Teaching English abroad is something many college students — us included — dream of doing after graduation. It’s a chance to live in another country, gain work experience, and travel — all at the same time.
Alexa Woods, a George Washington University grad with a B.A. in International Affairs, took the leap and spent a year teaching English abroad in Malaga, Spain.
We chatted with Alexa about her experiences abroad, what you can expect, the most challenging parts of living and working abroad, and what it’s like to return home after spending a year well outside your comfort zone.
Read on for the insights Alexa has to share and for an inside look into what it is really like to teach English abroad.
GenTwenty: What were the main influences for your decision to teach English abroad?
Alexa Woods: My main reason for wanting to teach English abroad really stems from my desire to continue traveling and exploring different parts of the world. After having the experience to study for a semester in Argentina during college, I knew that I wanted to recreate the experience after graduating, except this time with a job.
My decision was also influenced by my desire to speak more Spanish and by the fact that I really do enjoy working with kids, so I wanted to give teaching a chance.
G20: What was the application process like?
AW: The program I applied to is sponsored by the Spanish Ministry of Education and has no program fee. The application process is somewhat tedious and mostly in Spanish, but is entirely worth it.
Once you’ve applied online and have met the criteria – you’re a native English speaker and are in pursuit or have completed a university degree – you will be assigned a region in Spain. A few months later you will receive the actual placement and information as to what city you’ll be teaching in, the age of your students, and the contact information of your school’s coordinator.
I was placed in a bilingual high school in Andalusia. I taught primarily English classes to 12-14 year olds, but also assisted in the Math and Science classes being taught in English through the bilingual program.
G20: Can you share what your experience was like living abroad in a different country? Are there any big differences between working abroad and studying abroad?
AW: My experience living abroad was exhilarating, adventurous, and at times lonely. Completely immersing yourself in another language and culture pushed me outside of my comfort zone.
As an English teacher I had different priorities than when I was a student, and really came to appreciate my routine. A typical weekday would include a few hours of teaching, primarily in the mornings, a late lunch around three or four pm, which is super typical in Spain, a potential nap, and some private English classes that I would teach in the evenings to make a bit of extra travel money.
I became close with the other Americans and my French roommate who were also teaching. I was lucky to make some really great Spanish friends as well during our weekly language exchange at a local tapas bar.
G20: What were challenges you faced? Did anything surprise you? Did you ever feel homesick? How did you cope?
AW: My biggest challenge was coming to terms with how isolated I felt at times. Despite the excitement of being somewhere entirely new, living abroad still includes mundane activities like going to the grocery store and paying your phone bill, sometimes even making sure the hot water still works!
Although I was surrounded by great people, being so far away from family and friends was difficult. I don’t, however, regret a single second of it because I became incredibly independent and proved to myself that I could be happy on my own.
G20: Were there any unexpected benefits in your experience?
AW: One unexpected benefit includes the beginning of my French studies! Living with another teacher from Nantes, France inspired me to learn a few phrases in her language. When I decided to spend a long weekend in Paris, I became even more motivated to familiarize myself with French. It’s an incredibly beautiful language, as is Spanish, that I am intent on learning. The biggest differentiator this past year was that I had the time to spend on it.
The second unexpected benefit plays into my greater sense of independence. If there was a town I wanted to visit, all I had to do was buy a bus, train, or plane ticket and I was there. At first I was a bit hesitant to travel by myself, but after taking my first solo trip to Naples, Italy I realized that there are so many opportunities to meet people.
Just by default, traveling alone makes you more open to conversation with a fellow backpacker at your hostel or a random walk across the city. Being accountable to you and you alone is a great feeling.
G20: Were you able to take advantage of traveling to surrounding countries?
AW: Travel was by far my main motivation for teaching abroad and Spain’s central location made it relatively easy to travel through Europe and around the Mediterranean. During the year, my travel was focused in and around Spain. I lived in the South but had friends all over the country – Madrid, San Sebastian, Granada – so it was fun to visit these places.
I also took advantage of a few long weekends to go to France and Portugal. My most unique weekend was spent riding a camel around Morocco and exploring Chefchaouen, a small mountainside town painted entirely in blue.
After my classes ended, I took all of June to travel before coming home. It was sad to say goodbye to Malaga after so many great months there, but I packed up my things and hopped on a plane to Barcelona. I spent a few days rediscovering the city and then flew directly to Venice, Italy where I camped about 5 miles off of the island.
I basically ate my way through Italy, stopping in Bologna, Florence, Siena, and eventually ending in Rome. From there, I flew to Athens and got right on a ferry to Santorini. In hindsight, I should have flown directly to the island but the six hour ferry ride past other Greek islands was incredibly beautiful. During my four days in Santorini I rented an ATV to scoot around and went to all the different beaches, some of which even had black and red sand from the volcanic rock.
After eating plenty of gyros and watching some of the most amazing sunsets I’ve ever seen, I left Greece and flew to Istanbul, Turkey. I spent a week playing in the Grand Bazaars and trying out different spices from the market. Istanbul is one of the largest and most hectic cities I have ever visited, but also the most enchanting. It was easy to get lost and spend an entire afternoon wandering around one neighborhood. For three days I went to central Turkey and hiked in a region called Cappadocia that is famous for its caves and rock formations. I was lucky enough to get an aerial view from a hot air balloon. It was by far an incredible trip that I will never forget.
G20: Can you share some insight into what the financial aspect of teaching English abroad is like?
AW: My program paid me 700 EUR a month which was equivalent to about 1000 USD. This was plenty to live on in southern Spain. Rent is cheap, only a few hundred euros a month depending on your location, and a night out doesn’t have to cost you much money.
The extra income I earned from teaching private classes was used primarily for travel. I would recommend going abroad with a few thousand dollars in savings but it really just depends on what your priorities are.
G20: What was the most difficult thing about coming back home? What was your career situation like?
AW: The most difficult thing about moving home was readjusting to the pace, where everything seems to move just a bit faster. Although I was ready to see my family and establish my life back in DC, I desperately missed the laid-back lifestyle I led in Spain. I also missed speaking Spanish and the constant challenges that came with communicating in another language on a daily basis.
When I finished teaching in May and moved back to the United States I did not have a job lined up. I knew that I wanted to be in DC since it was where I went to school and already had a network, but was open to a variety of professional opportunities.
I applied to law firms, non-profits, and a few private sector jobs, ultimately choosing an Analyst position at a research and advisory firm in their technology consulting practice. My team and my work constantly challenge me, and for the time being, I am happy going into the office.
There are days where I miss the classroom and all of my students, but I hope to get involved with teaching English as a second language to the immigrant community right here in DC.
G20: Finally, do you have any parting advice or wisdom to offer twenty-somethings who want to teach English abroad?
AW: If you have any inkling at all to travel and teach, go for it, right now. This is the point in your life where you have the least amount of responsibility and the greatest degree of freedom. Living abroad certainly won’t be glamorous 100 percent of the time, but it will undoubtedly be the best experience you’ve ever given yourself.
Learn a language, meet incredible people, flex your teaching muscles, and most importantly see places you never even knew existed. Whatever your definition, ‘real life’ can wait, because I can guarantee you it will still be here when you get back.
G20 would like to extend a special thanks to Alexa Woods for sharing her experiences with us.