When the email arrived that the Spanish government was looking for American teachers to hire, Ryan Mihm and his wife, Jill Brickson, jumped at the chance. After all, it's not every day that the opportunity comes along to combine international travel with work.
The Summit County teaching duo spent the 2011-2012 school year in Roquetas de Mar, Spain, a small town along the Mediterranean coast. Working with native co-teachers, Brickson (Dillon Valley Elementary, fifth grade) taught science to third-, fourth- and fifth-graders, while Mihm (Summit Middle School, sixth grade) held classes on mathematics, visual arts and English language.
The biggest and most obvious difficulty was the language barrier. Though both Mihm and Brickson spoke Spanish, and the students had been studying English for years, it turned out that learning and practice were not the same thing.
"My goal for myself was to go there and improve my Spanish, but we were in an area of Spain with a very strong dialect," Mihm said, referring to the local accent, which often drops the ends off words, making it difficult for non-locals to understand.
However, they looked upon it as a challenge, rather than a problem. Brickson, who works with Spanish speakers at Dillon Valley, and has a background in bilingual studies, found value in the experience.
"It was interesting for me to be on the flip side. I was the one going through the language-acquisition process," she said. "A person can read books, write papers, but without living in another culture, you can't really understand what it is to be an outsider. That experience, it was powerful."
Mihm agreed. "I could tell that the students had been taught English from a memorization standpoint, but hadn't ever had to use it in conversation. My goal was to get them to speak and to practice. It was the most demanding job I had ever had."
Their hard work paid off, and by the end of the year they had developed meaningful connections and relationships with their students. Mihm even coached a group of 12 students into a high-placing position within an academic competition of English skills, which he describes as a success, and great fun.
"It was a great experience to sit down with kids who wanted to learn and wanted to be there."
Another benefit was that Brickson and Mihm were able to experience the education system of another country firsthand. Their American perspective influenced, and was influenced by, the perspectives of their Spanish colleagues.
Summing up complex educational systems into brief statements is no easy task, though they tried their best to describe accurate comparisons. There are differences in teaching style - Spanish schools focus more on memorization and repetition, while Americans take a more hands-on approach. Often, Spanish teachers are moved around to different schools, while American teachers tend to stay in the same groups and communities. In Spain, the national government controls the school system, while in the United States schools are run on the local level.
Brickson offered an analogy about the difference in teaching styles. "Teaching, in the region we were in, was more like reading a recipe that had already been written down, following direction and then making the recipe," she said. On the other hand, "U.S.A. education would be [like] providing students the opportunity to create a new recipe, then they get to test the recipe and they make changes."
In her science classes, Brickson had her students perform experiments.
"The first one was a disaster because they were so excited we couldn't learn anything," she said. "But by the end of the year they were really enjoying the hands on."
Both said that teaching in a different system allowed them, upon return, to appreciate the opportunities and services available to students in the United States.
"As a whole, I greatly appreciate what the U.S. offers, specifically what Summit County offers," said Mihm. "I feel like there's really good leadership in this county."
Beneath the differences in curriculum, style and system, on an individual and basic level, the motivations and emotions remain the same.
"Teachers are teachers no matter where they are," said Brickson. "They're teachers because they love kids, and they love what they do, no matter what country they're in."
"Students are the same across the entire world," Mihm added. "Kids want to learn; they just want to be loved and have attention given to them. That was evident in Spain."
Both Mihm and Brickson feel that the experience has enriched them, and allowed them to improve themselves, to the benefit of their Summit County students and colleagues.
Brickson said she had gained "cultural proficiency and empathy for language learners. I spent years studying these things, but I never was on the flip side. So bringing that back to the classroom with students, as well as my co-workers, is an invaluable experience."
The two were also impressed with the emphasis of learning languages, which is prevalent throughout Europe, and feel that American schools would benefit greatly by following that example. Brickson, who works within Dillon Valley's dual-language program, feels Summit County is off to a good start.
"I see Summit County moving in a really positive direction," she said. "With so many international teachers in Dillon Valley, it's an example of our high level of regard for our education. I hope that they get to stay with us for a long time. Everything that I brought to Spain, they're bringing here. It's something to be valued."
Would they recommend the experience of teaching abroad to their colleagues? Absolutely.
"I think it's such a beautiful thing to be able to share [cultures]. Because you're not just sharing the language, you're sharing everything that you represent," said Brickson.
Looking back, they say they both appreciate the opportunity they were given.
"We were really thankful that the school district allows teachers to leave for a year," Mihm said. "We felt that that was valuable, a great thing to take advantage of."
"We are just so appreciative that we work in a community that values the experiences," Brickson added. "They allowed us to go and come back, and we have these great jobs and this great community, which is where we want to be."