A Reflection: Teaching in Madrid
*Originally published on Mi Corazón Gitano en España blog*
Over the years, I had expressed my desire to teach high school. Filled with the terrible memories from their own adolescence, I would often hear people respond with, "Why would you want to teach high school?! They'll eat you alive!". As the years went on, life took me in different directions, but the desire to teach high school students never left me.
Flash forward half a decade later.
I'm standing in my high school classroom, about to cry. I've just walked into my classroom to teach my last class. I've prepared a "My Last Lecture" for my students, filled with quotes and anecdotes that have stuck with me over the years and I would like to pass on to my students. As the lights go off and the screen lights up, my students begin applauding and cheering my name. I start to cry.
The Teacher Becomes the Student
Only nine months ago, I was preparing to enter that classroom for the first time. As I stood outside, those comments from long ago kept rushing through my mind. I brushed them away, along with the nerves. As I entered the class, the students examined me with curious eyes. I smiled and waved. They smiled back. From that moment on, I knew my life would never be the same.
I've always been a slow learner. I take my time observing the environment before taking action. My mom tells the story about how at almost 18 months old, I hadn't started walking yet. I dragged myself on the floor, like I was in a war movie, but never used my legs. I would sit there, watching others as they walked past me, but never attempted it myself. The doctor told her to wait a few more months before getting me tested. A couple of weeks later, I began crawling. My mom's jaw dropped as I crawled to the couch and stood up. Moments later, I didn't just take a few steps... I started walking.
My Fulbright Year in Spain
The quote above is from one of the films that had a lasting impact on my life. As a Fulbrighter, there are already certain expectations of what your role is as an English teaching assistant, but I wanted to discover what my students needed. While I began to plan lessons for the new term, I came across this quote and it all came together. You see, in Spain, the teacher is a beacon of knowledge, there to bestow you with information that you are supposed to memorize and release during exam time. I witnessed the interactions between students and teachers in the hallways. It always involved a student asking a teacher about an assignment or test grade. This was not the kind of interaction I wanted to have with my students.
Back in the States, many of us can recall at least one teacher who sparked our curiosity, challenged our preconceived notions about the world, and ignited our passion for learning. We've had at least one mentor to help guide us through the turbulent waters of adolescence and into a calmer place from which to shed our fears and embrace our triumphs. This is the kind of rapport I wanted to build with my students.
I wanted to provide my students with the tools they need to be contributing members of a much larger, global community. More than just teaching English, we discussed issues such as teenage moral dilemmas, bullying, society's perception of the ideal body image, and the current state of the Spanish education system. With some success, I had my some of my students do a "pay-it-forward" assignment. They were free to give back in any way they saw fit. Some didn't get it and I started to contemplate a career change. Then, one by one, groups went up to present on how they made food kits for the homeless and spent the weekend distributing them, collaborated with nonprofits to train guide dogs for the blind, or be "big brothers" or "big sisters" to disadvantaged kids on the weekends. I started crying, obviously.
In the hallways, I greeted my students. I asked them about their weekends, talked to them about their favorite tv shows, and told them to leave room for Jesus as they canoodled in the hallways. Gross. I choreographed the dance for their spring show, I attended the audition, and watched them perform it a week later. I asked them about their class trips. Noelle and I planned potlucks for our 11th grade classes and attended our seniors' graduation ceremony. Nine months later, here we are at the end of the road.
What I learned from Teaching English in Madrid
Being a teacher is like being a gardener. You plant the seeds, nourish them, give them love and light, and you watch them grow. However, most of the time, you never know what will become of your seedlings once you take them out of the pot and put them into the environment. You just hope that they can survive the elements and adapt to the world around them. I've been fortunate to see the fruits of my labor at different times throughout the year.
During a particularly difficult week, where we had a death at our school and I was having a family crisis at home, I began a lesson and broke down in tears 15 minutes into it, in front of all twenty-eight of my students. They immediately ran up to wipe my tears and ask if there was any way they could help. A few weeks ago, I finally broke the news to my students that I wouldn't be returning next year. They cried out, "Why?! We don't want you to leave! Don't you want to stay with us?". One student wrote on a school survey that I was the best English teaching assistant the school has ever had. He was intent on starting a petition and having the whole school sign it, to keep me there one more year. A few days ago, I received the sweetest letter from one of my most appreciative students. Each of these moments broke my heart, but they showed me that my little seedlings had flourished.
So, I began my last class with "My Last Lecture". I won't share everything I said that day. That moment is left for my students and I to cherish. What I did leave them with was advice to abandon fear and to be vulnerable, like I did when I left everything behind back home to be a Fulbright grantee. With tears in their eyes, they came up one by one and gave me hugs and well wishes.
Now when I think of the comments people made all those years ago, I think they were right. At the time, I wasn't ready to teach high school. However, the universe finally led me here to this school with these particular students. I was finally ready. They still challenged me, defied me, and questioned me, but they also taught me so much. I've been reminded that adolescence is difficult for everyone. They've taught me how to listen. They've tested my patience and have shown me how to be mindful of my words, actions, and reactions. Most of all, they've shown me how deeply invested we can be as human beings.
Overall, the experience taught me that love, compassion, and empathy are universal. When we smile with our eyes and speak from the heart, we can be understood in any language, anywhere on the planet.
Thank you Fulbright for this incredible teaching experience and for reigniting this passion of mine. I am eternally grateful.