knew in English, what sports they practiced, and how long they typically sleep. I made a separate “What’s on my plate” class that explained how half your plate should be filled with fruits and vegetables and the other part with protein and carbs.

I found a song on youtube that I used in all my classes called “Healthy Food Vs. Junk Food Song”. The students pasted the lyrics in their books, and after a few weeks of practice I could just strum the first few chords on my ukulele and the whole class would immediately start singing.

My original Healthy Habits list and the song gave me enough teaching material for about a month. Then I decided I wanted to teach meditation, yoga, and self-confidence in my classes, so I added number 6 and 7:

6. Calm your mind

7. Believe in yourself

During the “Calm Your Mind”class, I asked students to sit quietly and breathe deeply in silence for 3 minutes. Some troublemaking students would look around the room and make faces at everyone while their classmate’s eyes were closed, but after practicing, it became easier for everyone to get into a meditative zone.. Then I tried to teach yoga. I realized with some trial and error that if I had them stand up, they would become too excited and the yoga would devolve into pushing each other. So instead I began to teach chair yoga, which was simpler and easier to manage.

For my “Believe in Yourself”class, I wrote a song for them about being confident. I created a worksheet of the lyrics with some blanks, and they had to listen for the missing words.

Here is the chorus:

I am powerful, I am strong

I am smart, I am fun

I work hard, I can do anything

I am me, and I am great!

Teaching Private Classes After School

In addition to the work I did at the school in Málaga, which was typically in the morning from 9 to 2 PM from Monday to Thursday (although I only worked 12 hours a week, so some days I started later and other days I ended a bit earlier) I taught private classes in the afternoon.

To find students, I put up flyers around my neighborhood. While the flyers were effective, even more so were the word-of-mouth recommendations from my student’s parents. Most of my private students attended the public school where I worked. I went to their apartments, which gave me some insight into their family lives. Many families had legs of jamón in their kitchens, which as a vegan I found shocking (but I kept my opinions to myself!)

I noticed that many of the Spanish families in Málaga didn’t have a car, or if they had one, they didn’t use it very often. Instead they would walk with their kids to school, to soccer practice, or take the bus with them to other activities. To me it seemed like they had more family time than American families, since the school day finishes at 2 and they gather together at home to eat lunch. 

From reading books to creating stories to playing games, I tried to make my one-on-one classes engaging and fun. I enjoyed getting to know each student and finding a way to teach that suited their learning styles. I had picture flashcards with animals that I used to make guessing games. I taught two 8 year old girls who were such good friends they practically taught themselves. We usually read a book out loud and then played the categories game. I set a timer for 2 or 3 minutes and we tried to brainstorm words in a certain category, such as ocean animals, things you find at the beach, modes of transportation. After 3 minutes we share what we thought of. This game only works if the two students have about the same level, otherwise the lower level student might feel sad.

A challenging class I taught was with two brothers. The older brother usually tried to make fun of or poke the younger brother, who would laugh it off and not seem too bothered, but I found that making them sit on opposite ends of the table helped their concentration. It was difficult to find activities to engage both of them because of their different levels. We played a lot of jenga and uno.

Unfortunately I left Spain abruptly and I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to my private students. I will record them video messages since I don’t plan on going back to Spain anytime soon.

Observing Reactions to the Corona Virus

I wrote this one week before they shut down schools and everyone was forced to stay home.

I hope that when we look back on this phase of history, we will have learned something and improved as a society. It’s a scary time to be anywhere, but in Málaga people seem to be calmer than in other parts of Spain, and stores are still well-stocked.

Schools in Madrid were closed but in Malaga they are still open. I’m happy to report that my school finally provides soap and hand sanitizer to their students, something that wasn’t available before the outbreak.

Several times a day the students get a glob of soap in their hands from their teacher and go to the bathroom in groups of 4 (each bathroom has 4 sinks). It’s appalling to me that they didn’t teach good hygiene at the school before the outbreak.

As I felt it was timely and important, I created a presentation about Healthy Hygiene with step-by-step instructions on how to properly wash their hands. I included this graphic from google images. If you devote 5 seconds to each part of the image, it takes 25 seconds to properly wash your hands. My own technique has improved after having taught this!

I made this video about how to wash your hands for my students. Click here to watch it!

Although it was a hard and last-minute decision, I decided to leave Spain in late March to be with my family. I packed up all my stuff and left the rest of my food with my good friend and downstairs neighbor. I’ll miss my friends, students, and frisbee teammates there, but I’m also excited to be starting graduate school at UCSB next year. I will get a teaching credential and Masters in Education that will allow me to teach elementary school in California.

Málaga will always be my favorite city in Spain, with its half-finished cathedral and closeness to the beach. I know I’ll be back someday to say hello to my old students and coworkers. I learned so much while I was there.

I learned how to be alone, how to feel lonely but still function, and how to fill the void of loneliness with music and sports.

There’s a great hat ultimate frisbee tournament in November every year called Chiripones. I went twice and I hope that I’ll go someday!

My Spanish improved a lot, although I’m still fighting fear of sounding ridiculous when speaking. It seems to be a never ending challenge for me. I find that most adults judge and compare themselves when they speak, which is why children learn so much faster. My journey with learning Spanish is just beginning. I still want to do a Spanish immersion course in Mexico and travel in Latin America.

All in all, I would highly recommend teaching English in a foreign country. My experiences in both Japan and Spain were so educational and powerful. I might do it again someday! I hear good things about Taiwan. Are there any other countries that would be good for me to live in as an English teacher? Let me know! 

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Wow, this sounds like a really cool opportunity! I’m currently teaching English online while living in Thailand, but love Spanish and would definitely want to move somewhere to practice. Obviously it’s hard to know what will happen next with the Coronavirus, but what was a application process like for this the program you were with?

      1. Awesome, thank you!

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