Alumni Spotlight: Isabelle Wong


Originally from Denver, Colorado, Isabelle attended Vanderbilt University where she studied Violin Performance and Biology. After graduating, she moved to Thailand for a marketing internship but decided that she wanted a more hands-on teaching experience, leading her to her current position as a Conversation Assistant in Barcelona, Spain.

Why did you choose this program?

While in university, I visited Barcelona after playing in a music festival, and I immediately fell in love with the city. I always knew that if given the chance to live in Spain, it would be an opportunity I couldn’t pass up!

Following graduation, I interned through Greenheart Travel at a company based in Hua Hin, Thailand. The internship was a constant study of exploration, and I loved connecting with people from all over the world who were traveling to Thailand in order to begin a new chapter of their lives teaching English.

But while I greatly enjoyed the internship, I wondered about the teaching aspect. I craved a more hands-on experience abroad, one where I could be an integral part of a school and fully embrace living in a different country for a longer time span.

After doing some research, I found a program through PremierTEFL that I chose for two main reasons: one, the program included an online TEFL Certification, which was important to me as I have no true background in the area; and two, I knew I would have the support of both PremierTEFL and the partner program here in Spain while living and working abroad. Navigating life in a new country has its fair share of ups and downs, and it’s wonderful to have support and guidance throughout the experience.

What did your program provider assist you with, and what did you have to organize on your own?

PremierTEFL works with CAPS Home to Home to place Conversation Assistants in schools across Spain. I sent in my application to the program through PremierTEFL, and I had my official interview for the program with CAPS Home to Home. PremierTEFL did a wonderful job answering all of my questions, walking me through the application process, and providing me with an online TEFL course that has proven to be a valuable resource while here.

Once I was accepted into the program and signed my contract, CAPS Home to Home sent information regarding how to obtain my visa, my official school placement and host family details, and what to expect upon arrival. The visa process for an American citizen can be quite lengthy and difficult, and I did have to figure out a lot of the background paperwork and appointment registration on my own (CAPS Home to Home sends important documents and information; however, it is up to the Conversation Assistant to obtain the visa); however, placement at the school and housing is all taken care of through CAPS Home to Home, which is certainly a weight off.

Flights and other travel arrangements are up to the Conversation Assistant, but CAPS Home to Home does provide an orientation weekend upon arrival, which is a good chance to get to know other assistants and meet the staff of CAPS Home to Home. PremierTEFL has also been an outstanding resource throughout my time here; I feel like I can reach out to them at any time with any questions or problems that arise.

What is one piece of advice you'd give to someone going on your program?

I think that one of the greatest lessons I’ve learned while here is to ‘trust the process’ of being in a new place and beginning a new chapter of life. There are multiple aspects to the idea of ‘process’: adjusting to a new place and pace of life, learning about a new culture, taking on new job responsibilities, determining your place within a new work environment, and exploring the world around you.

These are all things that take time and they should take time in a sense, because by going through this process, you also discover something new about yourself. Maybe it’s your ability for adaptability, maybe it’s an expansion of creative skills that you didn’t even know you possessed, maybe it’s in meeting new people and forming new relationships, or maybe it’s in the fierce independence that comes from traveling solo for the first time – discovering something about yourself takes time and trust. I am still learning about my own place in the world, and I have to remind myself that this, in itself, is a process; it takes time and this is okay.

What does an average day/week look like as a participant of this program?

Something that I love about this program is that everyday can be different! It’s a balance between the stability of routine (I have a schedule from the school and tutor after school on most of my weekdays) to unexpected change and challenge (sometimes I’ll arrive at a class only to learn that they have an exam or have gone on a field trip or are attending mass. At other times, I’ll have to step in for a teacher or help some students with a project or come up with a game for nearly an entire class of high-school students!).

Adopting a mentality of flexibility - ‘taking it as it comes’ and adapting to whatever comes your way - has helped me immensely, and it’s an approach that I hope to apply not just in my work but also in my life.

My school has students from ages 3-16, and because I am the only Conversation Assistant, my time is divided between all of these different age ranges. It’s a good challenge for me because I can get a sense of what it’s like to teach younger students versus older students, and I’m able to observe how students progress in each stage of learning English.

As someone who is new to teaching English as a foreign language, it is vastly beneficial to have the experience of moving from a preschool class in the morning to a high-school class later in the day, and then back to primary class in the afternoon. In this sense, I not only gain experience in teaching a wide range of ages, but I’m also able to better understand how students learn at different stages in their life. Plus, it keeps me on my toes!

I also have a speaking class with teachers once a week that I’ve really enjoyed teaching. At first, it was an adjustment because I’ve never had adult students before (Read: I was a nervous wreck!), but it’s now one of the highlights of my week. We discuss everything from phrasal verbs to ‘The Best Desserts in the World’, the wage gap, favourite travel memories, political issues, and holiday traditions. It’s fantastic, and it’s been a fantastic chance to get to know some of the teachers better.

As far as an ‘average week’ goes, I’m generally at the school from 9a-5p, with a two-hour lunch break from 1-3p (this was really my biggest adjustment coming here. What does one do with ALL THAT TIME? Have a leisurely lunch? Lesson plan? Go for long walks? Run? Write? Read? All of the above?), and I alternate between preschool, primary, and secondary classes. I try to always have at least one activity or idea planned for each grade level, and for primary and secondary classes, I also have a back-up activity, just in case. On most weekdays, I have 1-2 private tutoring lessons (with students from the school), followed by dinner with my host mother and her son. I have found that my weeks hold a good balance between teaching on the weekdays and exploring Barcelona (and beyond!) on the weekends.

Going into your experience abroad, what was your biggest fear, and how did you overcome it?

I think that my biggest fear in traveling abroad was the unknown of living with a host family. I’ve never lived with a host family before, and a large majority of my worries revolved around a potential language barrier, whether or not we would get along, and adjusting to a new routine and way of living within the context of being immersed in a new culture. But my fears were put to rest quite early on in my time here; in fact, my host family and I get along so well that I’ve asked to stay with them for the entire year.

Every person coming through this program will have a difference experience – some interns are placed with host families, some have independent living, and some have a combination of the two. It depends on the person, the placement, and the school. I think that what helped me the most early on in my time here was being open to any new experience and embracing the uncomfortable and unknown moments as opportunities for growth and discussion. I’ve been fortunate to get along so well with my host mother and her son, but it has taken a few months to truly settle in and establish a routine, both at the school and with my host family.

I think the biggest piece of advice that I could give to someone who is worried about a new living situation is to be as honest and transparent as possible and to always address an issue early on. The longer a problem is pushed aside, the greater it becomes.

What has been the most surprising thing about living and teaching in Spain?

Other than the two-hour lunch breaks (still have yet to get used to this), something that has surprised me about teaching in Spain is just how passionate and emotional students can get about nearly anything – from a game (most everything has to be a competition!) to relationships (with their friends, family, teachers, peers) to everyday events.

It is simultaneously invigorating and exhausting because I have never before met students that love to talk and yell and argue about everything, but they are also so fervent about the things that matter to them and outwardly show their affection for one another and for teachers. It’s challenged me to think creatively about ways to keep them engaged in the classroom and also to appreciate the way they approach learning and life in general.

Another thing that I’ve come to greatly appreciate about life here in Spain is the opportunity for lingering – over coffee breaks, tapas and vermouth, long meals, continuing conversation, spending time with family and friends, sharing stories, etc. Taking the time to fully enjoy something is highly valued here, and it translates into a genuine enjoyment of what life has to offer.