When Mark Hoover spent last year teaching English in Andorra as a Fulbright Teaching Assistant*, his blog header read, “let’s be honest, I’m probably the first person you’ve ever heard of who is going to live [in Andorra]!”
Mark on Coma Pedrosa, which at 2,942 meters is the highest peak in Andorra
Mark, it’s true, so I’ve got a lot of questions for you. First, why did you choose to apply to this tiny country?
I chose to apply to Andorra because I wanted to use my Fulbright to live in a country I couldn’t imagine living in permanently again. I also visited it briefly when I was 12 on a family visit to friends in Southern France and I remembered it as a place having the most beautiful mountains I had ever seen in my life. Additionally, I really wanted the opportunity to learn a new language but I also appreciated being able to use my French skills to make the transition easier.
Andorra at night
I know that the Andorran TAs were lumped into the same category as the Spanish but I’m assuming there are countless differences between the two. For example, did you have your own classroom?
Yes, although Andorra TAs are considered in the same pool as Spanish TAs the experience and the expectations were very different in my opinion. Firstly, the Fulbright Commission in Andorra states that they prefer Fulbrighters with life experience, particularly in teaching. Secondly, as a TA in Andorra, you are a classroom teacher who is left to design class curriculum, lesson planning, class discipline etc. Luckily, you are not required to have the same number of hours as a full teacher in the Andorran public education system but it is certainly a challenging environment. We were instructed to focus most on culture and spoken English but certainly grammar was necessary to instruct as well. Upon arrival to the country we had about one week to prepare for our classes and then we were given freedom to run classes as we wished.
That is very different than what is expected of Fulbright TAs in Spain. Can you tell us more about your position at the school? Specifically, how eager are Andorrans to learn English, and what was the general level that you encountered?
English is the fourth language learned in the Andorran Education system and since students are already at school from 8:30 till 5 English is not prioritized by students. Also, Andorra is a country that is fueled by tourism, but most of the tourism comes from non-English-speaking countries. In terms of level of English, mostly there is a very poor level of English with many students having little-to-no understanding of basic English. Making this worse is that many of my students came from lower socio-economic classes so families are unable to support students very much in terms of education.
A peak into Mark’s classroom
What languages are Andorran high schools given in? Is Catalan king?
I taught in the Andorran education system; as an Andorran you can choose to educate your children in French, Catalan, or Spanish but my school was a Catalan-speaking school. French and art are both taught in French, English and Spanish are taught in said languages but all other topics are instructed in Catalan.
A view of Encamp, the town where Mark taught
Wow, that’s linguistically very different from any high school I’ve set foot in. Did this make for difficult classroom situations?
Each and every day I struggled with maintaining discipline in the classroom. Students were often surly, unprepared for class, lacked classroom etiquette, and showed very little eagerness to learn English. To be fair, only about half of my students showed this attitude but with small classes it was very difficult to encourage an English-speaking environment and push my stronger students because of the constant need to enforce some sort of discipline.
One reason for this is that it is quite difficult to not pass from one academic year to the next so students are often in a level of English that is inappropriate for their actual abilities. Additionally, the fact that many families move in and out of Andorra means that many students have to learn Spanish, Catalan, French, and English simultaneously from their native language. Certainly, these students are somewhat overwhelmed and struggle to maintain focus in a fourth-tier language.
Encamp Valley, where Mark’s school is nestled
Yikes, that must have been challenging for both teachers and students. You mention your students took part in many choir activities—can you elaborate on that? What other extracurricular pursuits were available?
Like most European education systems I have been exposed to, extracurricular activities are seen as the responsibility of the student and town rather than the school. The choir was a very new program at my school and it was the only formal extracurricular organized. It was organized by a teacher who was actually a summer Fulbright to the USA and felt like it would be a good thing to contribute to his school in Andorra.
On a ski trip with students, or what Mark called “work”
Oh, interesting! I’d also like to hear about living in Andorra–what’s that like? How difficult is it to travel from Andorra to other countries in Europe? Also, please comment on exploring Andorra! I know of its famous for ski slopes, but what would you recommend a visitor do there?
Living in Andorra is a rather unusual experience. Firstly, the actual population of Andorrans who live in the country is quite small but there are millions of tourists at any given time so there is a feeling of a bigger town but soon you realize how connected and small town the government, business, and social worlds are. In some ways it was challenging to develop relationships because of the small size of population but overwhelming number of visitors.
Traveling to Andorra is not particularly difficult: it is a 3-hour bus drive to either Toulouse in France or Barcelona in Spain. There are many buses each day so you have lots of choices in terms of time. It does cost 50 Euros though which is quite pricey, particularly on a Fulbright budget. Andorra is indeed well-known for snow sports: skiing, snowboarding, and even mushing and the mountains are beautiful to ski down as the weather is nearly always nice and the snow usually light. That being said, many people ignore the mountains during the summer which is a shame because Andorra has a very intricate, complex pattern of mountain paths and even cabins in which you can sleep. Although not a big country, over 90% of Andorra has no buildings on it so it is quite refreshing to get out and hike.
St. Julià de Lòria is the first town encountered when traveling to Andorra from Spain
Additionally, many people visit Andorra to take advantage of tax-free shopping, particularly for luxury goods—an example of this is the presence of a Ferrari and specialty vehicle (helicopters, boats, etc) stores in Andorra! Unfortunately, many people only see this part of Andorra and do not go further to explore the outdoors.
What places did you visit during your year abroad?
As a Fulbrighter, I did take the opportunity to travel and visit various friends including Fulbright friends from Wake Forest University in Morocco, some close friends in Scotland and England, as well as Fulbright friends in various parts of Spain and France. My favorite travels included spending 5 days in silence at a monastery in France enjoying solitude, meditation, and rest as well as a wonderful 10 day hitchhiking, bus, and train trip throughout southern Spain, and a good amount of time through Morocco. I was also lucky enough to develop a close friendship with someone from Barcelona so I spent a good amount of time there and in parts of Catalonia that were special to her.
Between all that traveling, playing on a European division-winning football team, taking Catalan classes, and gazing at the Pyrenees, you found plenty to occupy your free time. Please tell us about these activities connected you to the community.
I would say that my life probably sounds like it was busier than it actually was. My teaching schedule was a mere 15 hours a week which gave me lots of time to enjoy free time. I tutored 5 students each week in English which gave me the opportunity to develop relationships with high school students who were not my own students and I really enjoyed those opportunities. These families were mostly upper-middle and upper-class Andorran families. On the other hand, my soccer team was a completely Portuguese team, except one other young man and I and they were nearly all blue-collar construction workers so that gave me a very different perspective and helped me see the challenging political and economic issues facing Andorra from very different perspectives.
Mark and a friend rep their teams
What were the most difficult things to get used to? What do you miss now that you’re back in the States?
As for what was most difficult to get used to, I have moved a lot in my life so mostly I quickly realize things are merely different and I don’t focus on the differences but…. There are no smoking laws in Andorra so to constantly have cigarette smoke in the air was at first difficult, and always annoying to me personally. Additionally, buses only run until 9 or so in the evening so it did not give much incentive to trying to go to the different towns in the evening. The lack of flexibility in transport always takes getting used to.
Finally, and most challenging was the language because I had no exposure at all to Catalan prior to going to Andorra. I’d had only one and a half years of Spanish in my life, so with friends coming from Andorra, Cuba, and Spain, as well as roommates who were all fluent in Spanish, it took some adjustment and quick-learning on my part. But I wouldn’t switch my placement for anything.
Remembering Andorran houses
In the US now, I do miss the skiing and the laid-back nature of my life there. The expectation of how much you work was truly less and the need to work was also less. On the other hand, I love my job here and teaching was something I found hard and fatiguing despite the few hours I actually taught. Also, I really, really miss hearing several languages. I grew up in Central Africa and so living in Andorra and switching between four languages was something I truly enjoyed as it makes me truly joyful to learn new expressions and hear the different tones and phrases found within each language.
Finally, I truly miss the apartment I lived in with its breathtaking view, the proximity of stores within walking distance, and most of all my incredible roommates whose family backgrounds were so diverse that I was able to learn so much about the USA as well as Andorra. Without a doubt, this was a year that was amazing. I am incredibly grateful to the Fulbright Commission for having given me this opportunity and I am confident that opportunities like this are what enable us to bring down the barriers that we create as humans to differentiate ourselves from others.
Although Mark’s time in Andorra came to a close last year, you can explore more photos and details on his blog, Days in the Principality of Andorra.
*Like this blog, Mark’s views are not necessarily the views shared with the Fulbright Commission.