4 Things I wish I’d known before embarking on my year abroad

It’s often said that spending a year abroad is an opportunity of a lifetime: you can experience an entirely different way of living, while being young enough to fully adapt and enjoy it. But there’s lots of things I wish I’d known before heading off on my travels. Here’s my advice to those considering taking the plunge in future!

Learn the language

Even in touristic locations like Madrid, it’s impossible to get by without any Spanish. Knowing a word or two here or there will help you out massively: from ordering lunch to sorting out housing, understanding the language is key and will make your life so much easier! And once you arrive at your destination your language skills will only improve.

Research the culture before you go

When travelling from one European country to another we don’t often consider the wide cultural differences. A holiday is short enought to briefly adapt to minor changes, but spending a year somewhere is very different. Small things such as shops closing in the middle of the afternoon to people habitually saying ‘bye’ instead of ‘hi’ when they pass you in the street will hit hard if you aren’t expecting them. Just be aware of the way of life in your country (and city) and your transition will be that much smoother.

Plan monthly catch-ups (at least)

Even if you’re used to spending months at a time away from your family and/or friends, being oceans apart can be really tough even for the strongest of us. Make sure you set dates for catch-up Skypes or halfway-point meetings. We all need to hear a friendly voice from time to time. Making new friends at your destination is important too, but make sure to keep up those strong relationships at home so your transition back at the end of the year is a simple as possible.

Be prepared for admin hell

The administrative part of a year abroad is probably the worst. From passports and visas to residency documents, there’s a lot to be done. Sometimes the guidelines won’t be clear so make sure to do as much research as possible before you tackle an admin task so that you’re fully equipped for every eventuality. Joining Facebook groups for other people abroad such as Erasmus students or Citizens Advice Bureaus will help you solve most confusions and save you time in the long-run.

If you’re prepared for things to go wrong sometimes, your year abroad will be so much more rewarding! Stay positive and enjoy yourself: it’s an opportunity of a lifetime 😉


How to teach any type of class

Tips and tricks from a first-time teaching assistant

Working abroad this year as a language assistant in Spain has, ironically, taught me a lot. I quickly learnt from my ‘observation week’ that Spanish kids can be rowdy and childish, but for the right reason: they want to learn. I can only imagine how stressful it feels trying to form a sentence in English in front of a native speaker and 20 or more of your peers.

It’s important for us to remember this as teachers, and understand that not every pupil will want to talk all of the time: not every class you’ll teach will be straightforward, in fact it might take a few weeks or even months to get a true feel for a class and for the class to warm to you as a teacher. But that’s okay!

So, how can you choose activities which work for any sort of class?

Gauging the type of class

Teaching a variety of age groups and abilities can be challenging: some classes are naturally loud and chatty, others remain silent from the fear of getting something wrong and embarrassing themselves in front of their classmates and teacher. After one or two lessons, you’ll start to understand what kind of group you’re teaching and therein discover which activities work best for them.

For loud classes

Try to avoid activities which will encourage even more noise, such as board games or pair discussions. Instead, divide up the class into 3 or 4 smaller groups and try different activities to see which works best. This is especially useful for larger classes (25 students or more). The British Council Teaching English website is especially useful for topic ideas that will provoke discussion.

For quiet classes

As a general rule, worksheets will help in this instance. If a student has time to think over their answer and write it down first, they’re more likely to be willing to share it (as they’re less likely to be wrong). Make sure that the worksheet isn’t too challenging for them, or it may fall a bit flat. If anything, start with activities which they’ll find easy and gradually give them more challenging material as they start to open up. ESL printables is a great starting-point for this, with plenty of great resources.

For classes where there’s a ‘stand-off’ of silence

Although it may be difficult for some of us, the best way to break the overwhelming silence is to choose a different pupil to answer each question you ask. Soon they’ll realise that they all have to participate and that there’s no shame in getting answers wrong. With time, they’ll be more willing to voluntarily participate and you’ll be faced with a more ‘standard class’.

For standard classes

In my experience, these are classes where one or two pupils tend to answer most of the questions. The rest will either sit in silence, appear confused most of the time, or distract each other by chatting. A solution which usually works is designating a different discussion question to different sections of the class, giving them a few minutes to come up with ideas. Once the time has passed, ask each group to share their ideas, making sure that someone other than the usual-answerers has a go.

Whatever type of class yours is, try not to change up the activities too much each time. The most important thing is for the students to feel confident enough to share their thoughts: you want them to get used to your teaching style and feel comfortable, and some stability will definitely put them at ease. We’ve all had that one class we dread (both as teachers and students)- it’s just about gauging the class type, choosing the right kinds of activities and watching as the pupils become increasingly confident in the classroom environment you’ve created.

A very rewarding process!


The Realities of Culture Shock

Before embarking on my year abroad, the longest time I’d ever spent in another country was three weeks at a time. I distinctly remember the relief of sitting on the plane on the way home, delighted at being able to zone out and understand the perfect English that the flight attendants spoke. I’ve never considered myself patriotic or unadventurous, there’s just something about the familiarity of an English-speaking environment that soothes me.

Uprooting myself from England to Spain has been both trickier and more rewarding than I’d expected. The first few weeks just felt like a holiday, despite the chaotic mission of finding somewhere to live: one which I’d have found difficult enough in an environment where I fully understood the language, let alone in a remote rural city in Spain! Perhaps I was so distracted by all of my new surroundings that reality didn’t have time to set in. But once it did, it was a the most overwhelming feeling I’d felt since arriving in Ávila.

I started to miss the tiny things I never expected to even think about, like the orderly British way of queueing
and weekly family Costa trips. This became evident when on a weekend trip in Salamanca I practically ran towards the Starbucks as soon as I spotted it, in search of the taste of a familiar coffee! People warn you about culture shock, and let me tell you it is REAL. But it’s hard to predict in exactly which form it’ll hit you.

So, what can you do to prepare for culture shock?

And what’s the best way to relieve it?

Embrace the local way of life

As easy as it is to rifle through the local supermarkets in search of the exact brand of tea that you drink at home, chances it won’t be stocked there, or if it is it’ll be at least twice the price that you’re used to! Us students need to monitor our budget, so the more economical (and simpler) thing to do is try to adapt to the local taste. Swap your box of Twinings English Breakfast tea for a Spanish-branded mint tea and I promise you won’t be disappointed!

• Find some new “home” comforts

As a coffee lover, one particularly challenging part for me was not having a Costa or Starbucks within an hour of my house! Perhaps you might be lucky enough to have one nearby, or maybe it’s the atmosphere of your native pubs that you miss. Whatever it is, try out the local cafes and pubs and find one that’s right for you- it’s definitely worth it; think of all of the coffee/pints you can drink in the way of research! I found some beautiful cafes in my city, including a bakery that sold carrot cake called Granier and a shop called Santa Teresa selling local products which had the perfect coffee-shop atmosphere.

• Keep going!

As hard as it might seem to fit into a city so different from your native home, give it time. You’ll soon make new friends and find your new favourite places. Rather than focusing on the negatively different aspects of your new home, look at the positives: at least the weather is warmer in Spain!

Remember, it’s only natural to feel out of place sometimes. But you’ll get there, and you can have that Twinings English Breakfast tea on the return flight home!


Top 5 Things to Do in Ávila (Spain)

– activities and practical advice for your visit

Ávila is a small city (or arguably a big town, as often disputed amongst the local ‘abulenses’), located to the north west of Madrid. Its picturesque walls and authentically “Spanish” feel make it well worth the hour drive from Madrid as a location for a weekend break.

Top 5 Activities

1. The City Walls

Ávila’s city walls draw in thousands of tourists each year. Whether you plan to visit them on a sunny morning, at sunset or as a romantic evening stroll, you won’t be disappointed with the views! Of course, you can’t predict the weather, and it’s often quite chilly in Ávila; its location surrounded by mountains, means it’s often at least 2 degrees colder than Madrid. So wrap up warm, and enjoy the beautiful landscapes surrounding the city!

2. The Main Squares

Like most cities in Spain, Ávila has two ‘plazas’ which act as the central hubs for the city. Firstly, the larger of the two, ‘La Plaza de Santa Teresa de Jesus’, boasts great views of the city walls and a perfect balance of authentic local cafés and widely-loved branded restaurants. A statue of Ávila’s own Saint Teresa marks the centre of the square, with a near-replica placed close to the ‘Puerta del Alcázar’ entrance to the walls. The smaller second Plaza, ‘La Plaza Mercado Chico’, gives a real feel of rural Ávila in the time of Saint Teresa. The town hall is located here: a magnificent facade to the square. A perfect Friday in the city consists of a coffee with a view of the walls in a local café in Plaza de Santa Teresa and some fresh produce from the market in Plaza Mercado Chico.

3. The Palaces

Another great coffee spot for the addicts among us is the Sofraga Palacio terrace. With fresh cocktails served in the evenings, you can go any time of day and feast like a king (or queen)! But, Sofraga isn’t the only palace in the city. If the weather is typically ‘avileño’, i.e cold, then the Palacio de Los Velada is the perfect alternative. Its 16th century indoor courtyard and attractive 3-course lunch menu will soon have you feeling toasty again!

4. Historic Centre

With its walls and palaces, Ávila has the feel of a city untouched by time. Its fairy-tale and historic ambience make it the ideal location for a romantic getaway. Walking through the historic centre from one Plaza to another, hand in hand with your significant other, is a must-do! Follow that with dinner at one of the palaces and your weekend plans are sorted. Even for the single ones among us, the historic centre serves as the perfect backdrop for an artsy Instagram- how about a new profile picture fit for a king?

5. The Cuatro Postes Viewpoint

If you’re looking for photo memories of your trip, the further afield ‘Cuatro Postes’ monument boasts scenic views of the city walls. Couple that with the famous Hollywood-style ‘Ávila’ sign, and you’ll see why it’s a popular photo spot! Time it right and you’ll see the sun setting over the walled city: a perfect end to your time in Ávila.

Top tips for your visit

  • Lunch menus: if you’re looking to get the most for your money, look out for signs advertising a ‘Menú del día’. This often includes three courses, wine and bread for around 15€  or less! Try the ‘chuletón’ (traditional beef steak) and ‘judías’ (beans) if you want to eat like a local.
  • Language barrier: although many tourists travel to the city, Spanish is the main language spoken there, and lots of the visitors are in fact Spaniards. Even in some hotels in Ávila, the reception won’t necessarily speak English (except the odd word), so brush up on your Spanish before you visit and I’m sure they’ll appreciate your commitment! Nevertheless, you’ll find English-speakers if you look hard enough; the city’s Burger King has just had some automatic ordering screens installed so they’re catering more and more for English-speaking tourists.