2019 WSU graduate Sam Whitaker is realizing his dream of teaching outside of the US, leading a nomadic career, and seeing the world while doing something he enjoys, working with English language learners.
After graduating with an English-Applied Linguistics degree and a Spanish minor, Sam is now teaching in Spain at Maestro Matias Bravas Secondary School in one of the limited paid positions within the public Madrid Province Education System. His position is an “auxiliares de conversacion” or language and cultural informant/conversational partner, comparable to an ESL teacher assistant in the U. S.
All his life, Sam says he has been around incredibly well traveled people, including a close family friend who showed him it is possible to teach all over the world and make a career out of it. She often shared what proved to be fruitful resources for checking out for job postings and exploring successful international job fairs.
His current roommate and WSU alum, Laura Krupke (2019) first heard about the “auxiliares de conversacion” program from another friend who had participated in it the year prior. Because he and Laura often discussed wanting to go teach abroad together, she brought this government program to his attention and they applied directly through Spain’s government public education systems web page. They heard back, asking if they would like to be included in the spring six-month program. They decided to accept and are currently looking into staying for up to at least a year. Sam was extremely excited and nervous for the opportunity. “The job is small, but it is an incredible networking opportunity and a great way to create great references and build on my portfolio. I know better and bigger positions are out there. I just need to earn them. You never start at the end goal.”
In his new role which began on New Year’s Day 2020, Sam has already had opportunities to create his own worksheets, design vocabulary curriculum, travel to incredible destinations in Spain like Toledo or Barcelona, and explore one of the largest European cities, “that I live in by the way!” He is seeing bands on European world tours like Halsey, and his school will be offering field trips to attend soon as well.
Originally from North St. Paul, Minn., Sam did not have ambitions of becoming a teacher while he was in high school but was strongly considering business. He shifted from his more business mindset in his senior year of high school to global education because “I decided that I couldn’t be behind a desk or a screen for my career and I wanted to travel the world and meet lots of new people. I also wanted to be doing something of real need or use. A good teacher is always in demand and the schedule and sense of gratification made it the right choice no matter where I ended up in the world.”
He then came to Winona State with the intentions of completing a degree in K-12 TESOL Education, but after some time, discovered he had a strong interest in living and teaching English abroad, which would allow him to experience more of what the world has to offer. Around the same time, he chose to narrow the focus of his academic path and specialize in the area of linguistics and second language acquisition – this decision led him to his English-Applied Linguistics major and Spanish minor.
Sam says that the education he received at Winona State is already serving him well in his job. “I apply theory of second language acquisition (SLA) to almost all of my lesson plans. Additionally, my students are taught English using phonetics rather regularly, which is something I learned a lot about and understand really well,” he says, adding that he is already seeing his “wild yet awesome” students’ language improve through the use of phonics in his curriculum.
He goes on to say that his knowledge in English grammar from classes like pedagogical grammar and syntax are making his lead teachers value him for more than just the conversational and cultural advantages he brings to the learning environment. “It feels good to be of actual use in the classroom,” he says.
Sam’s experience of moving to a new country has been a fun yet challenging culture shock, making his new life in Spain a constant adventure. From couch surfing to navigating public transportation in a massive, unfamiliar city, to grocery shopping, to understanding an entirely different school system, Sam has learned strategies for getting accustomed to being “the foreigner.”
His philosophy on contributing to life and work abroad is grounded in two mottos: “get comfortable” and “accept people as they come,” he explains. He notes that all people have different stories – no walk of life is the same, and all humans are doing their best to navigate the world and life around them. “The honest truth is we are all just winging it. It’s easy to make contrasts between people rather than to see what makes you similar. I know my students are no exception, and I try hard to teach compassion. I try to teach mindfulness. Most importantly, I try to teach the value in a global perspective.”
As a result of his experience thus far, Sam is fully aware of his own growth as well. “I have already learned way more about myself than I had ever thought I would have and have seen so much more than if I had stayed where I was comfortable.” For WSU students with a hunger to make a global impact, he recommends that they “really take into account your cultural biases and tendencies before you leave. They only way you’re going to make an impact in this world is to go see ALL of it and meet as many people as you can. Also, be compassionate and mindful! It’s so easy to get lost in everything you are doing. Always remember to re-center and remember what and why you are doing all of this in the first place.”
To further explore English-Applied Linguistics, TESOL, Spanish or other degree programs at WSU, please visit https://www.winona.edu/academic-programs/
Emily Vander Laan
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