Paula González knew her chances were slim when she applied for a language assistant position with the International Spanish Academy in New York in October 2015.Even though she had competition from nearly 3,000 other applicants from her home country of Spain for only 30 positions, the 27-year-old pushed herself to prove that she was more than qualified as an expert in Spanish language literature, and that her mastery of the English language was enough to warrant strong consideration for a job in New York.
In June 2016, Ms. González, who hails from a small town called Cehegín in Murcia, Spain, learned that she would be able to fulfill her lifelong dream of visiting and working in the United States as a language assistant for the International Spanish Academy—though she never thought the powers that be would assign her to Southampton High School.
As Ms. González explains it, when she applied for an academy position in “New York,” she automatically assumed that, if successful, she would be assigned to an institution in Manhattan. She never dreamed she’d end up on the East End of Long Island, far from the bright lights of the big city, though she said she is learning to appreciate the region’s uniqueness.
“I like it—it’s quiet, but I like the town. It’s cute,” she said on Friday.
In 2013, Southampton Elementary School was designated as an International Spanish Academy, or ISA. Only educational institutions offering bilingual curriculum to students can earn such a designation, and those that do work with the Ministry of Education in Spain to implement cooperative programming that is put together by education officials in Spain, the United States and Canada. Today, all three Southampton schools have earned the ISA designation, with the high school being the last to do so last year.
Mary Jane Greenfield, the coordinator of the ISA program for all three Southampton schools, noted that her district now qualifies to enter teacher exchange programs with Spain, like the one that brought Ms. González to the high school.
“The first two years, we split the language assistant between all three schools,” Ms. Greenfield said. “It was just too choppy. The poor language assistant was just worn thin going between the schools.”
This year, Ms. Greenfield said, Ms. González will focus on educating students enrolled at the high school.
Ms. González earned an undergraduate degree in language and literature in 2012, a master’s degree in teaching in 2013, and a master’s degree in teaching Spanish as a second language just last month. She said the timing of coming to the United States as part of this program could not have been better.
“I was just finishing my teaching Spanish as a second language, so it was perfect,” Ms. González said. “I needed that experience.”
Ms. González explained that her assignment is more like a fellowship as the Spanish government is paying her.
After learning that she had been assigned to Southampton, Ms. González immediately began looking for places to stay and was put in touch with the school nutritionist, Regan Kiembock, and her husband, Anton, who opened up their home to her.
“We put out a call for families to host Paula, so that she gets a family home experience,” Ms. Greenfield said. “It’s tough to get someone to just open up their house to someone they don’t know, and lots of times we don’t know if it’s going to be a male or female.”
The Kiembocks have a daughter, Caleigh, who is a senior at Southampton High School and enrolled in the Spanish program. “I speak with [Caleigh] in Spanish all of the time,” Ms. González said, also noting that the home experience is great for her because she gets to learn about American culture.
Ms. González also gets the opportunity to bring a little bit of her culture to the Kiembocks. For instance, she has cooked Spanish tortillas, which consist of eggs, potatoes and onions, and even tried making a coffee flan—though she admits that ended up being a disaster. “They are still making jokes at my home,” she said. “It was liquid. I cannot explain that in English.”
Ms. Greenfield said Ms. González works primarily with the dual language program students, like Caleigh, who are taught both English and Spanish starting when they attend elementary school. Ms. Greenfield explained that the elementary school offers a Side-By-Side program where students, starting when they are in kindergarten, are taught by their English teacher one day and their Spanish teacher the next day.
The district also employs another program, called the Standalone Dual Language Program, where a teacher alternates between Spanish and English for the entire school day.
“The great thing is you start them at 5 years old and they don’t know the difference,” Ms. Greenfield said. “They have the ability to separate the language in their brain.”
Ms. González said in Spain, a system like the dual-language program did not exist when she was growing up, and all of the English she knows was learned in academies as an adult. “Here, we have people like Caleigh, who can totally speak Spanish,” she said.
Ms. González will be at the high school only until May 31, at which point she will have to go back to Spain. “I wasn’t thinking of staying here,” she said. “I would like to find a job as a teacher in Spain, but now things are not easy in Spain. So maybe I will have to find another experience abroad.”
She explained that the unemployment rate in Spain is high, and even though teachers will always be needed, Ms. González said it is more difficult for those with less experience to land jobs.
For the time being, Ms. González said she is happy to cut her teeth in the field of teaching in America, with Ms. Greenfield pointing out that she has the ability to easily connect with them.
“They are really funny, and I think they like me,” Ms. González said of her students. “I’m the easy teacher.”