Nothing Wong in Spain – Interview with Isabelle Wong
Isabelle Wong – remember her name, because she’ll be a famous violinist someday. Her passions for writing, music, and of course, teaching, have led her to the northeast of Spain. She now calls Barcelona home but is keen to explore even MORE opportunities to work abroad. Let’s learn what she’s been up to and how her experiences teaching in Spain have helped shape her into the go-getter she is!
1. What inspired you to go abroad?
My first taste of living abroad was in my junior year in college. I studied abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark, and while I was there, I also had the chance to see quite a few countries in Europe. Ever since that semester, I have felt the draw to live and work abroad.
Recently, I did a marketing internship for a company in Thailand that places English teachers across Southeast Asia. It was a big learning and growing experience for me, and I loved meeting people from all over the world. It was also a great chance to see the “behind-the-scenes,” so to speak, of helping others achieve their dreams of working and living abroad. The time that I had in Thailand really flew by, and I wanted the chance to truly settle into a place and teach English; hence, my decision to come to Spain.
2. Why did you choose Premier TEFL’s program in Spain?
I have always wanted to live in Spain, and in particular, Barcelona. Premier TEFL’s program stood out to me because it offered both the chance to become TEFL-certified and teach English abroad. Because teaching English is brand new to me, the TEFL course helped me think creatively about various activities and classroom situations that I wouldn’t have considered otherwise.
I was also curious about teaching English in a different country. I’ve taught music lessons (violin and piano) for a few years now, but I’ve never had the opportunity to teach another language. I think the idea that music can be taught as a language holds true to an extent, and it’s been interesting to note the differences and similarities between teaching music and teaching English to a wide range of ages.
3. What’s been your favorite part about living in Spain as an ESL teacher?
Because I’m teaching such a wide age range (from 3-16-year-olds, and I have a discussion-based hour with the teachers too), it can be a challenge to plan activities and determine the skill level of each class. However, this has also given me the chance to really exercise my creativity. For the older students especially, my biggest challenge is attempting to cultivate natural discussion and genuine interest in speaking English. I try to plan activities and ideas that are within their speaking ability but also introduce them to something new about the world. Some ideas work and some really don’t, but this is life: making mistakes, making adjustments, and moving forward.
I also love having the opportunity to explore Barcelona and the surrounding area on the weekends. For me, a free afternoon to wander the city, take in a museum or two, and stumble upon hidden corners or walk down a new street is my idea of bliss. The more that I explore this city, the more that I fall in love with it. There is an endless number of adventures to be had here.
4. Tell us about some unexpected challenges and how you handled them. What advice would you give future teachers?
One of the biggest challenges for me was determining how to teach a variety of levels and figuring out activities and games for multiple age groups (including a conversation class with the teachers). Students here in Barcelona love to be active. They make a soccer (or futbol, as they call it) ball out of anything and everything! I try to make the activities as interactive as possible (run to the board to write down your answer! Point to the correct country! Mimic the action!). Giving the students worksheets or texts to read wouldn’t go so well here because the students just hate sitting still, so it’s been a challenge for me to think of creative games that emphasize grammar and vocabulary as interactively as possible.
Sometimes I’ll arrive at a classroom to find out that the students have an exam that day or that they went on a field trip or that the teacher suddenly wants me to give a speaking lesson in front of the whole class! It’s important to be flexible and to come prepared with a backup plan or two. In a pinch, Charades, Categories, and Guess the Famous Person are good games to play with larger groups of students.
I have also found that students here LOVE to talk. They talk all the time. Even the quieter students will whisper to one another and carry on hushed conversations at all hours of the day. Getting the students to pay attention and listen to instructions can be quite the challenge. Trying to get their attention by talking over them or calling for their attention only makes them talk louder, and you’ll end up losing your voice by the end of the week. I’ve found that the most effective and time-efficient method is to simply remain silent and calm until one or two students notice and tell the others to be quiet.
5. What made your experience teaching abroad unique?
Something else that wasn’t necessarily unexpected for me but has opened up an opportunity for discussion is the idea of identity and race. I am third-generation Asian-American, and there are a few first-generation Asian-Spanish students here as well as students from Pakistan, Ukraine, and other countries around the world. There have been instances where students will make fun of someone because of his or her differences, race or otherwise, and it has been an interesting experience for me – as an Asian-American – to highlight how a better understanding and appreciating our differences and similarities make us better, more empathetic individuals.
There is a great quote by Barbara Kingsolver, the author of The Poisonwood Bible, The Bean Trees, and Small Wonder, where she writes, “Perhaps the truer measure of humanity is the distance we must travel in our lives time and again.”
As the world becomes more globally connected, the definitions of race, identity, and the places we call ‘home’ are continually changing in unique, dynamic ways. Explaining that my cultural heritage is Chinese, but that I grew up in the United States and consider many places around the world as ‘home’ has been a good discussion to have with the students here and, I hope, a way to encourage diversity and understanding.
6. You keep an awesome blog about your travels — is it hard to maintain all of your projects?!
Yes, it can be challenging to carve out the time that I’d like to dedicate to writing. I wish I had more time to actively plan posts! But most of them end up being “Me Waxing Poetic About Various Things in My Life.” I play the violin as well, and sometimes, I am torn between wanting to practice, write, read, and explore the incredible city that I’m in. I have found that having an outline of a routine can help me, and I always carry a notebook with me to jot down my random thoughts or ideas or quotes from books and museums that I loved. The notebook also serves as a travel journal and helps me remember what places I went to or what I did that day.
I also try to make the most of the random little gaps of time I have during my day. One of the nicest things about the school day here (I hated it at first, but now I’ve come to really love it) is the two-hour lunch break we have from 1-3pm. I make an effort to do most of my planning (activities for classes, tutoring sessions, and lesson ideas) during my breaks at the school.
I’ll catch up on news, emails, and text messages on longer commutes into the center of the city. I also go for a run every day, and I use that time to mull over a problem, brainstorm for lessons, or simply clear my mind. But despite it all, there never seems to be enough time in my day for all the things I want to do. Ideally, my day would also contain a 2-hour siesta in the afternoon, but – you win some, you lose some.
7. Describe a typical day in the life of your program.
The school day here runs from 9am-5pm, which is much later than in the USA. I work at a semi-private school that is from Infantil (3-5-year-olds) all the way up to 4th ESO (15-16-year-olds), so every day is pretty different, but I do appreciate the variety in my days.
Generally, I’ll get to the school at 9 am and have 3-4 classes before lunchtime, at 1 pm. In that time period, I could be doing anything from helping in Infantil and Primary as a speaking assistant to the teacher (chatting with the students in English, presenting a new concept, or helping the students with worksheets and activities) to taking groups of ESO (Secondary) students out for a game or activity. One day a week, I also have a conversation class with some of the teachers during our lunch-break, which has been a highlight in my week. We discuss everything from politics to the idea of what home means to us to different travel stories.
Because our lunch-break is longer than I’m used to (2 hours), I will use some of the time to plan activities and prep for the next week. I also tutor students in English on most of the weekdays, so I’ll make lesson plans for those sessions too. Then I’ll take a quick walk outside to clear my mind and get some air or to run errands, and I’ll have lunch at the school around 2:30-3pm.
After lunch, I’ll have two more classes, where I’ll again take students out of class for games and activities or help out in the classroom. My favorite part of the day is definitely 5 pm, when all students get out of school (there are quite a few schools, both semi-private and public, that are near my school) and walk back with their parents or grandparents. The area just comes to life, with families stopping into various cafes and bakeries to have a snack before heading to after-school activities or back home. The shops open back up (they close in the afternoons from around 2-5pm) and are busier than ever. I love taking my time walking back and seeing the city come to life.
8. What is one thing everyone should know before they teach abroad in Spain?
My parents sent me a beautiful card on my recent birthday that had this quote on it: “Slow down. Calm down. Don’t worry. Don’t hurry. Trust the process.” ~ Alexandra Stoddard
I think that this quote serves as both a beautiful reminder for having patience with yourself as you grow and learn in life and as a good reflection of life in Spain. Here in Barcelona, the pace of life is a little more relaxed than in the United States. Everything is pushed back later, including mealtimes; mornings tend to melt into afternoons and late evenings – lunch at around 2:30 pm, an afternoon snack at roughly 5-6 pm, and dinner starting anywhere from 8-10 pm. The city is vibrant, warm, and usually bathed in golden sunlight, which tends to transfer into the appreciation for lingering and chatting over a meal or coffee or drinks.
Just as there is an appreciation here in Spain for a more expansive time-frame, it’s also a good reminder to have patience with yourself as you adjust to a new culture and work environment. A lot of things will be new right at the beginning, especially with teaching English (especially if you’ve never done it before, like in my case!). Don’t feel the need to get used to everything at once. You don’t have to love what you are doing right away. In fact, it might be better to learn as you go and then take a step back and re-evaluate just how far you’ve come. Take your time. Trust the process.
Thanks Isabelle (and Alexandra Stoddard) for your words of wisdom! Have a blast in Spain and best of luck in your future adventures.