When I first began teaching English in Spain I was prepared to encounter a different school system, but I was not prepared for just how different that system would be. From the first day I arrived at my placement school in Carmona, Spain I was struck by a completely different way of doing things; one that, in my opinion, was quite ineffective most of the time.
Differences You May Encounter While Teaching English in Spain
1. Students are placed into one mixed level class (like in American elementary schools) and are with the same kids all day long, year after year.
Pros: There is a lot of bonding among these students– they’ve usually been together for four years by the time they finish middle school! This cuts back on bullying a lot; in fact, I rarely observed true bullying in any of the Spanish schools I taught in. These kids are so used to one another that they really are like one big family, which is probably conducive to a positive learning environment.
Cons: Kids who speak English perfectly are learning the present simple with the kids who can’t even say their names. In math class the kids who could be starting algebra are still learning about fractions. This system punishes bright children to an extreme. There is no honors level, AP level, or even extra work for smarter or quicker learners. I’ve seen kids ask for more work and been told that that’s not allowed, as it would be unfair to other students!
2. Students stay put, teachers change classes.
Pros: Hypothetically, this system should be much quicker and save on space needs. Since some teachers teach more than one subject, two classrooms are never necessary as they often are in the US. Ideally, the bell would ring, and teachers would scurry from one class to the next within 5 minutes.
Cons: That wasn’t the way I saw the system work! First of all, when the teacher left the room there was a rule that the children must also leave and wait outside in the hall. So everyone would go out and the children would immediately begin to scream, run, push and make-out… is that really better than leaving them unattended for 5 minutes in a classroom? Also, the teachers would rarely go straight to their next class. Instead, they would stop by the teacher’s room, pick up more materials, make a photocopy, use the restroom, etc. Some of the teachers I assisted were always 15-20 minutes late for class. Lastly, the shared classroom system makes for boring, white walls and absolutely no comforts or creativity in classrooms. White walls in an elementary school are just sad!
3. Students Cheat– Often!
Ok, so this one doesn’t really have pros and cons and yes, I am aware that students in the US also cheat, copy, and plagiarize all the time. But what surprised me at the schools I worked at here, was how accepted this is and how lazily students do it. I saw books wide open on the floor, a small cheat sheet (una chuleta) blatantly on the desk, and the “smart ” student’s exam being passed one by one around the classroom to copy. An essay would often be word for word the Wikipedia article. I know for a fact that many teachers knew their students were cheating and preferred to look the other way.
In the US I think that students are much more innovative in their attempts to work the system. I remember how strict teachers were about copying and plagiarism. Many students would pay friends to write their essays and some even hired essay writing services to do it for them. These types of arrangements were overall undetectable by teachers and usually effective. We knew that Wikipedia wasn’t even allowed as a source, never mind a place to copy from!
4. Teachers Don’t Have A Dress Code
Pros: As a teacher I was always comfortable and didn’t have to go out and spend a lot of money on a new business casual wardrobe.
Cons: Teachers blend in with students, losing some of the respect business clothing provide. Some teachers also take this fact to an extreme, dressing borderline inappropriately, and giving students a poor example of what to wear in the professional world.
5. No School Lunches
It actually really depends on the school and the region of Spain. In Andalusia, middle school and high school stopped at 3 p.m. and everyone went home for the day, always eating lunch at home. In Madrid, many schools have split session days, from 9-1 and 3-5 for example. During that two hour break students can either stay at school and eat the official school lunch (bringing your own is not permitted), or they can go home and eat at home.
Pros: Less cruel American cafeteria culture (think Mean Girls). No one makes fun of what you bring to eat (you can’t bring anything!).
Cons: Split sessions make the day super long and exhausting for students, although they are helpful for working parents.
There are countless more differences I observed during my time spent teaching in Spain, but these are some of the most obvious. If you’ve been teaching here, what do you think? Did you observe the same differences in your school and region? Any other big differences you want to share? Please comment below!