Europe, Ideas, Life, Murcia, Random Thoughts, Spain, Teaching

This is El Palmar

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.

“Alright, everyone…”

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.

California, Ideas, Life, Murcia, Random Thoughts, Sausalito, Teaching, Travel, United States

The Last Bag of Goldfish Crackers

When I was in first grade, my school’s Peruvian Spanish teacher Señora Buckley would sometimes reward us with Goldfish crackers whenever we did something correctly.

Did you count to six? Here are six Goldfish. Were you able to say “dog” in Spanish? Here’s one Goldfish…

Being only six years old, Spanish wasn’t necessarily a subject that I enjoyed. Power Rangers, GI Joes, and Ninja Turtles already took priority in my life so anything else would need to be crayoned into my seemingly occupied elementary school schedule.

I’m not sure if treat training was the best way of helping us learn, but it was a great way to introduce a delicious and baked snack into my diet.

Blinking my eyes, all of a sudden I’m not a six year old anymore. The memories of clamors of young learners trying to sputter Spanish have been replaced with the rhythm of some nearly forgotten 90’s pop song being softly circulated through aisle six of a Safeway grocery store.

Blinking again, I’m almost thirty-one years old and for some reason the plastic handle of a shopping basket is firmly gripped within the web of my right hand’s fingers.

The last blink induced a deep inhale, as I needed to recollect myself and bring my mind back to the present.

Standing in aisle six, I reach my free hand outward and grab a bag of Parmesan cheese flavored Goldfish crackers. Señora Buckley flashes in my consciousness as I hold a bag of savory vices and toss it in the basket. I want to take more, but one bag is all I can muster without feeling like a complete lush.

Part of the reason why I’m buying this bag is to feed my tastebuds. Another reason why I’m here is to say goodbye. I’ve come to Safeway to pay respects and bid farewell to some foods that I love, such as, well, Goldfish crackers, Siracha hot sauce, Tortilla Factory brand tortillas, and a handful of other items.

Tomorrow afternoon I’ll be leaving California and returning to Murcia, Spain to work as an English teacher for seven months. This will be my third school year in this part of the world, and it’s hard to believe that it’s happening yet again. I’m excited to be coming back to the place that feels like a second home, but the foods listed above won’t be available in Murcia. This is totally ok, as Spain has some great culinary staples that aren’t available in California either. It’s a fair trade, but saying bye to Goldfish is perhaps the toughest pill to swallow.

With my last bag of Goldfish safely guarded by the shopping basket, I feel grateful to be given another opportunity to work in Murcia. There are a lot of wonderful people who I can’t wait to see upon arrival into Spain, but there are a lot folks in California/Missoula/Bend who made this summer back home truly memorable. Between weddings, catching up with family, reconnecting with friends, and sharing some awesome memories, (and passing subtest one of the CSET), this summer was maybe the best I’ve ever had. There are a lot of people who I would like to thank for making this summer great and also for making this return to Spain possible, but making you read the full list would make you late for something more important.

I don’t know what will happen once I get back to Murcia, nor do I know if this is the best thing that I should be doing with my life. The only thing I know is that being in Murcia, like the bag of Goldfish that I’m about to barbarically tear open, is something that makes me feel happy.  This doesn’t mean that California or living in the US is something that makes me unhappy, I feel fortunate to say that I’m really happy there too. My heart likes being in different places, and right now it’s beating with a sound that says I need to be back in Spain. Maybe I should see a doctor about that…

Either way, I’m excited to see what happens.

I’ve been standing in front of the crackers for way too long now, and that combined with the fact that I haven’t brushed my teeth yet today is putting some protective Marin moms, shopping carts a safe distance away, on red alert.

It’s time to not say goodbye. It’s time to say “see you next summer.”

Friends and family in California and the United States, I love you a lot. Stay safe, wash your face before bed, and see you soon 🙂

Ideas, Life, Teaching

Falling Up


As I publish this post I’m sitting in a room filled with scores of people who previously, currently, and most likely won’t ever know each other.

Florescent light fixtures shine from the ceiling in shades of hollow yellow as I sit in a leather-backed chair.

It’s the first time that I’ve been here, and the first time that I’ve seen these unknown individuals. Having not spoken a word since entering this room, the only thing that is evidently similar between us is the reason we are all here:

To pass a test.

The Pearson Professional Center, in San Francisco, is a location for people who need to pass some kind of exam before advancing in a given career. After fumbling around on the street corner outside, I finally found my way into the elevator and up into the waiting room.

Everyone here, as stated before, has the same purpose. The interesting thing about Pearson is that hundreds of different tests are administered within these beige walls. Someone might have registered for the GMAT, or a test called the CCVA, perhaps even something called the CCHEST. There are endless acronyms that could be represented in this waiting room, and it would be great to find out what the person next to me is nervous about, however we are all sworn to silence.

The only acronym that matters to me is for the test I’m waiting to take.

The CSET (California Subject Examinations for Teachers) Multiple Subjects Subtest 1.

Two years ago I started blogging about how I wanted to eventually become an elementary school teacher here in California. I’ve written about the CSET’s on a handful of occasions. These exams are meant to prove that whoever wants to be a teacher actually has some knowledge of the multiple subjects that they will be helping kids learn. They all must be passed before applying to universities that offer teaching credential programs.

Back then I decided to prepare for this first subtest before registering for it, in hopes of feeling confident with the material (language arts, literature, World History, US History, California History).

I hit a snag and, despite blogging about how motivated I was, studying faltered. A year would pass before picking up the study materials again. After one month I lost motivation for a second time and continued a studying hiatus. Maybe being a teacher wasn’t meant for me.

Eight months would go by. Life would see changes, but one thing would remain the same: I wanted to pass that next test. Something inside was pushing. Pass, or fail, I should at least try the test. 

Fast forward to one month ago. Showered in self-doubt, I picked up the educator’s bible in the form of a CSET study guide and started reading. Despite my conscious telling me that there was too much material, that the test would be impossible, I finally registered for the exam.

I studied, tried to remember as much material as possible, took numerous practice tests, forgot most of what was read, and have tried to patch together as much knowledge as possible in preparation for the test that is scheduled for any moment from now.

There’s no turning back. When an administrator calls my name its going to be my turn to stand up and face my opponent in an arena that mirrors a white computer screen. It’s hard to say whether this test will be easy, whether I’ll pass, or maybe this is all for nothing. All I know is that I’m here and I’m going to give it the hardest swing I can ever give. For me, that’s something.

Having made it this far, it does technically matter if this first exam is passed. However, inside I feel the opposite. It simply feels good to be here, knowing that this is the next step. I’m ready to fail. I’m prepared to stumble and fall down. Falling down just means it’s a matter of time before I stand up again, and one day pass this damn test.

As I’m sitting here entwined in a jungle of thoughts a man steps into the panorama of the room.

“Daniel Catena?”

Looking up, I try to focus. Here goes nothing.

Following the administrator into the testing area, I’m greeted by more silence.

Here goes everything.

Life, Random Thoughts, Teaching, Travel

Eight Things I’ve Learned From Being An English Teacher

Oh hey there!

I didn’t see you start reading, why don’t you make yourself comfortable?

It’s been a pretty long time since adding anything to this blog, and for that I apologize. Sometimes inspiration falters and in other moments we get too busy.

Since the last time I wrote, which was maybe a couple of months ago, I’ve been continuing the life of an English teacher living somewhere outside of the USA.

The recent months have been filled with lots of private lessons, teaching at an academy with loud primary school students, spending time with friends, and doing a little bit of traveling.

Recently I’ve been hearing that people really like to read lists, whether it be about restaurants or maybe about football player rankings. I wanted to try a list out myself, just to see how it felt to write one.

Here is my first ever written list ( besides one used for grocery shopping).Since starting as language assistant two years ago, and now working as an independent linguistic gun for hire, I feel safe to say that a few life lessons have been learned since diving into teaching.

This is what I’ve learned (so far)…

We are all human beings

One of the most important things to always remember is that the person or people who you are teaching aren’t just students, they are people just like you. They might be only four years old and can hardly old a crayon but inside this is a little person who has emotions and feelings. I’ve caught myself many times just thinking of my students as just few extra dollars to fund my coffee addiction, but this isn’t right. We are all human beings who are trying to live the best life we can. The more you remember that they are individuals, then it not only makes you a better teacher but it also makes you an improved part of this planet.

Nothing lasts forever

Each time I finish a private lesson I try to be thankful, because in the world of private English teaching you can’t ever guarantee that you will see the person again next week. People get sick, bored, change their work schedules, or quite simply move away.  Currently I have a schedule that is comfortable and financially adequate to fund my love of keeping a low profile. At the drop of a hat this might change, so I need to not feel too comfortable and be always grateful.

Know how to manage your money

Since students do sometimes cancel, move away, or change life goals, it’s always important to keep track of how much money you are spending. Maybe this week I made enough money to go out to dinner a few times, but I shouldn’t make a habit of treating myself with money that hasn’t been earned yet.

Remember that you are valuable

In life it’s best to never cut yourself short of what you think you are worth. If you are a hard worker and talented at whatever it is you do, then why not try to get paid for it? I wouldn’t ever try and rip someone off, but I also don’t want to rip myself off either.

Respect your boundaries

Depending on where you teach English, whether it be in China or in my current place of residence, you will be confronted with numerous potential students who want to start a series of study dates. If I would have said “yes” to every person who has asked me to teach them, then I wouldn’t have time to write in this blog. I would be running around town, introducing strangers to my impressive friend-circle of phrasal verbs. It’s good and healthy to say “no” sometimes, in fact I think it’s important that people learn how to say this more often. If you are saying “yes” in order to be nice, then maybe you are setting yourself up for future problems. It’s good to always keep that in mind.

Be flexible

Sometimes people show up late for class, sometimes they need to change the day of class, and sometimes they forget entirely that there was one even scheduled. This is something that you can’t let ruffle your feathers. As stated before, people are people and no one is perfect.

Patience is a virtue

Sometimes you have to stand your ground in front of a bunch of screaming six year olds. The desire to enter a verbal cursing competition might be surging but you have to be calm. Some private students might be excellent speakers but very slow readers (or vice-versa ) and you have to let them finish each sentence even if it feels like you’re stuck in the movie Frozen. You are there to help them, listen, and be there as a guide.

Lists make you sexier

This probably isn’t true, but I wanted to make sure you were still reading and not completely asleep yet.

You just passed my reading test! Ten life points for you 🙂

Thank’s for checking out this blog and I hope you liked this list. We are always learning something, even without realizing it.

Have a wonderful day or evening.


Daniel Catena

Europe, Life, Murcia, Random Thoughts, Spain, Travel

The Virgin of Wonders in San Basilio

I’m sitting in the house where I used to live.

Blustery Murcian breeze sends ruffles within the undercarriage of outside patio plants as I stare blankly through the glass of Lola’s living room window.

She is my friend and used to be my landlord up until about three weeks ago.

The room where I once slept, prepared lesson plans, and secretly watched Youtube videos of angry cats is now being resided by Teresa, a very nice woman from Brazil.

I don’t pay rent here anymore, however Lola and the rest of the house has welcomed me as a guest for whenever I happen to be in the neighborhood.

It’s hard to distinguish whether the noises I’m hearing are wind-induced or ghosts from over a year of calling this house home.

I want to still live with these great people, yet it feels exciting to be mixing up the everyday scenery.

In Murcia my address was named after the late Spanish poet José María Pemán, an Andalusian novelist who was one of the few artists to publicly support Francisco Franco in the 1930’s.

Living now in a neighborhood called San Basilio, you can send me mail to Calle Virgin de la Maravillas (Virgin of Wonders), named after a Virgin Saint for the Murcian pueblo of Cehegin.

With an Ecuadorian market that sells frozen bags of aji, a small deli, a coffee shop that offers espresso for less than a dollar , and access to public ride-share bicycles within a short walking distance, I feel very comfortable with the fresh residence. This combined with friendly new roommates (Eva and Emili) has made moving a pleasant experience.

If you get lost looking for me in San Basilio you can find the entrance to my apartment building simply by looking for a dangling Santa Clause mannequin that someone has forgotten to take down since the holidays.

Listen for the sound of rollerblades with overused breaks or a strong American accent and you might bump into me on the corner.

Train your nostrils to the smell of cooking garlic or sound of passively aggressive hip-hop music through a third floor window.

As stated earlier I’m taking a break in my old house.

In a short while it will be time to hit the road and try my best to teach a couple of Spanish kids some common English verbs.

With one private and another academy lesson completed for the day, a strong desire to drink a beer is hovering over my head, however responsibility must linger around until the final class is wrapped up in a little over two hours.

There is more I could say in this post, but after skimming through it once, I guess there is also a lot less I could have written as well.

Only time and internet scientists for literary nonsense will be able to answer that question..

It’s time to go, so please remember to review your idioms and phrasal verbs 🙂

Thank you for checking out this blog! Have a nice day and have a great start to the year!

-Daniel Catena

Life, Murcia, Random Thoughts, Spain, Uncategorized

This is La Flota

It’s about 4:15pm in La Flota.

This is a neighborhood in upper Murcia.

The square tile sidewalks are wide and blocks of faded pink houses line this Spanish definition of a suburb.

It’s great for starting a family, decent if you want a centralized living situation, and utterly horrible if you are an after school English teacher.

Four days a week I walk to a public elementary school in La Flota with a box of flashcards, balls, countless pieces of colored scrap paper, worksheets, and aspirations of helping a group of kids learn my native language.

Four days a week I walk home thinking, what the hell just happened?

It’s 4:15pm in La Flota and instantly after collecting ten first graders from one building in the school and guiding them to a separate classroom, I am pulling student number one off of student number two.

Number one said something to number two and soon they started fighting.

I tell him to sit in the corner as student number three decides to climb on a table and dance flamenco.

Student four just said “shit” in Spanish and the one student who ever truly wants to learn is screaming for me to hand her a worksheet. Pencils are being scattered all over the flour, along with what I thought would be a fun lesson plan.

Its 4:15pm in La Flota and I want to stop being an adult, stop trying to lead by example, and say f*** you to Spain’s future generation.

But I won’t do that. I won’t yell at these kids, won’t lose my cool even though I am finding out that my lesson plan sucked and that no one in this room wants to be here except me.

Educational bombs are dropping.

The next forty-five minutes will be linguistic trench warfare.

I give the class a firm, “five-four-three-two-one” and soon the eruption of child chaos is starting to go from green light to yellow light. Serious death stares establish me as the temporary alpha dog in this unruly after-school wolfpack.

We get an activity started. It starts to gel after a handful of patiently drawn-out moments and soon English vocabulary is not just coming from my voice.

Maybe the tide is settling.

Student one and two start to wrestle again. Student three decides to throw pencils across the room. Student five hasn’t come back from the bathroom yet.

Yells from six year olds and snapped debris of white chalk explode from the English induced car accident.

It’s 4:15pm and I want to go home.

I’m trying my best, but these kid’s whose parent’s are making them come to class don’t seem  engaged.

This is La Flota.

This is my first real teaching job.

This is a thirty year old getting pealed like an onion by a gaggle of Murcian six year olds.

This is looking at the face of a dream and seeing that it’s not going to be easy.

This is patience being taken for a ride like heavy winds on an unmapped ocean.

This is where I go back to the drawing board and get a better lesson ready for tomorrow.

This is La Flota, where I’m going learn how to be a teacher.