Reflections from a year of living and teaching in Madrid, Spain

At the US Embassy in Madrid

Nine months have come and gone in the blink of an eye. I have had the privilege of spending the last academic year as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant at IES Villa de Vallecas, a bilingual secondary school in Madrid, Spain. No two grantees’ experiences are the same, and a blog post could never do justice to nine months of living anywhere. But now that I’ve reached the end of my grant, I hope to share a few thoughts and experiences as I reflect on what this past year has meant to me.

I remember the excitement and anxiety of my first few days in Madrid. While I had previously studied abroad in Valencia, I arrived in Spain last September with no knowledge of the city, little classroom teaching experience and not a single friend in Madrid. Thanks to the Fulbright program, several friends of friends, and some Spanish hospitality, I settled quickly. My roommate, fellow ETA Patrick Tolosky, and I were lucky to find an apartment inside la Iglesia del Salvador, a beautiful church in the Malasaña neighborhood.

Our housing proved fortuitous. The husband-and-wife pastor team in the apartment above ours looked out for us and included us in their efforts to serve the local

My home for the last nine months

community. Esther is the president of Acción Social Protestante, the NGO housed within our church building, where Patrick and I taught English classes for recent immigrants with fellow ETAs Conner Nix, Julia Potach, Cassandra Campeas, Alex Ayala and Callie Zaino. Esther’s husband Alfredo is active in immigrant and refugee advocacy work as a leader in the Spanish Evangelical Church. In January, he invited me to join him for a meeting in Brussels with other NGO leaders and European Union officials to discuss the EU’s response to the growing migration crisis. Patrick and I learned a lot from Esther and Alfredo, and it was comforting for us (and our parents) to live under the watch of such a kind Spanish family.

With my roommate, hiking companion, and fellow ETA Patrick Tolosky on Islas Cíes.
With my roommate, hiking companion, and fellow ETA Patrick Tolosky on Islas Cíes.


I also remember how nervous I was on my first day in my Spanish high school, IES Villa de Vallecas. Teaching far from Madrid’s central tourist district afforded me the opportunity to see a different side of Spanish society, and to build relationships with students across a wide range of ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. I will leave this school with tremendous respect for my fellow teachers and administrators, along with a deepened appreciation for my twin sister Sally, who spent this past year as the homeroom teacher of 25 rambunctious fifth-graders in South Carolina. I will certainly miss my students and their cheerful greetings of “Happy Hump Day” every Wednesday morning once I’m back in the United States. From teaching Model UN and the basics of American football to skiing in the Pyrenees on a field trip, I have loved every aspect of my job as an English Teaching Assistant at IES Villa de Vallecas.

On a personal note, I have been blessed with both Spanish and American friendships that will last a lifetime. I undoubtedly stick out like a sore thumb as a lanky, blonde-haired “guiri” (or foreigner) in this city, so I am especially grateful for the hospitality and warmth with which I have been received in my apartment in Malasaña, my basketball team in Barajas, my church in Canillejas, and the homes of new friends across Spain. I also appreciate their patience as they helped me with my heavily American-accented Spanish. I won’t forget the fiery festival of «Fallas» in Valencia, the costumes of «Carnival» in Cádiz, and the enchantment of watching new friends perform flamenco music in Málaga during Semana Santa. These friendships enriched my experience in Spain with local authenticity. Someday, I hope to match their hospitality in the United States! Also, I know I’ll keep in touch with my fellow Fulbrighters, the incredibly talented and compelling people with whom I’ve been fortunate to share this journey.

In the studio with Celso Varela in Pontevedra, Spain.
In the studio with Celso Varela in Pontevedra, Spain.

Several personal anecdotes come to mind when I reflect on this past year, but there is one of which I am particularly fond. In October, fellow ETAs Parker Lawson, Ali Cox and I happened to meet a painter named Celso Varela in the small town of Pontevedra, Spain. Our casual conversation in the street led to an afternoon spent with him and his wife Ángeles as they explained to us the art in his workshop. We kept in touch, and a few months later, I visited Celso, Ángeles and their daughter María back in Pontevedra. I left with the gift of a portrait painted in his in-home studio. The portrait is uniquely special to me, as is the story behind it. This painting will remind me of the generous friends I have in Spain every time I see it.

I am extremely grateful to the Fulbright Commission, the Spanish and United States governments, IES Villa de Vallecas, Davidson College and all of my family and friends for a fantastic year in Madrid, Spain. I know I’ll be back to visit again soon!

Andrew Tucker 2016 Fulbright Teaching Assistant at IES Villa de Vallecas