I can’t really describe the feeling of getting onto a plane knowing that someone you’ve only read about is going to pick you up, take you to their home, and let you live there for up to four months. There’s excitement, sure, but there’s also a strange sense of trepidation. So many questions, and not all can - or will - be answered. Needless to say, the experience was both amazing, life-changing, and at points awful and awkward. But for, not despite, these reasons, my year teaching English as a conversation assistant at a Catalan high school - while I was studying a TEFL course - was one that I will never forget.
In November 2016, I decided to join the CAPS Home to Home program. Believe it or not, I found an advert on Gumtree. Sceptical but intrigued, I watched their introduction video, and I was sold. There was a sense of adventure, and an undeniable win-win in living abroad for a year whilst getting a TEFL qualification and teaching experience. The process was incredibly easy. CV, covering letter, application form, Skype interview, within two weeks I was given a high school, told where I was going to live, who I was going to live with, and asked to buy a flight to Barcelona airport as soon as possible.
Easily described as a whirlwind, but as with the territory, I found that throughout my experience keeping an open mind, going with the flow, was paramount to my success and well-being as an English teacher living abroad. I couldn’t count the amount of times I stood around awkwardly at festivals or birthday parties while I was surrounded by people talking Catalan, utterly lost. I’ll never forget the moment I walked into the high school for the first time. The scene; lunch time, prepubescents running around, a cacophony of language I couldn’t decipher or understand. I looked up the atrium and was met with eyes, so many eyes, taking me in - the new English assistant. This sounds overwhelming, terrifying even, but there was a confidence instilled in me on that day, which only grew and developed.
I’ve never felt more welcomed. Consider this; your child’s school offers a unique experience - host an English assistant in your house for at least three months. The only compensation being the unspoken expectation that your child’s English skills will benefit by having an English speaker present in their daily lives. And this; a company offers you a native English speaker for a price. The hope being that they choose someone who is good with kids, a serviceable teacher, and someone who can inspire your students to speak in English, really, you have no idea who’s going to turn up. It’s a risk, and one that both the school, and the families that I lived, with met with absolute grace, friendliness, and open arms. I felt like a part of each family, and I was remarkably sad to leave the school, my colleagues, and my students behind when I returned to England. I couldn’t have asked for anything better but saying this, I know that I was pretty lucky.
Other language assistants across Spain didn’t have such a great time. There were problems with the families, or with the school asking them to do a lot more work than they were hired to do. But with each case, I found myself thinking that in this experience, there is only one vital survival method; be positive and open minded. If you’ve seen Yes Man with Jim Carrey, you’ll kinda understand what I mean. There are times when you feel like you’re being used. See: the meagre €30 I earned working six hours for an English academy (I didn’t go back). But it all culminates into one thing – the experience. As I’ve mentioned previously, it was bittersweet, but that’s basically life. I hope that doesn’t come across as condescending, but when you are privileged enough to have a whole school, and numerous families, change their daily lives and routines to accommodate you, to help you open bank accounts and get mobile contracts; when you’re given the opportunity to experience a different culture for the price of a plane ticket; when a company gives you medical insurance and a pay check; you should feel nothing but gratitude. The respect, the simple awe, you’re given for being lucky enough to be born in an English speaking country, is quite overwhelming, and it’s easy to take advantage, rather than see it for what it really is.
Rural Catalonia is a beautiful landscape; mountains in one direction, the beach in another, and fields of apple, almond and orange trees - with vineyards everywhere. Lleida, the area I lived in used to be a desert, and until the miracle of irrigation, it was given the nickname ‘The Devil’s Hole.’ It was ridiculously hot from March onwards, but oddly, it was extremely foggy in the winter. The first village I lived in had a population of two hundred, and sat on a hill like something out of a Brontё novel. For most of my time there it was shrouded in fog from dawn until dusk, and in the month of December there was only seven days of clear skies. Snails were a speciality in the region. There were giant snails on roundabouts, and snails hidden in stews and soups. I’ve never had wine or olive oil as earth-shatteringly delicious and Catalan culture itself is something to witness. If you’re unaware Catalonia is like Scotland. They want independence from Spain, and because of this there’s been a growing rise in nationalism there. Not the unmentionable and embarrassing kind, but the kind that celebrates its traditions and tries to get everyone involved. From Sardanas, a traditional dance, to Calcotadas, a party centred on barbequing spring onions on a bonfire, to Castellers, a literal human tower that rises to unbelievable heights. There was culture galore.
There’s so much to talk about, and remember, when I think of the eight months that I spent learning TEFL abroad. So much that I could probably go on for pages and pages. But I hope, that in some way, I’ve open your mind up to the idea of doing the same. It’s an experience that forever changed the way I view the world, people, and myself. It’s become almost intrinsic to my personality and although there were bad times, it’s an experience I would never trade or take back.
- By Jivan Ward