I’m Whitney Griffin, a native of Jefferson City, MO, who has come to call Navalmoral de la Mata, Spain, her second home. I’ve been there for nine years—with year ten starting in September. It’s crazy how a simple study abroad experience in Salamanca, Spain, in the summer of 2008, led to two other study abroad experiences followed by a big move into the teaching field. I never wanted to be a teacher but found my love for ESL education while working as a “Language and Culture Assistant” in a program offered/funded by the Spanish Ministry for Education and local education boards.
My main goal was to spend a year traveling abroad and the program was the easiest way to do that—little did I know that my placement in a small, rural community just two hours west of Madrid would be the best thing that could have happened to me, as it allowed me to practice my Spanish language skills, meet locals, and just get a real feel for the Spanish lifestyle. I wasn’t a tourist and that was the best feeling; I was one of the few English speakers in town and it was life changing! My job as a language assistant was to help improve students’ oral and written skills in different bilingual classes such as Science, Math, History or PE, in both primary and secondary schools.
Last October, I opened my own academy named Whitney English Academy and I couldn’t be any happier with my decision. The academy has continually grown, starting out with around 100 students to over 140 students signed up for this upcoming year. Students spend free time hours in the afternoons with us to improve their conversational and grammatical English skills. I say us, because I have a second teacher on board to help make everything work as it should! Having Isabel Cortés González on my team has been a great experience and a real asset to the academy. Thanks to her, the students arrived in one piece to Chicago, IL, on August 15!
For two weeks this summer my students from Spain are here in Jefferson City! Having the students in my hometown, attending Helias Catholic High School, has been like a trip down memory lane for me. It’s surreal having them here—in my town—with my former high school teachers—having dinner with my family… I made sure to show them my old basketball records at school, too! I am so thankful for the community around me who has helped me organize this unique experience for these students. The kids couldn’t be happier with their host families and I couldn’t be happier for all the support I’ve been shown both before and during this trip.
Q. What do you enjoy most/least about the Spanish culture?
A. I love living in a small community (imagine Fulton, MO, but completely walkable from end to end in 20 minutes) and being somebody in town. I love that Spanish people are so social and live their lives in the street. I love tapas, going for cañas with friends, visiting interesting villages and experiencing the different landscapes and architecture each region has to offer. I love that even the shortest car ride means new foods to try, new landscapes to see, and oftentimes a new Spanish dialect, accent or a completely different language to figure out!
I’d say my least favorite things are the lack of good heating/AC (Extremadura is just far enough north that we don’t have great A/C and it’s just far enough south that we don’t have great heating.) We do have this invention called the “brasero” which is a heater under a table which is covered by a blanket (a total fire hazard!) which is absolutely wonderful/necessary to sit under in winter and get warm! It also bothers me that Spanish people seem to talk really loudly, even when it’s just their normal voice level; but these loud voices are something I have come to get used to and it doesn’t bother me as much as it used to!
Q. When did you decide you wanted to open your own school in Spain?
A. I had talked about it for years with a former American roommate that we should open one togehter. People had told me for years that I should open an academy. It had been a long time coming. I never thought I could do it as it’s hard enough to open a business in your own country, yet alone in a different country and in your second language. But, I decided last spring (2018) that the 2018-2019 school year was the best time to do it and I made it happen just in time for the start of the year!
Q. There are always challenges to opening a business, what challenges did you face in another country?
A. I have to admit that I had so many people rooting for me and offering to help me out which was very reassuring when I was struggling or worried that things wouldn’t be done on time. The biggest challenge was the bureaucracy of the paperwork that needed to be filed in a timely and orderly fashion, sometimes in towns a few hours away. The biggest personal challenge I overcame was writing a 12 page business plan--in Spanish. I had clear ideas and goals I wanted to follow and I’m proud that I stuck by my own beliefs and ideals and made it all come together.
Q. What is your favorite part of owning your own business?
A. I love being my own boss but, I think that’s also the hardest part of owning a business. They say a teacher’s work is never over… there is always something to prepare or correct… well, the same (and more!) goes for an English academy teacher/owner/publicist/tour guide/etc. Work is never over; you always wonder what else you could do to make it better. I want to be different from the other academies in town so I try to work hard to keep bringing new things to the table to offer the students and families.
Q. What has been your biggest accomplishment?
A. Hands down, this summer trip I’ve organized for the students to Missouri has been the icing on the cake for the year! I love planning trips, but this one wasn’t just about me… seeing the smilies on the kids’, parents’ and host families’ faces makes all the hard work completely worth it!
Q. Who are your mentors or people you look up to?
A. I’ve got so many great role models in my life who have helped me get to where I am today. First and most of all, my family, many teachers throughout the years, friends from school and study abroad who are doing great things throughout the world, and students’ families in Spain who helped me feel at home when I was far away from home. I like to use the lessons they’ve taught me over the years to inspire others and help them grow.
Q. What are you most thankful for when it comes to your business?
A. I’m lucky to have so many wonderful students and families who support the academy and trust in what Isabel and I prepare for them. We really do have the best students who make our job really fun! I must also say that I am so lucky to have found Isabel, the other teacher at Whitney English Academy. While she may be my employee, she has come to be so much more than that this first year...a great friend and like family. It means so much that she too has come on this Missouri adventure to get a feel for my American life.
Q. Do you have any goals for your business in the near future? If so, what are they?
A. This year I would like to organize events in Navalmoral de la Mata for different ages like trivia night, game night, and other exciting challenges. I want to help as many people practice English as possible and by organizing special events I can help people who aren’t enrolled in the academy during the year.
In the spring, I would love to be able to organize a similar cultural exchange for American students in Spain! I know how beneficial the visit to Missouri has been for my students that I know it would be the same eye-opening experience for kids from mid-Missouri. It would make me so happy!
In the future (2020), I would like to add another classroom to be able to offer more classroom hours for our current students. Younger kids only come for 1 hour a week and I know some of them would love the possibility to come for 2 hours a week; I would need to expand the academy to be able to accommodate these changes. I love having small group sizes (max 6 kids per class) and I think by keeping it small and really knowing our students’ personalities and strengths and weaknesses we are able to help each of them on a more personal level.
Q. What is one thing you want people to know about your business or living abroad?
A. I think everyone should study/travel/live abroad at some point in their life so they can see how the world really is and not how they think it is. Traveling opens your mind to new experiences, smells, foods, cultural differences, clothing styles, means of transportation… it is so much fun to experience these things! You don’t have to like it or understand it but just by trying new things you can start to understand other cultures a bit more. By participating in cultural exchanges (even by hosting an exchange student) you learn that some things that are so normal in the USA are so strange for other cultures (eating times, food portions, free refills, tipping, big cars, slots in the bathroom doors, Dr. Pepper, baseball, cheerleaders, lockers, wearing flip-flops when you aren’t at the beach, driving cars at 16, drinking age at 21…) It’s good to get out of your comfort zone and feel like a kid again in a world where everything is new and deserves to be explored.
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