Ciao a tutti,
With only four more days left in my second trip to Sicily, I have been spending ample amounts of time reflecting with my host family about our experiences together. We add something new to our story together everyday, and are able to continuously impact others in this community as well. Every single time that Elena and I are in public, people approach us with curiosity about who I am, why I am here, and the experience of hosting a person to learn a new language. I am ecstatic and honored to be the person in Sicily to represent this experience, and I try to do it justice everyday. However, after every new encounter with someone, Elena and I analyze how we envision this experience for them, and what it truly takes to make it all worthwhile and meaningful. After numerous conversations with my host family, and infinite hours of reflection, I felt inspired to write about this. I have SO MANY people ask me about this experience and share that they would like to try it, but I know that many people could not do this experience and take as much away from it. So, here is my brutally honest look at what needs to happen to have a strong relationship and fruitful experience from teaching English abroad.
The most difficult aspect of teaching English abroad is the brutal self-reflection that takes place before, during, and after the experience. In every stage, you must analyze your patience, passion, motivation, adaptability, and confidence.
It takes SO MUCH patience – more than I can explain – to do this experience. Not just when you’re working with children, but to help adults learn, to be a part of conversations where the other people don’t speak English, to explain mistakes in conversation… It can be extremely exhausting. Last year, my host family and I were so tired by the end of everyday because it took so much focus to converse with each other at first. It became easier, but even now I find myself exhausted at times and I forget why because this all seems so normal to me now.
Your passion for this experience will show – for better or worse. I studied communications, am now a professional communicator, and have always had a passion for communications, and therefore my host family can see that. The Italian/Sicilian culture is all about passion, regarding any subject, and my passion for teaching English in Italy has made my experience infinitely better. My host family and friends have been so generous in offering me jobs, to come stay in their homes, inviting me to dinner… because I show my passion and let my love for learning about people show. If you are lackluster and do not have any love for this experience, it will greatly impact the relationship that you have with your family and community.
Lackluster leads me to motivations… it is obvious to the host family when they are being used as a place to stay so that travel plans are cheaper, so please, for GOD SAKE, don’t do this. In my host family’s first try at hosting an American girl, she did exactly this. She would travel 4 days each week, expected to be entertained and shown exciting things everyday, and it left my host family disappointed. Anybody who wants to do this experience NEEDS to understand that the family that hosts you is probably doing this for their livelihood, and they have a DREAM to learn English. Yes, a few days of travel per month are fine, but it needs to be clearly communicated with your family and boundaries must be set. DO NOT waste a family’s time by using them. It is truly an amazing and touching experience when you grasp the family, and community’s, need for learning English. Appreciate this, do your best work, and be honest.
Adaptability is a HUGE aspect of any experience abroad, but especially for a home-stay. From the start, you meet strangers at the airport, are welcomed into their home, and then have to fit into their life. You want to keep a bit of your routine to make you feel whole, but you need to be easygoing and patient than usual. It can be a strange concept for Americans, but you have to care about adapting and “fitting in”. At least in Italy, there is a particular style, behaviors, and cultural norms that are strictly followed. When you care to fit in, it is far easier for your host family to present you to friends and the community. You have to learn the language to some capacity. It would be terribly boring 98% of the time, and just awkward, if you did not. In my unique experience, each town in Sicily and Italy has different social norms that are not necessarily explained. I must be extremely observant and “do as the locals do”. Overall, you need to be brutally honest with yourself about how well you handle change, and how quickly you can process it. I know that I’m a person that handles change in a positive way, so I love the challenge of this experience. Not being able to adapt will leave you and the family with frustration and misunderstanding.
The confidence that you gain from any experience abroad will leave you wondering how you were ever once so fragile and narrow minded, but you have to go into the unknown with a certain degree of preexisting confidence. This is particularly true with home-stay’s and teaching English because you are alone, immersed into a community, and observed by everyone. In Ragusa (and surrounding towns), EVERYBODY seems to remember me from last year, and I have gotten to know so many people. I cannot imagine doing this experience without self-confidence and an outgoing personality. It can be awkward at times when people stare at me, but it’s out of curiosity and newness. I have to have the confidence to engage with them, and accept that I am simply the odd man out here. It also requires confidence to continue “normal” life after this experience. Normal things, old friends, family… you will not relate to anything quite the same, and it can be frustrating. You have to have the confidence to explain your experiences, your new mindset, but feel comfortable in your new position in life. I was told by many wise and caring people that this would happen, but you don’t know how to manage it until it happens.
The other thought/advice that I share with any person that asks about a home-stay experience is to choose a country that you have family heritage in. It has made all the difference for both me and my host family because I have far more appreciation for Sicily than someone who is not Sicilian. I have also come to understand myself so much more, and it has left me wondering about nature vs nurture. There are inherent qualities about me that I couldn’t explain before coming to Sicily last year, but I have come to discover that they are Italian/Sicilian behaviors. A few days ago, Elena told me, “It’s incredible… before you are American, you are Sicilian first. You are so Italian, maybe more than me!!!”. This is something that I’ve always felt, but it feels amazing to have it validated.
Ultimately, if you feel a calling to do this type of experience – don’t ignore it. Do anything you can to make it happen, do your research, work endless hours to fund it. You’ll NEVER regret it, but you surely will if you don’t try. You gain so much personally that can translate to every aspect of your life. You will know when this experience is right for you – I knew the second that I arrived at Catania Fontanarossa Airport. I was an exhausted, nervous, crazy ball of energy. There was so much happening around me, and just like it happens in movies, everything else froze when I saw my host family. If you think it’s dramatic, let me tell you that I don’t care because it’s the truth. The moment I saw them, I knew that I would be happy. We had an immediate bond that felt like family, and here I am at the end of my second trip with them. It’s ironic that I’m writing this today because Elena and I both agreed that we feel strangely sad, but we both know why. I have felt so sad and strange (much like last year) about leaving Ragusa, and writing about teaching English is a happy release for me. I hope that this gives a proper glimpse into teaching English abroad, and I’m more than happy to answer any questions through my contact information or social media.