Former UI student reflects on 5 years of teaching in Spain

By Cat Gaa

“You know, Cat, like most things here in Spain, it’s not over until you sign the dotted line.”

I caught my principal giving me a wink as I gathered my grade book and well-chewed stub of a pencil (one of my first graders, not me). I gave her a puzzled look, signature of my two years as a bilingual teacher at the school.

“I’m just saying – teaching is the right career for you. It’s what you do well. I’m not turning in your resignation until you walk out of here on the last day of school having signed it,” she said, and I turned and walked out the door, closing it lightly.

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I had one of those aha! moments last year. Sitting cross-legged in front of a group of 26 three-year-olds, I tapped out the numbers song, the days of the week song and the family song every morning at 10:30 for nine-and-a-half months. While pulling yet another biting child off of another in early March, I thought to myself, “How did I get here?” And now, in my last month teaching, I think: “Why would I ever give this up?”

My Spain story starts like many others: a stint abroad learning Spanish during college turned must-eat-tortilla-de-patatas-like-my-senora-makes-daily cravings turned boarding a plane exactly four months after graduation, Madrid-bound story. I figured I’d be a better journalist if I had more experience abroad and spoke better Spanish.

I applied and was accepted to the North American Language and Culture Assistants program in Spain, choosing the southernmost region of Andalucía as my first choice. I knocked over my chair to reach for my cell phone and call my parents when I’d been accepted just days before graduating: I’d be moving to Spain to work 12 hours a week as an assistant teacher somewhere in Andalucía.

The months leading up to my departure were torturous: I spent weeks waiting for a regional placement, feeling less and less confident about my decision. Packing my suitcases became less about clothing and more about tokens from home – menus, postcards, books and materials appropriate for my high-school aged students. I’d make perfect little English speakers out of them with my eight-month teaching contract.

Instituto de Educación Secundaria Heliche looked like a penitentiary from the outside: imposing stucco front with a tall iron gate around it. The door was locked, so I set off around the perimeter looking for another office or way inside. Halfway around the building, while wading through someone’s garden, I spotted a group of teenagers. My breath left my body I pushed up against the wall between us as I got a glimpse of my new students.

Having studied journalism, I didn’t know the first thing about being a teacher. Normally a confident public speaker, I found myself cowering at the teacher’s desk the first day as students asked me the requisite questions in broken English, or just flat out in Spanish: Do you like ham? What’s your boyfriend’s name? Do you own a gun?

I’d have to readjust my goals.

My first few months in the classroom were hit or miss with my lesson plans – we learned about Evil Knievel, nutrition in America and Thanksgiving. I slowly became comfortable sharing my personal life with my students, aged 12 to 18, the way they shared their own with me. My job turned into part peer counsel, part cheerleader, and after no less than six weeks at Heliche, I was invited to stay another year to receive the bilingual group and prepare art and music subject matter. The answer was a resounding, .

After three years, I’d given class to close to 1000 students. The round of goodbyes that lasted two weeks was agonizing, enduring hundreds of tearful hugs and squeezes. While teaching had never been a job I’d considered, I found it gave me a glimpse into the Spanish culture that I wouldn’t have found through my study abroad experience or my Spanish boyfriend: street fashion, teenage problems, football culture and Spanish history.

I told everyone the news: I’d decided to stay in Spain and pursue teaching.

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Two years have passed since I left the Assistant program and Heliche. Despite the odds being completely against an American girl with no teaching degree or work papers, I’ve been teaching at a private school in Seville, both in the infant and primary levels. Unlike the assistantship, I was an actual classroom teacher, dealing with overbearing parents, filling out endless formulas and paperwork and spending long hours wiping away boogers and breaking up petty fights. Still, I loved the daily interaction I got with my students and cherish the time I spend in the classroom with them, away from the politics of a religious school owned by a wealthy family.

When my 45 students left in late June, I didn’t cry. They were leaving first grade, and I was leaving the school all together to pursue what I loved most: writing. When I spoke with the principal to let her know, she reached across the table and put her hand over mine.

“It’s risky, these days, you know, to leave a steady job,” she said, eyes boring into mine. “But I am the first to support anyone who wants to achieve her dreams. We'll miss you."

Word spread around the school quickly, as it always does. There were a lot of questions about why I would choose to give up teaching, but well wishes for the future, assuring me that I was making the best choice for myself - even if I didn't see it right now.

As I said goodbye to my principal one a sweltering afternoon in late June, tears pricked my eyes. María always got uncomfortable during my weak moments, which often lead to tears, but patted me on the back and said, “I hope you’ve taken something from all of this. If nothing else, that you’ve learned a thing or two.”

My job as an educator has always been to teach, but one of the most beautiful things about teaching abroad is being the one receiving the education, too.

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After graduating from the UI, Cat Gaa turned down a radio job in Chicago and turned up at the Spanish Consulate. Five years later, she blogs about the ups and downs of expat life in Southern Spain at Sunshine and Siestas.

For more information about the language assistant program, click here.

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