Iberian odyssey: an educational experience

If you’re anything like me then one of the reasons you wanted to go to university was to reap the benefits of the legendary Erasmus year. If so, then you realise that as that time approaches, the prospect of going to a university abroad will not change your already lackadaisical attempts at being a model student, but in fact, will most probably result in a just as feeble attendance record and, well… generally being distracted by the unique cultural opportunities that your new host country has to offer!

When I finally (and reluctantly) accepted the fact that I was somewhat inclined to treat my Erasmus year as an extended holiday, I decided to do my research and look for other options that would potentially be more ‘fulfilling’. That’s when the British Council Teaching Assistant Programme fell into my lap.

The British Council Teaching Assistant Programme is everything the name suggests. Regardless of whether you’ve had previous teaching experience, this programme pays you to go abroad and gain real-life classroom experience, teaching English. Being a Spanish student, I was lucky enough to spend the most part of my year in sunny Spain, teaching English in the hub of Valencia and – without meaning to sound like an annoying, cliché gap year student – it’s been one of my most enriching experiences to date. Not convinced? Let me share with you a few highlights of my year.

Finding my Feet

The year abroad has come to be somewhat of a cultural phenomenon; conjuring up the image of being a seamlessly picture-perfect opportunity, akin to what you’d see in a Thompson’s brochure. However, whilst these photo-worthy moments exist, the experience also has it’s share of gritted-teeth worthy moments too.

When I first flew out to Spain, I didn’t have any accommodation planned. During the first month, I lived with a member of staff from the school at which I was stationed. It wasn’t ideal, but after all, it was a place to stay. I therefore took the initiative at that time to commute to the city centre and look for an apartment to rent. And after a myriad of tedious bus journeys and a few setbacks, I finally found my own little sanctuary in the historic heart of Valencia. It was by no means easy, but funnily enough, it was the more challenging moments of the year that stood out for me the most and made me realise the extent of my independence.

Being an ELA

The opportunity to be an ELA in Spain is one I could rant and rave about all day; I woke up every morning enthused by my work and I gained practical skills and professionalism that will benefit me when pursuing future jobs. In any case, it can also be a challenging and daunting prospect. The role reversal of being the educator rather than the student is naturally a strange transition, especially if, like me, you struggle with public speaking. However, you’d be surprised at how soon you find yourself growing into the role. Over the eight-month period at my school, I quickly found my confidence; a voice I never knew I had. And thanks to the supportive network of teachers there to guide me, I realised I was more than capable of doing my job well.

By the end of my contract, I felt like an adult. Childish as that sounds, student life can sometimes be a trivialising experience. For four years you depend financially on a loan and are unable to work full-time, all whilst incessantly juggling classes with the excessive amount of social events you have to attend (yes, you have to). You’re essentially in limbo between being an adult and achieving a fully independent, adult life. Being an ELA gave me a glimpse of that. Because for the first time I felt I was contributing something valuable to the world instead of just trying to take the world in. It taught me not to think so selfishly and to stop taking opportunities for granted.

Learning a Language

Every linguist knows that the classroom is not the place to learn a language. £9,000 tuition fee a year and I still found myself stumbling over my words, desperately trying to string together a sentence without sounding like I was going to burst into tears. Immersion is the only way to get around this barrier, but I knew for a fact that the study abroad experience would just be a catalyst for me to take the easy route and join the expats clique rather than take part in any genuine cultural integration.

Working at a local secondary school meant that outside my classes, I was conversing a lot in my target language as well as making contacts with people who weren’t just students like myself. You’d also be surprised at how much you can learn from your students! Really surprised… trust me. So ultimately, the programme was the best way for me to loosen my tongue. That and a few vino tintos of course.

Culture and Climate

I love Scotland, but when it comes to weather, Valencia certainly trumps Edinburgh’s notoriously changeable forecast. There’s just something nice about going out and not being pelted by torrential rain and 100mph gale-force winds.

With the Mediterranean climate, Valencia’s beaches quickly became the most frequented destination in my free time, which by the way was considerable given that I only worked a 12 hour week. This of course allowed me to do my fair share of travelling, get better acquainted with the colourful Spanish culture, and take lots of artsy photos. Because if I don’t inundate my Instagram with photographic evidence of my travels, did I really even go to Spain?

If I haven’t already bored you into a coma, let me wrap it up by simply saying; my year abroad was not just a culture trip to satiate my wanderlust. More than anything, it was a chapter of my life that made me more conscious of myself. It taught me the value of independence, realising my strengths and capabilities, and most importantly that, despite what other people may let on, life is not a series of photos you can just put a filter on. My experience was unique to me and it was real. I wasn’t just a tourist. I made my mark and somewhere in the future, one of those students will remember that crazy, Scottish ELA and her excessive use of flailing hand/arm gestures to explain a point. And whether that’s cringeworthy or not, I’m proud of it.

Image: Barcelona cityscape by Nunziatina Aitoro

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