One morning at IES Marques de los Velez, in El Palmar, Spain…
As the door to the classroom opened, and a flow of sleepy students seeped through the entryway, I tried my best to give each person a smiling “good morning.”
It was 8:25am and English class was this group of twenty-something teenager’s first class of the school day. I was already two coffee’s into my morning, and not even the sweet nectar of caffeine could help me maintain a genuine smile. This indeed was early, and the fuzzy look on everyone’s face told me that this class was going to start slowly.
Chairs began to screech along linoleum floors, chatters of half-asleep El Palmar teens began to rise as backpacks flopped on the ground and people took their seats.
I brought my own chalk, had a powerpoint saved on a pen drive, and had already decided that today we would kick-off with a game that would wake them up.
“Everyone be silent please!”
The other teacher in the room gave the group an authoritative stare as she sat down with the rest of the group, leaving me the only person in the room still on their feet.
These four words would be everything that she would say for the next fifty-five minutes, and now her “assistant” (myself) was in charge to teach whatever the material was for the day.
My job title was on paper “English Language Assistent” however as the most powerful person in the room had just sat down to grade homework assignments, apparently I had just been knighted.
It was the end of January, and promptly being granted this promotion at the beginning of class was to be expected.
Back in November however, when I took a bus to IES Marquez de los Velez for the first time, this came as a surprise.
I paced into this same classroom for the very first time, on this exact day of the week, almost three months ago, with an expectation that I would be assisting a teacher in whatever activities or lessons that she needed.
On this fateful morning, after introducing myself, showing the group a quick powerpoint about where I grew up in America, and fielding a couple questions, I was looking at the teacher with a look of “ok, I’ve done my part now, you can come back up here.”
She didn’t stand up.
She didn’t do anything. She just looked at me like I was a penguin at the zoo.
I was in front of the class, now facing twenty-something blank stares. The comedian had just said his last joke, but the Netflix special still had thirty minutes left.
I felt like I had just been put up to a flame to be sacrificed.
I had to think of something instantly, to act like the sudden awkward silence was intentional and that this was all part of the class that I apparently was now fully responsible for.
There was a foam ball in my backpack, so we started playing a “get to know you” game where each person had to list three of their hobbies.
The fire started to die down and the lamb would live to graze grass a day longer.
After the first hour had finished, I told myself that this was a one time thing, and that the other teachers who I was supposed to “help” would work with me, and I would be their “assistant.”
Sit down. Nothing. Peguins.
I learned last November that I wasn’t going to be an assistant. Not even a co-teacher. I was basically now the teacher. I would prepare every lesson, and I would be the person in charge for fifty-five minutes while the seven teachers of the English department would grade papers.
Since November, with thirteen different groups, and about three hundred different students, I suddenly had a role that had previously been something from imagination.
I didn’t have time to wonder whether this high school in a town called El Palmar, Murcia had decided to take advantage of the foreigner by making him shoulder all of the responsibilities.
There was only time to to prepare lessons, and to get to work.
I came to Murcia to learn, to make mistakes, and to become a better teacher. This was now my stage. If teaching wasn’t my goal, then things would maybe be different. Maybe I’d be upset or maybe I’d hold a grudge.
This was a secret blessing, because now I got to mess up on a daily basis and more importantly I had been given many chances to build my confidence in the classroom.
Three months later I found myself alone again, in front of a group of the same sleepy teenagers, while the main teacher had just done her job and told them to calm down.
The imaginary spotlight was back on the comedian again.
Perhaps the sun had started to rise already, and maybe somewhere in the city center of Murcia there were people enjoying a tostada in a cafeteria at some random plaza.
In January the training-wheels were officially off my imaginary teaching bicycle. In fact, perhaps some of these young English learners needed a quick refresher of what the word “wheel” even meant.
Warm-up, sliding projector screen, chalk stains on my jeans, workbooks, group speaking activities.
This was how the morning was going to go.
I was ready, and honestly being ready didn’t feel good, it felt great.
These kids didn’t know what they were about to get themselves into.
It was a secret between me and the people eating tostadas.
I could almost smell how delicious breakfast might be as the silence in the room became interrupted by the cracking of my weak vocal chords.
If the warm-up I prepared sucked, I had another in my back pocket. If the projector decided to not turn on, there existed a plan B.
Smiling, making eye contact, ok if I did something wrong, this was me, Daniel Catena, doing his best to try and help Murcia’s youth learn English.
Welcome to El Palmar.