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Why It's Still Worth It: Teaching in Spain During a Pandemic
Written by: Lillian Butler-Hale
Last Updated: July 19, 2021
A year ago I had recently graduated with my Bachelor's Degree and was working a full-time job with the Nebraska Legislature. Today, I went surfing in the morning and lesson planned all afternoon. If you asked me a year ago what I would be doing now I would've been clueless to this incredible possibility (that is now my reality!) and all the opportunities that arise with a TEFL certification. Life will surprise you in more ways than one.
I signed up for the Online TEFL Course through International TEFL Academy because I wanted to develop the skills that traditionally make wonderful ESL teachers. I was blessed with incredible teachers from birth to my last college class and they inspired me to seek out something that could help me make a difference on a local level. When I signed up in January of 2020, two months before the teaching landscape and the world changed dramatically, I wasn't clear on my end-goal. I had a feeling it would put me on a track toward helping others, explore the magic and mystery of language and grow as a person.
As the pandemic ramped up in March, I began working from home like many others. The Online TEFL course chugged along and by the beginning of May, I had graduated and became a member of the ITA alumni community. Throughout the course of the class, I had expressed interest in teaching in Spain as I had studied Spanish in college. I joined one of ITA's many alumni Facebook groups and it was there that I saw a job posting for a TEFL teacher in Getxo, a small municipality right on the outskirts of Bilbao, Spain. Feeling immensely drawn to the possibility of a big life change, teaching abroad for the first time, and putting my new TEFL teaching skills to use, I sent my CV to the family. There are no words to describe how incredible I felt when they officially offered me the job, and later when I visited the Spanish Consulate in Chicago to pick up my visa. My life was about to flip 180 degrees!
I have now been in Spain for about five months and it has been the most formative few months of my entire life. I live with a family and teach their boys (ages 3, 4 and 7) on weekday nights. They have taught. me more about Pokémon than I thought I would ever know. The boys are incredibly smart, playful and always ready to learn. We are getting to the point now that I can fine-tune lessons to their interests and the things that make them happy. Work most days feels like play, which is what we all wish for! Because my classroom is in their home, the pandemic hasn't affected our learning environment very much apart from using a gallon of hand sanitizer a day and the occasional close-contact scare that requires us to wear our masks while we're together. Like in any other situation, we prioritize our health and safety, we care for each other, and we have fun in whatever way we can no matter the circumstances.
Outside of teaching, the pandemic requires that we adapt as well. Since before my arrival, Spain has had a national mask mandate. Restaurants have been open and closed on and off, but closed for the majority of my time here. When they are open, people generally enjoy sitting on the patios with friends and keep masks on whenever possible. Naturally, cases jumped after the holidays and the government responded with requiring that citizens stay within their municipalities unless they have a justification (from work or from school) to visit another. My town is right outside of Bilbao, so close that I'd consider it one in the same, but because it is technically a separate municipality I am only allowed to go into the city for my classes. It may seem tricky at first trying to navigate all the information, it was for me! But the support systems here for people studying or working "al extranjero" are incredible and they frequently keep people in the loop about new safety measurements and requirements.
So, having to follow all those rules, what makes it worth it to turn your life upside down and pursue a TEFL job abroad during a pandemic? I've found that because of the pandemic I have a deepened appreciation for my job and my life, as well as the little town I call my second home. Life moves a little slower since there are restrictions in place, but if you frame it differently, it isn't a setback but an opportunity to make your time abroad even more fruitful and educational. Outdoorsy types will quickly find their place as well, as the open air is one of the safest places to be now. Though I wasn't a surfer or hiker before my move, I am now at the ocean or up on the mountain any free moment I have! The friends I've made in the past five months will certainly be friends for life and maneuvering some of the tougher parts of pandemic life has brought us closer. Because we're required to stay in our town on weekends we've made a Saturday evening habit of sitting on the beach with backpacks full of snacks singing and playing ukulele.
I can truly say that there are very few moments where I think of the pandemic negatively impacting my time here at all. Frustration comes and goes of course, because our world has just seen a very difficult year, but I am immensely happy and completely thankful for how enjoyable my time here has been nevertheless. These opportunities are out there for you. Teaching abroad during the pandemic has changed me for the better. I am braver, more patient, more curious and above all, a better teacher. Though I love my life and wouldn't change a thing about it, the pandemic makes for a very different teach abroad experience. For those questioning whether it is worth it when it seems half the world is locked down, I promise you that it is! But there is no doubt that the experience will require from us, as teachers and travelers, flexibility. If you are putting the work into attaining your TEFL certification, I assure you that life wants to surprise you, just as it did me. Let it!
Lillian Butler-Hale is a 22-year-old graduate from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where she studied Sociology, Spanish, and Human Rights. Before moving abroad to teach English in Bilbao, Spain, she worked for the Nebraska Unicameral Legislature and volunteered with a local nonprofit providing literacy services including ESL/EFL classes. In her free time, she enjoys reading, biking/hiking her way around the Basque Country, and sampling all the wonderful food Northern Spain has to offer.
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