We asked fellow Dreams Abroad members what they would do differently if they were just starting out on their adventures now. Stephanie’s second Madrid adventure began after teaching for three years in Nashville, Tennessee.
After studying, living, and working in Madrid, Spain, here are five things that Stephanie knows now about success teaching abroad:
#1 Teaching Abroad is Not Studying Abroad
As a junior at Vanderbilt University, I took part in a study abroad program in Madrid, Spain in 2012. This just happened to be the same city that I ended up teaching in while abroad. If you’ve ever studied abroad, don’t go into teaching abroad with the same expectations. As a study abroad student, my classes at La Universidad Complutense de Madrid were much easier than my Spanish classes at Vanderbilt. It was very easy for me to crank out a literature report about a piece of Golden-Age Spanish literature in a night. If I didn’t sleep, I could just drink enough café con leche the next morning to drag myself to class.
When you’re teaching abroad, you have an actual job. Success teaching abroad is important because your students are depending on you to be fully aware. Teaching takes a lot of energy. It’s hard to give your students 100% if you’re out all night at the discoteca or landing at the MAD airport from a weekend trip mere hours before you have to report for work. No quantities of cafecitos will change this fact. Work/life balance is extremely difficult when you’re trying to get the most out of your time abroad while simultaneously excelling at your job.
#2 Thoroughly Search All Options for International Flights
The first two transatlantic flights that I purchased (the first was when I studied abroad in 2012) were from the Nashville International Airport via American Airlines. This was a very expensive mistake. Upon searching for early September flights from Nashville to Madrid, one-way tickets were running around $2,500 and round-trip tickets were running $1,200. When I decided to come home for Christmas, I discovered that there were plenty of transatlantic flights available for a mere fraction of what I had been paying. In the peak of the winter travel season, I could fly from Fort Lauderdale International Airport to Madrid via Norwegian Airlines for $250. This was not the most convenient flight, but it saved me an entire grand. Saving on my flight home for Christmas afforded me the opportunity to lay out on the beach in December and relax.
How to Look for the Cheapest Tickets:
- Go to skyscanner.com (skyscanner.es is sometimes slightly cheaper if you’re confident in your Spanish)
- In the “from” box, type USA (EEUU for the Spanish site)
- In the “to” box, you can either type your actual destination (i.e.-Madrid) or a country (i.e.-Spain). If your final destination is a major city such as Madrid or Barcelona, put your destination. Or if you’re traveling to a smaller Spanish city, it will most likely be considerably cheaper to fly into Madrid or Barcelona. Afterwards, book a RENFE train ticket or budget airline ticket to your final destination.
- Having some flexibility with your dates will help you score a cheaper ticket. Ideally, put “whole month” to see prices by date.
There are certain U.S. cities that tend to be MUCH cheaper to fly to or from. New York City, Boston, Miami/Fort Lauderdale, and Los Angeles (even though it’s way further) come to mind. If you don’t live in those cities, I recommend buying a separate flight to/from one of those cities. If you’re saving over $1,000 it’s definitely worth it.
Get creative with your searches. Search many different variations before buying a ticket. Sometimes you’ll be surprised. The second time that I came home, I found a $400 round trip ticket from Madrid to Miami via Delta airlines (Delta is usually expensive).
Typically, the cheapest airlines are Norwegian, Air Europa, WOW airlines, TAP Portugal, and others. Iberia is also worth checking, as they sometimes have good deals from certain U.S cities that are American Airlines hubs.
#3 There’s Only So Much That You Can See in a Year
I was determined to travel extensively last year. It’s very easy to travel when you’re teaching in Spain. Most schools will allow you to cram all of the classes that you teach into a four-day block so that you can have a three day weekend every week. Budget airline tickets can often be purchased for around 20 euros. There are reasonable accommodations in hostels for around 15-20 euros a night in many cities. People ask me all the time how I was able to afford traveling so much last year. They are typically stunned when I reveal how tight my travel budget typically is and how much I’m able to see. I cut corners everywhere: budget airlines, cheap hostels, meals from a cereal box, etc.
However, if you’re in Europe for a limited time and working a job, there is only so much that you will be able to see. I came home with an even longer bucket list of places that I hope to see one day. Don’t try to do too much. Last year, I went on three international trips three weekends in a row (Stockholm, Geneva, and Berlin). They were all incredible. However, I was so incredibly exhausted upon returning from the long puente (weekend) in Berlin that I decided to just stay in Madrid for a few weeks before going home for Christmas. Traveling is an incredible eye-opening experience, but you can only do so much in a short period. Fully enjoy and embrace every moment and destination.
#4 Be Prepared for Your World Views to be Challenged
In some ways, an America-centric world view is further enforced by how closely Europeans follow American politics and events. My Spanish students were far more interested in American politics than my Nashville students. They asked me questions and expressed their opinions on the U.S. election on a daily basis. They even asked me if my family was okay after hurricane Matthew and about the Fort Lauderdale airport shooting last year. I am convinced that they know more about what’s going on in the United States than most Americans. Success teaching abroad is challenging for all the right reasons.
I was surprised in other ways too. Most notably, last year when Fidel Castro died I showed my students English videos and articles from various Florida news outlets. I was shocked when many students insisted that there were “good” things about communism and his regime (universal healthcare, schools, etc.). This was a very hard pill for me to swallow. I have grown up hearing stories about that regime. They confiscated private land in Havana from my dad’s family and I’ve heard how political opponents were routinely jailed and/or killed. I was absolutely dumbfounded that anyone in a free society would sympathize with such a repressive regime on any level. I had similar realizations coordinating the Fulbright Global Classrooms program at my school last year, as we regularly discussed current events.
My major takeaway is to not make any assumptions about world views that students may bring to the table. Be prepared with English sources covering many different viewpoints. This way, students learn to think critically and contemplate differing points of view in an objective manner.
#5 Pack Light
I still cannot believe that this advice is coming from me. I’m not going to lie… in the past, I’ve packed my car down with more luggage for a one-week vacation than I packed to move to Spain for a year. Something about ridiculous checked-baggage fees and dragging all of your belongings on the metro, upstairs, along cobblestone streets, and up to five flights of stairs to your piso really makes you consider how much you “need.” Excess “things” are merely an inconvenience when traveling.
I recommend limiting yourself to checking one bag if you’re moving to Europe. You can also bring a carry-on size bag and a personal size bag. Anything more only costs expensive bag fees and makes your life miserable in the process of moving. If you have more than you can personally carry, you’ll be paying for an expensive taxi. Traveling light means paying the three euros it takes to take the metro or cercanía train from the airport to your destination. Don’t even get me started on how much better public transit is in Europe than in the U.S. Now, I typically just travel with a backpack – a normal-sized backpack that fits under my seat on an airplane. Spain is a first-world country. Anything that you’re bringing from the States can be bought in Spain at a much cheaper price.
Ensuring Success Teaching Abroad Starts with You
Stephanie moved back to the United States and is teaching ESOL in Miami to grades K-12. You can read more about her journey here. If you would like to join the Dreams Abroad community on Facebook please stop by and share your experiences and success teaching abroad.
For more information and to submit your own What I Know Now, please contact Dreams Abroad.