I decided my senior year of high school that if I went to Kent State I was going to participate in the COST (Consortium of Overseas Student Teaching) program. I remember visiting campus, hearing about the program, and thinking that I really wanted to a part of it. A short three years later I was completing the application process, putting Mexico, Costa Rica, and Ecuador as my countries of choice seeing as how I already knew some Spanish and really wanted to improve on it. I had been planning on being in COST my entire college career.
For some reason when it was about time to turn in my application I got cold feet. I’m not sure what triggered it, but all of a sudden I wasn’t positive that I really wanted to be in a completely different country for my final semester of college. I was thinking of all the things I might miss out on, the great friendships I had and the close-knit feeling I had with the other girls in my Early Childhood Education program. Was I strong enough to endure my student teaching by myself, away from the other girls in my cohort? We had become really close and relied on each other for support when we had a hard day with a class or difficult cooperating teacher. After a lot of thinking and talking with people close to me I decided that I could handle it and I really wanted to have this experience. I can say that I am truly happy and thankful that I made that final decision.
I arrived in Mexico City for the third time in my life at the end of January. However, the last time that I visited the city I had been 14 years old and this time I was 22. There were things that I remembered being the same, like seeing huge billboards everywhere in the city along all the roads, the green taxis- most of which were old VW Bugs, the welcome and friendly feelings I received from nearly everyone I met, and hearing and seeing Spanish everywhere, this time I understood a lot more than my first two times. I was so thrilled to be in Mexico, and not only because I left snowy, freezing Ohio for days that reached at least 70 degrees. I was ready to really make the most of this experience and learn as much as I could.
I was to be student teaching at Thomas Jefferson Institute, a private, bilingual school. I was placed with a third grade teacher and was eager to get to know her, the kids, the classroom, other teachers, and the school. We had two classes of 27 children each because they spent half the day with their Spanish teacher and the other half with us, in English. We were responsible for teaching grammar, reading, spelling, social studies, and health. Most of the children had been in the school since pre-first (the equivalent of Kindergarten) and had been learning English the whole time. This was obvious when speaking with some of the children, but others struggled much more with English, and some refused to even try to speak English.
The first thing I began learning and am still realizing is how difficult the English language really is to understand. There are so many exceptions and random rules that I had never considered before. For example, the change in the pronunciation from the word ‘say’ to the word ‘says.’ I gained a huge appreciation for people learning English and the difficulty surrounding it. I learned a lot about teaching English to second-language learners, speaking slowly, repeating things multiple times in a variety of ways, writing directions on the board, and many more. I am quite sure that wherever I end up beginning my teaching career this information will prove very beneficial. I am positive that I have become a better teacher overall because of what I learned while teaching in Mexico.
I have also learned a lot about the culture and the people of Mexico. I came already having the beginnings of an appreciation for Mexican culture as well as cultures different from my own, in general, but this experience has amplified that appreciation and understanding tremendously. I actually felt a part of the culture and that I was accepted into it. I plan on integrating many different cultures into my classroom because I think it is so important to help children begin to appreciate, understand, and learn to love about different cultures and all kinds of differences at a young age. I have wanted to do this for a while, but again, this experience has made it much clearer.
I left for Mexico thinking that I was a very independent person and wanting to be able to be independent in nearly all things and not ask for help. However, being in a new place and with new people caused me to realize how much it is necessary to ask for help and assistance sometimes. I have learned how much I need friends and family around me, but also that I can make new friends quickly to keep near me. I have learned a lot about how I need to deal with stress and difficult situations, valuable lessons which I’m sure will benefit me in the future.
When I decided to participate in a semester abroad I expected a great experience, learning about a new culture through living in it, improving my Spanish skills, gaining knowledge about teaching in general and teaching English as a second language, meeting new people and making new friends, being somewhere different and new, and learning about myself and how I would react in this situation. I definitely received all of these things and so much more. There is so much that I have gained that I am still unable to put into words, but I can honestly say that I would not have traded this experience for anything else. It wasn’t perfect, it wasn’t completely life altering, but it was amazing, fulfilling, enlightening, enjoyable, and worthwhile.
By Jacqueline Willer