Last month I was contacted by Megan Haskin of Korbay Delay to be interviewed for her Teachers Abroad series. Currently teaching in Vietnam, Megan has also lived/taught in Bhutan and Costa Rica.
It was interesting to reflect on these life experiences which happened between seven and four years ago (teaching in Madrid and teaching in South Korea, respectively). While looking back, I found myself staring at a canyon-wide gap of distance between the 22-year-old me in Madrid, the 24-year-old me in South Korea, and the current almost-29-year-old me writing today from Texas where I’m on hitch with ACE’s conservation corps.
This distance is more than the years, more than the miles.
I’ve shed and grown several layers since my days teaching abroad; I’ve turned the page not just to a new chapter, but to a new book. Might I teach English abroad again in the future? It’s an option. But that would be with my new identity, which is based strongly on living my values in everyday moments as a human being. The creation of this very site last fall has played a much larger part in adopting this new identity than I realized at the time.
Every day we change, though often it’ll be years before we look back and find ourselves staring at a stranger with our eyes, but whose mind we can no longer enter.
Update 2019: The interview is no longer live, so I’m going to post Megan’s questions and my answers here, below.
Teaching Abroad Interview
1. Tell us a bit about yourself – who you are, where you’re from, your teaching experience and where you previously taught.
I grew up in Wisconsin and have lived in a variety of places since college, my most recent home base being Flagstaff, Arizona, where I’m serving on ACE’s conservation corps via AmeriCorps. I’m currently in the fifth month of my six-month term and don’t yet know where I’ll live/work next, but I’m continually guided by my values (growth mindset, kindness, creativity, mindfulness, gratitude) and my personal compass.
It’s been about a year and a half since I first got into watercolors and travel sketching, which I do alongside hobbies of art journaling, blogging, reading, snail mailing, solo slow traveling, and wander walking. I first taught English abroad in Spain (2011-12) and then again in South Korea (2013-14). I’ve lived in France as well (2015-16) and have taught English to adults in my hometown as a volunteer at a local non-profit.
2. How is it that you ended up teaching in these countries?
I studied abroad in Madrid my junior year of college and loved it. I actually chose the year-long program in Madrid for financial reasons, as tuition was about the same as a year in Madison, but luckily during the year Madrid grew to feel like a second home.
While staying at a hostel in Valencia one weekend, I met some people who had studied abroad in my same program just a few years earlier, and who were at that time teaching English through Spain’s auxiliaries program (North American Language and Culture Assistants). I tucked that nugget of information away and applied on a whim the following year, two months before graduating from UW-Madison. I was moving forward with a Peace Corps nomination when I received an email that summer saying I’d been accepted to teach in Spain. I had three days to accept or deny the offer, and ultimately I chose to go back to Spain.
While there, I discovered a few blogs of people from my university who were teaching English in Korea and read them regularly. That possibility entered my radar, but far away at the periphery. After that second year in Spain I returned to Wisconsin and worked for a year to pay back my student loans at a faster pace. That spring I applied to teach English in South Korea through GEPIK, and I moved there in the fall of 2013 to teach at an elementary school.
3. What do you love most about teaching and living there?
In Spain I love the sun, vibrant culture, friendly people, beautiful language, relaxed lifestyle, affordable wine, and rich history. As an atheist who had to hide my lack of belief for much of middle and high school, I like that Spanish people are more open about certain topics, religion being one of them. I like the proximity to Western Europe and the idea of working to live—rather than living to work. In 2014 I walked the Camino de Santiago across Spain, and every subsequent visit to Madrid feels like a homecoming. I also like that there are such distinct areas in the country—so much so that after two years living in Madrid and traveling around the country, I still have places I’ve yet to visit.
In South Korea I most loved the delicious food, my adorable students, and the fantastic mountain views in all directions. Although it was a very challenging year for me, I enjoyed learning about a culture I’d been completely unfamiliar with before arriving. I also got to experience learning to read at age 24 when I learned to read Hangul, which was quite humbling.
4. What is the most challenging aspect of teaching in this part of the world?
In the program I taught through in Spain, it was challenging because I felt underused and powerless to change the outdated teaching methods at my particular schools. I taught at two vocational colleges where my upper-teen/adult students were required to take one or two years of English, but weren’t necessarily personally motivated. One of my co-teachers couldn’t hold a conversation in English and would give out irrelevant, boring translation exercises as classwork and homework. To keep myself sane, however, I taught several private lessons in the evenings and they were fulfilling for me. I could see my students’ progress and had total control over designing and teaching each lesson. I also played on Madrid’s ultimate frisbee team Quijotes+Dulcineas during the year, which gifted me with friends, travel, and fun.
In South Korea the most challenging aspects for me were the language barrier (and subsequent isolation) and cultural beliefs that differed from my own (i.e. collectivism, the social hierarchy, family pressures, demanding schooling, high presence of plastic surgery). I’ve written in more detail about what I will and won’t miss from South Korea in this post.
5. What advice would you give to someone wanting to teach in these places?
If you want to teach in Spain, keep a hefty dose of patience in your front pocket at all times. Patience will be required for any bureaucratic business, but living in Spain is so worth those hassles. I have a collection of practical resources and how-to posts about teaching/living in Spain here.
If you want to teach in South Korea, I would check out the EPIK and GEPIK programs, though teaching in a private Hogwan is definitely an option as well. Here is where I have a huge batch of information about teaching English in South Korea.
6. What would you tell someone who is considering teaching and living abroad?
Go for it! Even in my most challenging year abroad, I learned and grew so much—I wouldn’t trade it for anything. My years teaching and living abroad have had such a profound impact on who I am today, and they continue to shape my life.
If you have any questions or need some encouragement, email me! I love encouraging others and providing information that makes living abroad more accessible.
And here’s where you can read more: