EMMA BURGER '14 (Bachelor of Arts in Music Education; Certificate in Leadership Studies)

First Year K-5 General Music Teacher at the American School of Madrid in Spain.


POST #5: March 2015

I was thinking the other day about what I would write for this post, and it occurred to me that I haven’t talked much about the English language learners in our school, or my observations of leadership within a school.  Both of these topics affect my day to day routine, and so I thought they were important enough to discuss.  Once I started writing, I realized that several books could be (and probably have already been) written on these two topics, but here, anyway, are my two cents.

Some of the most rewarding teaching I do is with the English language learners.  Many of my favorite class moments have come from either the celebration of language diversity, or the odd explanations I have to provide for some students to understand English words and phrases.  The lower school music classes have an incentive system for students to do well in class, and if a class does a good job following the expectations, they earn a star.  When a class has ten stars, we have a star party.  At the beginning of each star party, the class counts the stars together, to make sure we have ten.  One day I was bored, so I asked the class if they knew how to count to ten in any other languages.  Every hand shot up into the air, and all of a sudden, we were counting to ten in Spanish, Portuguese, French, German, Italian, and Korean.  I contributed by counting in Dutch.  The energy this added to class was unbelievable. 

One unique challenge that presented itself in 5th grade band was the explanation of musical vocabulary.  Traditionally, musical vocabulary is written in Italian.  However, it is not a direct Italian translation.  This caused a world of confusion for one of our students who is Italian.  We presented the word “Forte,” which, in musical terms, means “Loud.”  In actual Italian, it means “Strong.”  The same thing happened with the word “Mezzo,” which for our purposes means “Medium.”  For the Italian student, it meant “Half.”  So, when he saw the phrase Mezzo Forte, he understood “Half Strong,” instead of “Medium Loud.”  This was an unexpected twist in what is normally a straightforward lesson, especially since before that moment, I didn’t realize those words did not have exactly the same meaning. 

Finally, the most rewarding part of working with English language learners is watching them succeed.  The first big step is class participation.  If everyone is clapping, they should be clapping.  Once they start mimicking those things, the words soon follow.  When I work with these students, I’ve found that the best way to reach them is to have a lot of visuals and use very clear body language to communicate my happiness or displeasure with their behavior.  It's amazing what you can communicate without words.

Music class is a great place to encourage verbal skills because there is a lot of slow repetition of words and songs, and the movements we do are easy to copy, so the students who cannot understand can still participate in a meaningful way.  Even if they don’t know what they are singing about, they are singing in English and becoming comfortable with the vowel and consonant sounds.  This gives them the confidence they need to start speaking independently outside of music class. 

Schools have a really interesting leadership dynamic.  There is the obvious leadership of the school board, headmaster, and administration, but in a successful school, leadership is seen at all levels.  As I was learning to be a music teacher, I never realized that classroom teachers worked so closely together in their grade level.  When I was in school, I assumed every teacher did whatever he/she wanted and magically, by the end of the year, the whole grade had learned the same things.  It turns out, grade level “teams”meet regularly and discuss curriculum, assessment, and work as a group to communicate with the other grade level “teams.”

My co-teacher and I are the lower school music department, so we are not on any “teams.”  When we interact with the classroom teachers and the grade level teams it generally feels like we are drafting foreign policy with independent countries.  We can ask for something, but it is very clear that each teacher and team has the right to reject the idea.  That being said, so much of being a good teacher is getting along with the other teachers.  Just like in politics, you can accomplish more if people like you, and you have made strong connections in different groups.  Power and influence are displayed in their finest form in a school. 

Another level of leadership that I see in school are the student to student interactions.  It is incredible to witness leadership happening among children.  I see them succeed and fail at influencing their peers every day.  Sometimes students have really great ideas, but are unable to get the other students to follow them because they aren’t patient, kind, organized, or any other XYZ factor that causes adults to react in the same way in similar situations.  A lot of student conflicts come from failed leadership attempts and the hurt feelings that always follow.  Conversely, there are a handful of students in every grade who just seem to command the respect and attention of their classmates without any effort. 

A great example is a 4th grade student who recently moved from Mexico.  Our 4th graders have been learning the recorder since the beginning of January, and so when a new student came in, my co-teacher and I were concerned that she would struggle to catch up.  To our surprise, she took the challenge in stride and started coming in early in the mornings to practice.  We had given this option to all the of the 4th graders, but she was one of the first to take advantage of the offer.  Not only did she start showing up to our classroom before school; she brought other students with her.  Not only does she practice her recorder in our room, she leads group practice sessions, where she determines which song they are all going to play, and establishes a tempo and counts off for everyone.  Her arrival into the 4th grade class has sparked more enthusiasm and brought the expectations of the group to a new level, and it is marvelous to witness.


POST #4: January 2015

It’s a brand new year, and I’m certain that it will be an excellent one.  2014 was in incredible year, full of friendship, love, hard goodbyes, new opportunities, and unforgettable memories.  Being ever aware and thankful for this, I go forward with an open heart into 2015.  In this post, I want to talk about travel – where I’ve been, what I learned, and the interesting moments along the way.

Since October, when I last wrote about travel, I’ve visited a variety of places, including a trip to Sevilla and Cadiz, a birthday weekend in Granada, a Thanksgiving trip to Paris with my Alpha Xi Delta sister, Eileen Walsh ’16 (above, right), and a few days ago I returned from a 2 1/2 week trip to the Netherlands and Belgium.  Through all of this, I’ve traveled by train, plane, bus, taxi, and of course, by foot, and stayed in many types of accommodation, including good hostels, bad hostels, hotels, Air b&b’s, and best of all, in the homes of my Dutch aunts and uncles.  I’ve met wonderful humans along the way, from every corner of the world.

A few of the basic lesson I’ve learned from these adventures are as follows:

♦ Location of your hostel/hotel is of the utmost importance; stay in the heart of the city; it’s the experience of the place that matters the most.  I was at a professional teaching conference in Sevilla, and we had to stay at the conference center on the outskirts of town, which was not the charming downtown we all wanted to experience.

♦ Hostel reviews are accurate and staying somewhere bad to save five Euros is not worth it.  I’m going to take this moment to apologize to Eileen, because it is entirely MY fault for booking a horrible hostel in Paris.  Never again.  Seedy people and no Wifi = you’re going to have a bad time. 

♦ When possible, take the train.  It’s the classiest way to travel.  Unlike airports, you can arrive at the train station mere minutes before your departure time, and as a bonus, you get to see the pretty landscape of the country from the window. 

♦ Traveling with friends is very fun, but so is traveling alone.  Traveling with people is great, because you share memories and more mischief is managed.  However, traveling alone is also amazing, because you get to do exactly what you want to do, without worrying about other people.  You have no one to impress but yourself. 

♦ There is a fine line to walk between planning a trip, and being spontaneous.  Plane/train/bus tickets are cheaper in advance, so it’s more important to plan where you are going more than what you’ll do when you get there.  I really struggle with this, especially traveling alone, because no one is forcing me to have a plan.  Wandering aimlessly through Belgium was NOT the highlight of my Christmas break. 

♦ When you need a nap, take a nap. This applies to EVERY day of my life, but especially when traveling. 

♦ Always do the free walking tour, and if possible, do this first, because they give you all the best ideas about how to spend the rest of your time in that location.  Somehow I managed to do the walking tour on the last night in Bruges, and the whole time the guide kept pointing out all the cool things to do that I had not done.  Bummer. 

♦ Always say YES to specialty food tours/tastings.  One of the best decisions I’ve ever made was booking an olive oil tour in Granada.  Best four hours of my life.  The brewery tour in Bruges, Belgium, and the cheese and wine tasting in Amsterdam were also exceptional.  Learning about food is amazing, especially from people who know what they are talking about. 

I love the people I’ve met through each of these experiences, whether it be the man who was giving away free poems in Granada, the waiter who bought dinner for Eileen and me in Paris and who insisted his name was Pocahontas, the seemingly endless supply of Australians in Amsterdam, the four Antwerp locals who shared their Saturday night with me and who asked me to explain how Americans make their pancakes so fluffy, and a particularly interesting German guy who translated some German philosophy into English onto a napkin for me in a hostel bar. 

These are just a few of the many interesting people I met, and while it probably seems jumbled to you, the reader, I have a distinct memory of each of these humans and the many others I haven’t mentioned here. 

Finally, every trip will have its ups and downs.  Bad things happen sometimes, and you have to roll with it.  In Paris, someone stole my coat at a night club, and Eileen and I missed the last metro back to our sleazy hostel.  I actually said, to a real French person, “Je suis miserable”with my best French pronunciation.  It was probably the most pathetic moment of my time abroad (I hope).  The next day, when we were on the train to the airport, we took the time to write down all the amazing things that we had experienced in Paris, even though every moment wasn’t perfect.  We were so happy when we arrived at the airport that it was almost impossible to say goodbye. 

The big takeaway is: nobody can ruin my trip to Paris (or anywhere) but me.  And no one will ever take away the memory I have of Eileen and I skipping up the Eiffel tower steps, singing Frère Jacques.


POST #3: October 2014

I’ve officially celebrated three months in Spain!  Now that the novelty has begun to wear off, it has become increasingly important for me to try to spend my time here in meaningful ways.  The month of October signaled the beginning of after-school activities at school, so my schedule changed into what will be the norm for the rest of the school year.  I co-sponsor an engineering club for students in grades 2-5 that meets once a week; I teach private flute lessons; I sing in the faculty choir; and I also take a Spanish class through the school.  Suffice to say, this makes week nights pretty busy.

At school, I’ve been trying to connect with my students and learn more about them, so quite naturally, I’ve been learning a lot about different soccer teams and players.  I can identify ALL of the jersey variations of Real Madrid and Atlético (the two most popular Madrid teams), and it is really helpful to know the jerseys from the World Cup as well, because it helps to identify countries of origin for the students.  This just goes into a file in my brain called “stuff you never thought you’d have to learn.”  Apart from the soccer, I like letting the students teach me things about Madrid and the other places in the world where they have lived.  It gives them an opportunity to be an expert on something, and I get to listen to fun world perspectives of small children.

In last month’s blog post, I referred to “Spanish culture,”and I’d like to explain more about what that is now.  Life moves at a slower pace here, and it manifests in various ways.  The concept of “to go”does not exist, and people take the time to eat at a table or in a café. They find it very strange to see me eating an apple while walking down the street, and their concern manifests itself in many worried side glances as they pass by.  Working is also not a priority in life here.  Unlike in the United States, where people really identify themselves with their work; in Spain, it is just something else they do.  This creates a really nice work/life balance, and people seem more relaxed and not harried.  The practical reality of this, however, is that it takes a very long time to get service of any kind here.  My coworker waited two months for the Internet to be installed in her apartment, despite almost daily phone calls and trips to the store. 

For me, walking into a grocery store can be quite overwhelming.  I can spend hours in the store, because everything is organized and packaged differently.  The first time I needed to buy sugar, it took me 20 minutes to find it.  When I finally asked a sales person, they told me to look in the milk isle, because OF COURSE, sugar is right next to the milk, while the other baking supplies are on the other side of the store.  Just yesterday I was looking for powdered sugar, and by some small miracle, after another 20 minute search, I found it, not with the regular sugar, but in a different isle all together.  It was also almost impossible to spot, because it was packaged in a metal can.  Every trip to the grocery store is an adventure. You never know what you’ll find and where you’ll find it. 

A quintessential part of Spanish lifestyle is how late in the evening everything happens.  The traditional “siesta”that most people take in the afternoon pushes lunch back until 2-5 p.m.  At this time, most shops and places of work are closed, and the employees travel home for lunch and a nap.  People go back to work from 5-8 p.m. and dinner begins at 9 or 10, and even 11 p.m. or Midnight on the weekends.  The whole city comes alive at night, and even small children are out until 11 p.m. or Midnight playing on the neighborhood playgrounds.  I’ve adjusted really easily to this schedule, and it is second nature to plan dinner for late in the evening.  Something that has been more difficult to adjust to is the nightlife scene, which goes from 2 a.m. to 7 a.m. EVERY day.  There is just something so unappealing about staying out until 6 in the morning and having your whole next day ruined.  In moderation, it can be really fun, but there are scores of young people who stay out that late all of the time, and I just can’t wrap my mind around wanting to live that lifestyle.  I miss the good old days at Marietta where staying out until 2 a.m. was a good showing, and then everyone went to bed.  The party doesn’t even start until 2 a.m. in Spain. 

It took me a while to write this blog post, and there were many versions, because it’s so difficult to put into words my experience here.  It has been overwhelmingly positive, and I’ve found things to be much easier than I ever imagined.  A few weeks ago, I picked up a poem from a man on the side of the road giving away free poems, and it so perfectly summarizes my purpose here. 

Séque estées mi autentico viaje, mi corazón desprotegido.


POST #2: September 2014

September has come and gone in a blink of an eye, and yet, there is so much to say. 

Working at the American School of Madrid is excellent.  As a music teacher, it is really gratifying to work in a school where the arts are appreciated.  The administration is very supportive of us and most importantly, we see each child in the elementary school for an hour a week, every week.  Because we have such great student contact time and small class sizes (16-22 students per class), we are able to provide an excellent music education for the students.

I co-teach the preschool and elementary classes with the other general music teacher, and because I have a passion for beginning band, I work with the upper school instrumental teacher with the fifth grade band. 

The students at the American School of Madrid come from absolutely all over.  We have parents who are diplomats, international businesspeople, professional sports athletes, US military personnel, members of the Spanish royal family, etc. It’s always fun to be at recess duty when the other teacher on duty casually mentions... "Oh so and so's cousin is the King of Spain”. Another teacher put it well when she said, “We teach children who will one day have a great deal of influence over how our world is run, and it is our responsibility to guide them to understand not only reading, writing, and math, but also compassion, thoughtfulness, and perspective.” 

Additionally, there is a large population of English language learners here, particularly in the younger grades (pre-school, kindergarten, and first grade).Many of the Spanish students learn English for the first time when they start school. By the time they are in first grade, they all speak English, unless they transfer from another country.  For the Spanish pre-schoolers, I find myself saying “sin hablar, sin corer”(without talking, without running) all the time, as well as many other useful phrases. 

While I could go on and on about work, September has also been a month full of play.  Spain is a beautiful country with a beautiful culture, and it’s been so much fun to be a part of it.  The most typical cultural events I’ve been a part of include seeing a flamenco show and going to the bullfights.  The flamenco show was fiery and passionate, and the dancers have the skill to take your heart where they want it to go.  I left the show feeling more alive than I’d felt in a long time.  The bullfights are not for the feint of heart, but also poetic in their own way.  No matter what happens in the bull ring, the bull will always die.  To me, this is a metaphor for human mortality.  Death is guaranteed for us all, so more important that death itself is how we face our demise.  You can refuse to fight, and die a cowardly death, or you can give everything you have and die honorably. 

I traveled to Avila, Spain, a few weeks ago for the Festival of Three Cultures.  This festival is held inside the walls of a medieval castle and celebrates the peaceful coexistence of the Christians, Jews, and Moors during that period in history. There was much frolicking to be had and giant platters of meat and flagons of ale were consumed.  To top it all off, there were people dressed in period costume and many street musicians playing renaissance music. 

I also made it a priority to visit the beach before the weather began to turn.  I went with coworkers to Alicante, Spain, which is on the Costa Blanca.  We spent our weekend on the island of Tabarca, swimming in the Mediterranean and living out our mermaid dreams in a secluded lagoon with water as blue as it can be. 

I’m very happy to be here, and the adjustment process has been ok.  Being at school is like being in America, so most of my day is very “normal.”The adventures begin when I leave school and become a part of Spanish culture.  There have been emotional ups and downs, but nothing I can’t handle.  And truly, who wouldn’t enjoy living in a country where the cheapest commodities are croissants, chocolate, and wine?


POST #1: August 2014

A great adventure begins tomorrow; I will be flying to Madrid, Spain, with a one-way ticket.

This time last year, I was getting ready to start my senior year at Marietta College.  Both of my roommates had spent the spring semester studying abroad, and while I could not wait to see them in August, I was also sad that I never had the opportunity to study abroad while in college.   Because that door was closed to me, I decided to research teaching abroad.  I googled that same phrase, and quite literally a world of possibilities was opened to me.  I had no idea there were International schools in almost every country.

After spending some time perusing school websites and weighing my options, I decided to find a job using a company called SearchAssociates.  They specialize in bringing international schools and prospective teachers together at job fairs, where interviews are conducted and job offers are made.  Before I was accepted as a client by SearchAssociates, I had to write an essay, provide sealed letters of recommendation, interview via Skype, and then, when all had cleared, pay a fee.  This took most of September and October, and by November, I was “in”and registered for a job fair at the end of January. 

The job fair was a fast paced experience.  The first step in the fair was to schedule interviews with schools that had music openings.  I walked up to booths, shook hands, handed out my resume, and spoke briefly with the schools.  The American School of Madrid had a music opening posted, but it was for a teacher with 5+ years of experience and a Masters degree.  Although I was very unqualified, I approached the table and introduced myself.  I spoke with the Headmaster who then informed me that while I was unqualified for the posted position, he would love to interview me for a music internship position, which was not advertised.  During our interview the next day, I was offered the position and had 24 hours to accept or decline the offer.  I was elated, but to make matters more complicated, I had two other offers on the table from other schools.  I spent the night in my hotel room, reading contracts, comparing salaries, and making pros and cons lists about all three schools.  I went to bed that night not knowing what I would do. 

I didn’t sleep well that night because my mind was racing and thoughts of Spain danced in my head.  I woke up in the morning with my answer.  I accepted the position as a K-5 General Music Teacher through the American School of Madrid’s internship program, which is a program designed to give support to first year teachers.  As a first year teacher, I’ll be co-teaching with a more experienced colleague.  I’m really pleased about this, because co-teaching will give me a chance to observe a seasoned teacher and give me opportunities to improve my pedagogy without the stress of being 100% in charge of my own classroom.

Back to the present, I’m ready to go!  I spent the summer with my family and saying goodbye to most of my worldly possessions.  I’m excited to begin my first year of teaching and to have the life changing and culturally immersive experience I’ve always wanted to have.  I’m guessing this year will be one of the most difficult years of my life, but in the words of JFK, “We didn’t go to the Moon [Spain] because it was easy, we went to the Moon [Spain] because it was hard. 

No matter what lies ahead, I’m just going to jump in and figure it out.