observations of one year in a spanish school

I knew that I was going to write this post pretty much since the beginning of the school year - I put it on my "Blogs to Write" to-do list back in October and moved it to the bottom of the list as I knew I wouldn't even start till the school year was over, but definitely didn't want to forget to do it.  Of course, now that the year is over, I'm lacking motivation and inspiration - school ended a little over two weeks ago - but I'm a slave to my to-do list and thus I must obey the master.  

My first year as a language assistant (my proper title) in Madrid was a mixed bag.  There were some great moments but I can remember a lot of frustration and a lot of wasted time from day one until the very end.  Yes, I can be a pessimistic creature, but I know that my feelings were shared among all six language assistants at my school.   

Essentially, my job was to, as a native English speaker, help with pronunciation in the classroom.  So did I just sit in the back of classes as teachers taught, and then, when there were questions about how to pronounce words, pipe up with my two cents?  Not exactly...

I had 24 forty-five minute to hour-long classes each week, but was usually at the school around 32 hours a week.  Since I was technically just an assistant, I was always (supposed to be) accompanied by a teacher in the classroom.  I was in primarily 2nd and 3rd grade classes, but had every grade from 2nd to 9th grade except for 4th grade at least once a week.  

What those classes actually looked like varied enormously from day to day and teacher to teacher.  
In some cases, I was basically a useless fly on the wall: I'd stand to the side the whole time and watch the teacher do her thing...every class, all year long.  Those classes were really boring for me, and midway through the year I asked that particular teacher if I could take out small groups of students to help with exam prep, vocabulary review, really whatever she wanted.  In another class, I'd walk in each day, the teacher would hand me a book open to a page in the unit they were working on and tell me to teach it to the students...right now.  In retrospect, it's all okay, but I never looked forward to those classes because I knew something like that would always be waiting for me and I never knew if I would be teaching about the life cycle of a frog, different types of trees, or the different regions and rivers of Spain (and often they were topics that I didn't seem to have retained a lot of knowledge about from my elementary school days).  With the 7th - 9th graders, the teachers started out having me do activities and discussions with the entire class, but behavior was such that we decided pretty quickly that I'd be taking pairs out for conversation and exam prep.  These ended up being some of my favorite classes as we could have actual conversations about real topics (mostly with the 9th graders though) and I really enjoyed getting to know some of those students.  And then I had the final format where the teacher was super organized and knew exactly what they were doing each class as well as what they wanted me to do during the class and we usually ended up team teaching the classes with each of us doing certain parts of lessons and different activities.  I had two teachers in particular that were on top of their game as far as teaching, utilizing me, disciplining kids, and all that jazz goes and they are the ones that I'll remember and think back on for a while, I'm pretty sure - at least as far as GOOD examples go.  They tipped the scales from me having a bad year to an okay year.  

So, now that you have a vague and confusing look at what I actually did in my classes (I was regularly confused too, so, you're not alone), perhaps some observations about the Spanish school system?  Trying to move right along since I have no pictures for this post and can't procure any since I'm nowhere near Spain right now.

  • Students (at my school at least - this certainly shouldn't be an observation for all of Spain) are overall very well-behaved, they are just quite chatty.  Now, I know that talking too much becomes a behavior problem, but the talking aside, there normally isn't any fighting, refusing to work, arguing with teachers, and so on, and it's very refreshing.  The chattiness, though, seems to begin young and be pretty universal - other language assistants I've talked to, including but certainly not limited to Danny, have confirmed the talkativeness of many Spanish students which I think is pretty cultural and carries into adulthood.
  • Going hand in hand with the first - teachers aren't afraid to address issues that arise, such as talking, with yelling, shouting, and screaming.  At first, this was shocking to me, and not just that it happened, but more so the normalcy and the frequency of it.  It just didn't seem to phase students, even students as young as 2nd grade, so I think such discipline from teachers must begin quite young.
  • Schools are pretty bare bones.  Again, this is only an observation from the school I taught at, but it wasn't in a 'bad neighborhood,' in fact, it was a pretty new school, and in one of the nicer neighborhoods of Madrid, so...I don't know, just what I saw at mine.  For example, in the bathrooms, the toilets didn't have seats and there wasn't soap (like not even dispensers for there even to be an option for that to ever happen).  There was one copy machine for the whole school and only one person in the school was allowed to use it, and after being told I had to give at least a week's notice to get things printed, I gave up and decided not to use paper materials all year.  Also, when kids went to recess, there were no play structures or equipment for them to play on, just concrete, a few soccer goals, and a couple of basketball hoops - and the kids had to bring their own balls from home to play with.  They don't really know any difference, though (unlike myself), so they bring trading cards or small toys or jump ropes from home or make up games with their friends and seem to have plenty of fun.
  •  The school day lasts from 9am - 5pm (again, this was the case for my school and I know also for Danny's school, but definitely isn't the case for all Spanish schools!) with at least two hours of recess within the day.  There's a thirty minute recess break in the morning and then a two hour break for recess and lunch from 1 - 3pm (this is for primary students), an hour and a half of which is spent at recess.  When the weather is good, teachers often give extra recess time in the afternoons on Fridays or at other points during the week.  
  • School sports aren't really a thing (again, sometimes, and with a few sports, but not anything like in the U.S.) but that doesn't mean kids don't play organized/team sports!  Of course, soccer (football to Spaniards and everyone else) is a huge deal, and others play basketball, volleyball, tennis, and a few other sports.    

Kids are still kids, and there are still great teachers and mediocre teachers and not-so-great cafeteria food - in a lot of ways school in Spain was like school in the U.S. - at least my vague memories of it.  It's been a little while since I was in school, especially elementary!  I had a very "mixed bag experience" this past year, but obviously it wasn't bad enough that I'm swearing off teaching forever or leaving Spain for good - this summer we're teaching at a summer camp in Turkey and in the fall we're planning to return to Spain to be language assistants all over again!  I'm sure my experience will be very different as I'm going to a new school, but no doubt there will be similarities as well - after all, I'm still the same person, it's still Spain, I'll still be in primary, there'll still be kids and teachers involved, and so on.  But still - really excited for a new experience especially after all I'm learning this summer teaching English lessons in four-hour blocks - a whole new ballgame!