Saying Goodbye

You might say my mind has been made up since last August. For the first time in my six flights from America to Spain, I cried boarding.

Normally, I’m equipped with a travel magazine, a bottle of water and a nervous stomach at going back to a place that I love so much, but this trip was different. Spain no longer held the same excitement and romanticism for me as it did during my first few years there, and I wasn’t looking forward to going back.

It was clear what the problem was: My work situation.

I thought about how many mornings I’d trekked to the foreigner’s office or to the unemployment office or to job interviews during the hot summer months. I remember I told my friend Izzy that I was about to throw in the towel and just go back to America, defeated. Then Refu called back, asking me for an interview. Seven hours, a 13-paged written interview and two classroom try outs later, I was officially given the job at SM’s.

And two school years later, I’m bowing out. Official reason? I don’t want to be a teacher forever. I want to blog. To not have to turn down weekend trips because I have too much to do. To live my sevillano life, lest lose it forever.

Next year will be a transition year: master’s in Public Relations at the Universidad Autònoma de Barcelona, 26-hours-a-week teaching gig at a language academy (working in the pm again…weird!) and toying around with this blog. I’ll still be teaching, though I’ve made up my mind that it’s not the career I want forever. At least, not in Spain.

The thing is, my situation – long hours, poor pay, no chance at moving up  – will be the same forever unless I do a master’s in teaching. My school threatened to have to complete a five-year teaching program (as a master’s for primary school teacher does not exist) or to lose our jobs. I did them one better and gave official notice about a month ago, citing that I wasn’t willing to pay for five or more years of schooling for something I can’t see myself doing forever.

Of course, there’s more to the story that isn’t fair to share. No one in my school has been overly abusing of anything else but my time and my self-worth. Sure, I’ll miss my co-workers and the staff at the bar across the street, who never need to ask me how I want my breakfast. I’ll miss the parents, full of compliments and funny stories about the 45 kids I’ve grown to adore after being their tutora for 10 months.

That’s the thing – I’ll miss my kids with locura. Absolute, unending locura.

If I make the count, I’ve taught at least 700 kids in some form – between my five years and three summers teaching. I’ve had kids that make my nerves snap, kids who are mini-mes (and tell me they want to teach English like me), kids who understand where I’m coming from, kids who give me hell. As a director of studies, I’ve put up with fist fights, calls home sobbing to parents, crazy moms who yell at me over the phone…vamos, all in a day’s work. Between the test-giving, the long nights preparing theatres and parties, the endless hours of programming and grading, I’ve found that this is and isn’t where I want to be.

I think about just how far me and the babies have come since September. Having been their English teacher in Five years’ preschool, I already had the confianza of knowing them – and having them know me. They were excited, and I had unhappy preschool parents asking to know why I’d been changed to primary. But I was elated. Finally, my own classroom, a manageable number of kids and a feeling of actually being on the team.

It wasn’t all rainbows and butterflies – there were kids who I needed to win over, motivation to keep up and a lot of work to be done. Since my coworker and I have 45 kids, that’s twice the work when it comes to grading and report cards, and an extra class of parents to see. But I enjoyed watching their Aha! moments, rewarding them for using their English blocks of speech (even if just a few words here and there) and how they smiled when we’d play a game (roll the ball in the bucket as a math game? I deserve some kind of award) or take a field trip or make a breakthrough. They, as well as I, have matured and come into their own in these ten months, and I’ll take a piece of them with me when I have to say goodbye next Friday.

The plan, before I gave notice, was for me to continue onto second grade with my minions. Multiplication tables, reflexive verbs and the solar system were all on the docket, and I had many anxious six-year-olds asking, ¿Serás nuestra seño en segundo? Since my move up to first grade was so unexpected, I didn’t have to lie and say I didn’t know who their teacher would be next year, because it’s all up to the boss anyway. But as I take down their adorable drawings, send home their corrected and completed workbooks, I find myself giving more hugs and kisses, pinching more cheeks and wishing that things could somehow be different.

Teaching and I have a love-hate relationship: I hate the work, but love the reward. I find pleasure in creating a challenging lesson and giving it, like standing up and acting goofy in front of a crowd and crave the daily satisfaction that a young learner’s progress garners. It’s all of the extras at my school that was slowing me down, and it all came to a head with the theatre last week. I cried in front of the kids for the first time all year.

My decision to leave is the right one for me.

Maybe some of my kids who finally started getting results will get blocked with a new teacher. Or maybe they’ll like him more. But I’m confident that the right foundation has been laid for them to be successful.

Now that exams, grades and everything else is done, it’s time to enjoy with the kids who taught me that school can be fun and hands-on, with the ones who read my emotions even better than I do, the ones who say ” I want the holidays to Chicago con Miss Cat!” Boogers and all, they’re still really special kids, and I will miss them dearly.

How Oxford Changed my Mind About England

I dislike England. Phew, feels good to admit it.

I’ve now been to the British Isles four times – three to England, and once to Scotland (which, for the record, I loved). But England I just do not like. Too impersonal, too similar to my home country, too expensive and sub-par food. Add that to airport hassles each time, and it takes an awful lot of convincing to get me to England.

Audrey convinced me. A Facebook invite to an event called Tough Mudder, coupled with a cheap Ryan Air flight meant I’d be spending a weekend is cheery old London, and a little race on Sunday.

I grumpily boarded the plane on Friday evening, knowing full well I’d be missing the Feria de Jérez and the Romería of San Nicolás, my adopted pueblo. I wanted to spend the weekend in Spain. Two hours, turbulence and a long customs line meant I’d missed my bus into the city center, and in the end I arrived at my hostel near the British Museum around 3am. I hate England.

Upon seeing my friends the following morning, we were faced with a decision: where to go to get the hell out of London. Audrey got in on the wrong side of the car as we narrowed it down to two destinations: either Oxford or Cambridge. Any guesses as to how the four of us earn money??

Sunglasses on (yes, we got a sunny weekend!), map route to Oxford highlighted and Audrey finally on the right side of the road, we drove the 60 miles northwest to England’s poshest university town, admiring the vast yellow fields of rapeseed and low-hanging clouds.

Oxford was full of two things: bicycles and people wearing commencement robes. We happened to be there on the weekend that young hopefuls were packing up their rooms and heading into the Real World, while three of the four of us are on our fifth years in Spain. I’ll drink (a delicious local beer) to that.

While having pints at White Horse, a small underground pub near the heart of the village, we squeezed into a table with six older men and women. They’d come down for the weekend from the Northern end of the country, taking advantage of the postcard-perfect weather. The happily handed over a map and encouraged us to see any one of the university’s 80+ colleges.

After living in America and Spain all my life, I assumed the colleges were the different university buildings for the different areas of study. Instead, the colleges at British universities are residence halls with vast, grassy lawns and towering turrets. It was like jumping right into Hogwarts as we peered into the doors and saw graduates in their long, black robes playing cricket on the lawns.

A glimpse into the 80+ colleges that surround the Oxford campus. No beer pong here, just cricket!

Nearly all of the colleges were closed that day due to the commencement activities, so we troved the bustling center, full of shops and quaint pubs. I was immediately transported back to my trip to Ireland with my parens in 2010 and the number of roadside joints we popped into for a quick pint or some grubby pub food. A trip to the Sainsbury’s meant we were well stocked with gourmet crackers, humus and some veggies, and we did as the locals – found a soft, emerald lawn to stretch our legs and fill our bellies.

Around us, graduates snapped up pictures in front of their well-loved grounds and I likened Oxford to Galway – walkable, a bit quirky (if posh can be that at all) and inviting. The warm weather did well to lift our spirits as we talked about our own graduations: Lauren is heading to China to teach, Audrey back to Texas to start field work for a business she’s creating, and Annie to school in Colorado. That leaves me, not yet ready to walk down the commencement road and leave Spain behind for a different future.

Our time meter was not quite up on the rental car, so we ducked into a pub as the evening weather was turning cool. Tomorrow we’d be up at the crack of dawn to run the Tough Mudder, but who could really think of tomorrow when we’re all just living for today?

Have you ever been to Oxford? What were your impressions? Is there a city in a country you’re not fond of that you’ve come to enjoy?

How to Learn English

9:15 am and my students are as listless as ever. Javi grumbles under his breath as he surrenders his iPod to me. I fiddle with the thing, feeling much, much older than my 24 years and trying to hide my utter terror as the screen flashed. David Guetta’s heart-pumping rhythms get some of their ears perked up, a few smiles spreading peeking out in the corners of their mouths. Silvia taps her pencil nervously to the beat, head no doubt tangled up in a tricky conjugation.

Their daily writing assignment was on the board. While my 15 students scribble in their construction-paper notebooks, I review my grammar assignment for the morning, sighing: reported speech. Between the time clauses and the backshift, our first attempt the day before had been a disaster. One of those throw-your-arms-up. pull-you-hair-out, where’s-my-end-of-the-day-beer kind of days. I close my eyes and remember it’s just summer camp, and that the kids were really there for the activities and their parents had actually paid for the native speakers.

One by one, the students close their notebooks and trudge to the front of the classroom to give it to me. As I am about to plunge in with a hastily prepared board game for reviewing, Javi jumps across his table as if it were a vaulting horse and runs to his iPod. Puzzled, I gave him my never-fail “sit down nooooow” eyes before he starts thumping his foot and head to the beat.

“Cat, I can have this very, very, VERY loud, yes?” he inquires, matching my stare with a big grin. Lara snickers, and I can’t resist.

“Sure, Javi, crank it up.”

I immediately know which song it is, and so do my students. Before the first chorus even starts, I’m scribbling down ideas for how to use it in my lessons. With two years of teaching high schoolers, I’ve learned that music is a surefire way to get students engaged and talking, and U2 and Pearl Jam and even Weird Al Yankovich have made their way onto my lesson plans. Billie Jean is going to help me teach reported speech this morning.

I text my boss, asking her to copy the lyrics as soon as possible and make a few copies. My students have fun decoding the reported speech back into direct and their sudden enthusiasm makes me think outside the four-skills box for the rest of the week’s lessons. As a class, we take Billie Jean’s claims to the tabloids and the case to court, write newspaper articles on the pending paternity test with other teachers and monitors as witnesses. They begin to use reported speech correctly in their journal entries, in their worksheets and exams, and more importantly, in their speech.

a tabloid report on the court case

When it comes time to do a creative project, the students set up a mock trial with audience members of the jury. Javi has no match as Michael Jackson and his howling “But the kiiiiiid is not my son!”

Silvia as Bille Jean and Javi as Michael Jackson in the talent show

Attention, fellow English teachers: Have you ever had a lesson be wildly successful? I wanna hear about it! Tell me the lesson,the age group and any materials you needed to make it happen. Or, tell me how you motivate your students to learn English? What interests them the most? 

A Glimpse Inside My Classroom

In thinking about leaving education and trying something different, I sometimes think that teaching may really be my thing. After all, I love kids, adore the ones I’m teaching this year,and feel good when I plan a fun unit and my kids laugh in the classroom (who wouldn’t show Kip’s Wedding Song from Napoleon Dynamite to teach “I love” in the classroom?).

For the record, I teach full-time at a bilingual elementary school. This kind of thing is de moda in Spain these days, and this is why I’ll have a job speaking English until the day I die, if I so choose. It’s both a blessing and a curse, as it also limits what people think I’m qualified for. So, I spend my daily grind speaking shouting over two groups of rowdy but adorable six- and seven-year-olds. They get half of their curriculum in English, so I divide my team between English, Science, PE, Art, Music, Math review and sometimes Values. Two classes, totalling 44 students, are at my cargo, so when one group of 22 is with me, the other group is with the Spanish teacher, ane vice-versa. It’s a good set-up when the kids actually remember to take all of their school supplies and books and bags and jackets during our once-daily switch.

I’ve had experience writing curriculum since my second year as an auxiliar de conversacón, and I have a TEFL certificate. In a language classroom, classes should be dynamic, with lots of recycling (asking students to reproduce material they learned earlier in the year, or even in earlier courses) and with plenty of motivation. Stickers, candy, or watching a video in English work wonders with young learners, and a daily question-and-answer with my high schoolers was always fun (if not revealing).

It also helps to have oodles of materials. As we all know, a student of any subject can learn in a multitude of ways, so I try and have plenty on hand to help my niñitos learn. The basis of my curriculum is a series of books for nearly every subject I teach, with the exception of PE and Values. Though I didn’t pick out the books when they were chosen, I have come to enjoy the methodology and have fun teaching them. For English, I use Kid’s Box 2 (Cambridge, ISBN ISBN-13: 9780521688079), which is packed with fun illustrations, plenty of filler and warmer activities, catchy songs and lots of photocopiable materials for me, the T. Science is MacMillian Natural and Social Science 1 (MacMillan,, which I liked for its objectives and beautiful presentation in the book. A solid curriculum that focuses on oral and listening skills can make all the difference in grasping the concepts laid down by the school.

I also try to have a lot of visual cues around the room, though we can’t put anything on the walls. I use both doors, windows, the three cork boards and even my desk to display student work, prepositions, there is/there are and a character wall for my students to get an easy, visual reminder of tricky structures and concepts we’ve worked on this year.

My first graders are learning some basics of reading and writing in English, so we’re using the book Chicka Chicka Boom boom to review letters, and have a weekly spelling bee to reinforce letter names (again, recycling is important in young learners).

Each week, one student is asked to present the letter (in this case, J), and read three words we’ve learned with this letter. They’re a little more graduated in Spanish and refuse to believe there is no Ñ in English, but it’s helping them to learn that you don’t always read what you see. J and G are confused, Y seems like a foreign concept, and water is always spelled g-u-a-d-e-r to them, but we’re getting there.

I’m also trying to focus on using the English they know, similar to bit of intelligences. Please don’t tell me, seño, no tengo lápiz. You know the structure have not got, the word for pencil, and the first person, just the same as you know to say can+I+have. I flat out ignore kids who ask to go to the toilet in Spanish, which motivates them to use a few palabras sueltas. I also have a chart in the room for each class that tracks the oral English they use in class. Ask for scissors in English? One tick for you. After 15, they get a sticker page, and each month will have a small prize for the student with the most points. I did this with tickets for behavior during the first five months of the year to reinforce good behavior and being a good classmate (Spanish kids seem to be very selfish with their colors and erasers). My name is at the bottom of the list for the kids to police me speaking in Spanish.

The above activity I stole from Forenex, the Summer camps I work for. After listening to a story about animals, kids had to draw an invented animal and then describe it, thus recycling everything to body parts to how animals move to colors. I was pleasantly surprised at their enthusiasm and accuracy in describing them.

Though our values subject has kind of been thrown out the window, I’m taking the opportunity to talk about a different value every month. From respect to tidiness to cooperation, we do a small activity or read a book and have a short discussion about them. I used a house as the example, and that each one of us is a house. Which bricks do you choose? Greed and anger, or discipline and forgiveness? This visual reminder is right next to the board, so a simple finger point at sharing tells kids non-verbally that they have to share their rubbers and not distract the class by arguing.

Please don’t think this classroom is a tranquil haven for a frazzled teacher and her rambunctious students. I have my daily “hasta aquí” moments where I lose my patience and I sometimes slip into Spanish. I’m behind in curriculums and rarely have everything neat and organized. I should be at least on letter P by now. But it’s a fun environment that encourages speaking up and learning by moving and playing, which can make all the difference.

Please share any tips and tricks in the comments below, or ask any questions. As a five-year vet and teacher trainer, I know a couple of things about teaching at nearly every level, but I definitely am glad I did  a TEFL degree to help me with classroom management and lesson planning.

I like my Sketchers…

My kids are learning about food in both English and Science. The only grammar they need to know in English is, “Can I have a(n)/some ____, please?”, but I am the most exigente teacher ever and make them ask for everything in English.

So I amped it up, asking them to start distinguishing between I like and I love and I don’t like/I hate.

I wanted to use this video, but figured it would be too tough:

Instead, they folded a sheet of paper into four parts and labeled them, I LOVE, I LIKE, I DON’T LIKE, I HATE, filling in the blank and drawing the word.

I got everything from I love football to I hate football, got one I don’t like Engliss (typo intentional, here) and I don’t like pizza (who are youuuu?).

My favorite is below:

Now accepting awards for Greatest English Teacher Ever

If January Marks the Start…My 2011 Travel Round-up

Let me tell you a little story about peer pressure.

When I was 11, my parents informed me that the dog had taken the news well. She faintly wagged her tail.

“What news?” I asked, hoping for the trampoline I’d begged my parents to buy us for ages.

Oh no, it was the M-word. We were moving. I’d have no friends. Maybe there wasn’t a Kohl’s there. Was Chicagoland > Rockford, or had my mother just confused after consumering too many kosher hot dogs growing up and was going crazy?

Well, I wanted to fit in. I did so by going to the Von Maur and using my birthday money to buy a pair of Jnco jeans because all of the popular girls had them.

I strutted into Edison middle school the next morning and was immediately dismissed as a poser.

Well, I didn’t learn my lesson. Now that I’m blogging, I give into the peer pressure of comparing stats, doing those dumb surveys and, as the new year has already crept up on us, a year in review. In 2011, I added two new countries to the list, had five visitors from the US, got my work/residence visa paperwork all together and turned 26.  I can’t say 2011 will be the greatest I’ve had (dude, 2010 was pretty, pretty good), but I managed to see some new things, meet some new people and probably consume a new pig part.


Amy and I rang in the New Year with oysters, an old boxing legend and a broken camera in Lausanne, Switzerland. I moped through Season Three of Sex and the City the next day while Amy was bed ridden. Colds and booze do not mix, people.

From there, I met several  friends in Berlin, Germany and got my history nerd on as I explored a concentration camp, museums and the off-beat Berlin.


Apart from the usual routine, I got to go to my first flamenco fashion show and a wine festival. Cheap wine, that is.


March came in like a león, as I spent a raucous night in Cádiz as a third-of the blind mice group at the annual Carnavales celebrations.

My first visitors of the year, Jason and Christine, spent a rainy sojourn in Sevilla,

but then Beth came during the Azahar and warm weather, and we drank in Granada, Jeréz and Cádiz (and then I got strep).


Ahh, a Sevillian primavera. I spent Easter Week in Romania with my camp buddies, driving a beat up Dacia from one forlorn corner of Romania to another. I loved it, and consider it a budget-lovers paradise – I spent in one week less than I did on my airfare! And ate a ton of pickles. I am like the Snooki of Spain when it comes to pickles.


The first week of May brought flamenco dresses, sherry and my five-year win over Spanish bureaucracy during Feria week. I spent nine days riding in horse carriages and proving I have plenty of enchufe.

A few weeks later, Jackie and her brother came to visit, and we took off to Córdoba for another fair.

Also, Luna turned one, Betis worked its way back into the premiere league, and summer was just on the horizon.


Switched to half days at work just as it was impossible to take the heat. Got to watch Lauren walk down the aisle and party all night (only to fly to Madrid for a conference the next morning. I made it!). And I got my first real year of teaching done, too!

I may have, at time, been a professional baby handler, but having a peek into a kid’s world is something magical. Magical if you like boogers, of course.


The first of the month brought a huge triumph: I was finally given my five-year resident card and had won my battle with extranjería. For the third summer in a row, I headed up north to Galicia and to summer camp. Instead of teaching, I was given the role of Director of Studies, so I got a work phone and unlimited photocopies. Perks. Teachers got crap weather, but I a not-crap team (they were awesome.)

The Novio, finally back from pirate-hunting, met me in Madrid for a few days. We got the chance to, um, do what we do in Seville (eat tapas and drink beer) before making a day-trip to the sprawling El Escorial palace.


A is for August and America and fAtty, as I spent 23 days eating up all of my favorite American goodies, like real salads and Cheez-its. I had help celebrating a birthday, as my dear amigas from Spain, Meag and Bri, came to Chicago for a few days. I also got to visit Margaret in her New Kentucky Home.

What I thought would be a good little sojourn was much too short, and I boarded a Dublin-bound plane and stayed overnight on the Emerald Isle.


School started again September first, and my change to first grade resulted in more naps, more work and more responsibility. Thankfully, I had my great kiddos back in my (own!!!) classroom. Life resumed as normal.


Though I vowed to make my fifth year in Spain new (and I have been doing hiking trips, seeing theatre and exhibitions, etc.), I fell in to normal school routine. In October, this was punctuated by a work trip to Madrid for a conference, studying for the DELE and endless barbeques. When in Spainlandia, I suppose.


The new month meant cooler air, a focus on studying and a visit from my final visitor, Lisa. I sprinted out of the DELE to catch a train, meet her and take her to Granada. We laughed at all of our college memories and she broke out of her little mundo to try new foods and explore Seville on her own.

Bri came, so we had a small Thanksgiving dinner, and I shared it with my not-so-anxious-about-pie goodness at school.


Amid lots of school work and the looming Christmas play, I enjoyed the Christmas season in the city. Brilliant lights, snacking on chestnuts, window-shopping. The Novio went to the States for work, and I followed him soon after to travel around the Southwest with my parents and sister. The Valley of the Sun, Vegas and the Grand Canyon were on the itinerary, but the extra $640.55 I won on a slot machine win weren’t!

Sadly, the year ended on a sour note when I got news that the child I had repped during my years in Dance Marathon passed away after a long battle with cancer. I don’t want to preach, but you can visit the website to see what the Dance Marathon at the University of Iowa does for kids and their families who are battling cancer.

Goals for the next year? Plenty, both personal and professional. Just be better, I guess. The second part of the year has been a huge slump, so it’s time to find me again. Be a better partner, teacher, friend. Fill up those last two pages of my passport. Figure out where to go next.

I want you to share your biggest accomplishment and goals for 2011-2012! I need some inspiration, readers!

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...