We’ve heard it all before, and we’ll probably never stop hearing it – life is a strange thing. We’ll probably never know for certain if there is some sort of of mysterious guiding force behind the scenes (for many of us, there probably is) or if we are all just bits of matter whimsically floating through the abyss. But that said, there’s a good chance that if you find this blog applicable to your life, you probably have had the “how the hell did I get here” conversation with yourself at least once or twice.
Let’s face it – normal people typically don’t hop on a plane and fly across a huge ocean to teach another country’s children how to speak English. Normal people don’t roll the dice on a graduate education program in said country that may or may not hold the same weight as a program back home (spoiler: it does, if you play your cards right!). But hey – you’re not normal and, evidently, neither am I. That’s why you’re reading this and, frankly, that’s why I’m writing this.
I’ve never really been the type of person that ever thought that I’d be asked to write a success story about anything. I was a mediocre student in high school, maybe a notch above mediocre in college, and absolutely less than mediocre once I settled into an event management job in Philadelphia after graduating. It was grueling, unhealthy, and unfulfilling, and for the first time in my life I was left with a desire to really want to set myself up for some type of long term success, and any sort of long term fulfilment in what I was doing.
Then, life struck. I was browsing Reddit on a typically unproductive morning when my friend John called me. “Dude,” he bellowed through his Tuesday morning hangover. “Check Airfarewatchdog. $150 round trip to most major European cities. Must be some sort of computer mistake somewhere.” When I loaded up the page and saw Philly to Madrid listed, I pulled the trigger without thinking twice, and a month later I found myself at a massive botellón in La Latina with a group of Americans (and one truly bizarre fellow from Malta) that were in the auxiliares program. They filled me in on the details about it, and suddenly the medium-term trajectory of my life became a bit more clear. I signed up for the program the following November, got hitched to my longtime girlfriend, quit our jobs, and we boarded a one-way flight to Madrid in August 2012.
The next year was an absolute blur. I was assigned to Colegio Iplacea in Alcalá de Henares, and enjoyed what I think has thus far been my favorite year of my short teaching career. It was a fantastic place with incredible families, students, administrators, and coworkers, and to say that I looked forward to coming into school every day would be an incredible understatement. Now that I’m back stateside, I often find myself pining for the days where my commute consisted of a short train ride and a walk through a Unesco World Heritage City instead of my daily suburban rat race, passively viewed through the foggy windows of my weird green Ford Focus.
As fantastic as that first year was, I still found myself wanting to continue to push forward. Early on in the term, my wife Mary and I had both been clued in to the Master’s program at Universidad de Alcalá by some friends, and we decided to make a push for it. We both were accepted early on into the Bilingual and Multicultural Education program, and started mapping out what our path was going to be for the next year and beyond. But as with most things of this magnitude, the planning was indispensable, even if nothing went to plan.
I’ll be blunt – our year in the Instituto Franklin program was anything but easy. The workload was heavy, the days long, and many of us were at the mercy of certain pitfalls in the Spanish school system that one is typically shielded from in the auxiliar program. To top it all off, real life was continuing to happen back at home – weddings, births, illnesses, and deaths will continue to come and go, even if you’re 4,000 miles away. For me, these things all seemed to organize themselves into one obstacle after another, with the only immediate payoffs being more tears and frustrations (and, uh, Mahou litros and cold pasta) than any person can realistically expect to bear for any prolonged amount of time.
But it was worth it. The entire experience in the Instituto Franklin program – our classmates, our instructors, our cooperating teachers – were absolutely and unequivocally worth every second of trial and every single tribulation. The guidance and support that was given to us by Iulia and the rest of the team made this doubly so, and the help that they provided us will always be my model for how to be an exemplary mentor, role model, and friend. The same can also be said for every one of our classmates – each person was incredible, and it’s been fantastic to see how much success we have all had since we’ve parted ways.
Through all this, what made the program worth the effort and struggle was more than just lofty rhetoric about how great the people who involved are – it had immediate payoffs when I returned to the states. Even though I didn’t hold a teaching certification upon my return, I was almost immediately hired on as a Spanish teacher by a local charter school, and I have been told specifically by HR and my principal that I was called because of the Universidad de Alcalá degree listed on my resume. I also received a significant pay bump because of it, which has been more than enough to make the tough times of a few years ago very much worth the effort. I’ve been moving up through the ranks at my school, and I’m now (like, actually at this very moment) sitting in front of a room full of 12th graders that are powering through their final stage of the International Baccalaureate program.
For being cast from a stone of mediocrity, I like to think I’ve come a pretty long way, but I have trouble using the term “success” to describe a story that has as much left as mine does. While I’m still jumping through hoops with the great Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to get my certification (the outlook is very good – expect another post when it’s through!), I’m here trying to orient myself toward the next step. Maybe it will be in the classroom; maybe it won’t be. While I’m at a bit of a crosspoint, it’s empowering to be able to look back on the path that I’ve tread and know that the way forward is whatever I want to make of it, and that struggle is something that I am no stranger to. The sky’s the limit for anyone who has these things in their corner, and it’s a limit that I intend to test.