pauline kurevija in spain

Gaining an international perspective on education helps expand domestic teaching skills

Pauline Kurevija participated in International Service Learning in Spain, as part of the placement required in her program . She is an Education student on the Waterloo campus.

I am a very lucky person. I had the opportunity to travel to Madrid with my three amazing friends and experience how the life of a teacher differs in Spain compared to Canada.

In my two-year Bachelor of Education degree, I gained many perspectives on teaching through different mentor teachers, different schools and different communities. Every time I taught somewhere new, or with someone new, I was able to see teaching in a different light and each time that happened I became a better teacher.

In education, there has been a shift from making students fit the teacher’s style to the teacher adapting their lessons and style to best support the students in the way that they learn best. My heart completely agrees with this teaching philosophy, but my head is concerned with the logistics of how I’ll be able to know so many different student experiences.

Teaching in Spain was one of the best experiences of my degree because it was the first time I experienced education that wasn’t Canadian. We get students from all over the world in our classrooms, and by only having a Canadian perspective to my teaching, I personally felt limited.

As I experienced education in Spain, I saw how differently two countries can approach the same profession. I saw how differently the student perspectives and feelings towards school can be. I learned things about teaching in Spain that I will now use and will make me a better, more well-rounded teacher, especially to students who are from other countries and cultures.

Like I said, I am very lucky to have been able to participate in an international teaching experience, and I know that not everyone has the opportunities I had. Teaching abroad is not a necessity to be a good teacher; you can be an incredible teacher to students from other countries simply by being open-minded and dedicated to constantly learning and improving. If an international teaching experience ever opens up, though, take it! There are so many reasons why it’s worth it but an important one is that you learn firsthand what it’s like to be the odd one out.

We get students coming into our classrooms from other countries with limited knowledge of English and we do our best to empathize but being in their shoes makes you sympathize. After a couple weeks in my placement class in Madrid, one of the students with a good grasp of English asked me if I was ok; she said I looked tired. Now anyone who knows me knows that I have A LOT of energy, I can run around with enthusiasm all day, and yet I was sitting down at one point looking exhausted. What was it? A bit of frustration and a lot of mental fatigue. Spending hours a day listening to everyone speak Spanish and not understanding most of what was going on made me feel isolated and often ineffective as a teacher. I tried to stay on top of what was happening in the class by relying on other cues such as voice intonation and signals but most of the time I was lost when the conversations switched to Spanish. After days and days of trying to keep up my brain conked out.

This was one of the most useful experiences of my entire Bachelor of Education degree. I now know personally why new students often look bored and sleepy; however hard you are working to teach, these students are working five times as hard to keep up. Everything I’m saying I learned theoretically in class, but to really understand what someone is experiencing you can’t beat actually stepping into their shoes for three weeks.

 After my time in Spain, here’s what I will be sure to include in my teaching:

  • Make non-verbal games and activities. Give the students a break from feeling lost and level the playing field with all of the kids. Communicate the instructions in both languages and then play coordination games, or build sculptures outside using natural materials, something that isn’t about talking. Trust me, it means a lot to have a break from feeling confused.
  • Give opportunities for the new students in your class to share their expertise. Do they speak another language? Make a game around translating words into their language; if they can switch from being the lost student to the expert in the class it will do amazing things for their confidence and help them to feel part of the classroom community.
  • Give breaks and space when they need it. Of course, make sure that they are supported in their learning and encouraged to participate in the activities, but like I said, sometimes a brain just needs a break. If they seem worn down switch it up, give them a task that will boost their confidence or do an activity as a class that doesn’t rely on English.
  • Encourage the use of their other languages! Many times, students feel like they aren’t allowed to speak their native languages at school. Wrong! The more languages, the better. Make a classroom culture that embraces languages; have them visible around the class and incorporate them into your lessons. The classroom I taught in was all students that immigrated to Spain, mainly from Bangladesh. So, when I taught, we spoke in English, Spanish and Bangla. I had the students teach me how to say things in Bangla and every day when I saw them I said “হাই, আপনি কেমন আছেন?” which means “Hi, how are you?”. I also spoke to them in French and Croatian and told them about my Croatian culture. On an average day I included at least five languages in my lessons. I was aiming higher than just teaching English; I wanted a classroom of global citizens who were confident of their cultures and languages and were learning English in the process.

I have 10,000 more impactful things I learned in Spain, and could say so much more. Spain taught me things about teaching that I couldn’t learn back in Canada. My goals as a teacher are to experience teaching around the world, to meet people from all walks of life, and to create a classroom that embraces and celebrates one another for exactly who we are and the different experiences, backgrounds and languages we bring. The Rock said it best, “The most powerful thing you can be is yourself.”

I want every student that walks into my classroom to know that exactly who they are is exactly what our classroom community needs.