Spanish Vs American Schools: 5 Big Differences

Pencil and book

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.  

Class picture

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.  

school hallway

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! 

student copying

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 

teacher 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

school lunch tray

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!

Photo Credits: a2gemmalibookpersonrocketboomcircasassyunimontevideodccentralkitchen

Lauren Aloise
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Lauren Aloise

Professional eater, writer, cook, food tour operator. Fascinated by food and its history. Loves: a gooey slice of tortilla, fish markets, homemade cocktails, train travel. Hates: Overhyped restaurants, wine snobs, long menus, mediocrity. Check out my food tours at
Lauren Aloise
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  1. says

    Fascinating, thanks! The teachers changing classrooms thing strikes me as completely inane.

    I feel old, having finished my scholastic arc before Wikipedia existed.

  2. says

    Kids at the school I worked at could bring their canasto from home but had to pay for the monitors to heat the food up!

  3. luis says

    I agree with you specially in the 3rd point, when i was studying i felt very annoyed with cheating, it was really unfair to see how people passed the exams without hard work, but this (disdain to rules) can be seen in other parts of Spain, as tax evation. However I didn’t have problems with teacher’s punctuality, they almost always arrived on time, moreover we were allowed to stay in class, but some students went out to talk with others or to do other things, during the small break between classes, (which was usually shorter than 5 min)
    Students’ behaviour has changed a lot in the last 50 years in Spain, in the 60’s teachers were much more strict and phisical punishments were not rare, this has changed as a pendulum, probably due to the association of this stricness with Franco’s dictatorship. So now we are in the other extreme.
    I’m from Asturias, so some things may work in a different way than in the south.
    Congratulations for your blog, I usually read it but i had never post anything.
    Finally i’m sorry for the mistakes i surely have made.

    • says

      Hi Luis, thanks for commenting, and you are mistake free– don’t apologize! I do think that Spanish schools are a big reflection of the extreme shift Spanish society made after the dictatorship ended. I think it’s a shame that it had to go from one extreme to another. I’ve seen so much disrespect from kids to their teachers and heard of teachers who wouldn’t discipline kids because they were afraid of their car getting keyed or getting beaten up (seriously). I’m sure that teachers in US inner city schools may share some of those fears, but it is truly sad.

  4. Amanda says

    Schools in Madrid don’t necessarily follow the rule of kids staying with the same group all day. Some of the kids I tutored (middle-school aged) switched for certain “leveled” classes, like English and Math, into low, medium, and high groups.

    I actually think the split day may be a good thing; it gives the kids an extra long brain break. I didn’t teach in Madrid, so this is speculation, but I know that in the US my students were always just about brain dead by the 2 last periods of the day because they hadn’t really had any down time.

    • says

      Hi Amanda, I was unaware that here in Madrid they do split kids sometimes– thank goodness! In Seville they definitely didn’t in middle school, although in Bachillerato the kids were split according to their track… kind of similar concept. I see both pros and cons of the break, since there aren’t after school activities here I suppose it is okay, but the kids I tutored were always so exhausted to start again in the afternoon!

  5. says

    Great post. I was wondering if you have a post about what the teaching environment is like in Spanish schools? When I taught in South Korea each classroom had a television screen that was hooked to the class computer and I made power point presentation and showed YouTube clips during my lessons. I had my own desk in an office I shared with only the English teachers. What can I expect in Spain?

    • says

      Hi Estrella, I don’t have that here, but it really varies. Some people have really high tech schools with smartboards, wifi, etc. Others– chalkboards and outdated textbooks. At one school I worked at there was an English teacher room, and at the other just a teacher’s room. Where are you placed?

  6. says

    Good list. I observed all of these things though I was unaware of students staying with the same group of kids year after year. There were a few teachers who dressed like they were going out on the town each day, which continuously surprised me.
    One thing I hear a lot of auxiliars mention but thankfully I never expeirenced, was the lack of classroom management, which is half of teaching. Teachers often yell to get students attention but this only works for a few minutes= constant yelling match to get the class to listen up.

    This year of teaching really gave me an appreciation of my K -12 education. There is more variation in teaching styles and understanding of learning styles in the USA (of course this varie from state to state, region to region). Students seem content to just sit and be lectured to. When I’d change things up in my class(ie: go outside, sttreching, warm up activities) – my students always seemed weirded out by it.

    • says

      Hi Lauren! Good for you for actually changing things up a little. I was always met with a resounding “No!” or when I actually did try something different it was a huge disaster due to the hyperactivity of the kids and no control by classroom teacher.

  7. says

    wow great list! you’ve named everything I have always thought about. I’ve been at 4 or 5 different schools now all over spain and the lack of control in the classroom is appalling. I’ve only ever had 1 teacher who could control the class and man, you noticed a huge difference in what the students learned! I also hate how they call the teachers by their first names, there just needs to be more respect in schools in Spain. In the elementary schools, the kids can opt to stay for lunch, but they have to pay for it, though so many of them qualify for free lunches, its not that big of a deal

  8. says

    Great list! I will do the comparison at the university level as I was teaching at a university in the US and now here. The students are in one group, all day everyday! Students cheat all the time, and they are proud of it, but they are a bit dumb about it as well. I mean, they do it so obviously! Once a student gave me an excuse “I wasn’t cheating, I was asking a question to a friend” during an exam! When they fail a course, they can take an exam in the summer, and if they pass that exam they pass the course, no need to retake the course. They are way more disrespectful in some aspects, i.e., some cannot stop chatting during a class, and look at you like you are an alien if you ask them to shut up! Luckily, I learned quickly how to control them. About begin late for the classes, at least at my uni, does not happen for the professors, the students however have a tendency, especially early years, which I think is due to the earlier education. They don’t expect the profs to be there on time! About clothing of the profs, I would say more or less the same, if not more formal in Spain.

    • says

      Hi Burcu– that is really cool that you will be able to truly compare the two systems. I agree that kids cheat very obviously, and almost don’t seem to find a problem with it. The teachers at the schools where I taught definitely didn’t dress formally! Where are you from?

  9. says

    To me that sounds just god-awful, and I thought American schools were bad! Holy shit!

    I feel somewhat better now, knowing that there’s at least one other developed nation out there with a worse education system than ours. The thing that really strikes me is the combination of the kids really not seeming to care too much about learning (not their fault at all, honestly, that’s entirely on the adults in their society) and the unwillingness to change and fix things on the part of society: “Well, this is how we’ve always done it and change is hard so this is how we’re going to continue to do it and that’s that, you better just shut up about it and go along”–that’s almost certainly the attitude and it’s essentially the same attitude you see in most other countries with regards to their way of doing things.

    Sorry, but you asked, and that’s how what you described strikes me. I was never impressed by the education system I experienced growing up in the U.S. but honestly that sounds even worse. I feel really, really sorry for any foreign teachers who are used to a far better system who come in and have to teach under those circumstances.


    • says

      Hi Andrew! As with anywhere I think it really depends a lot on the specific region of the country and even individual school. I had friends who had really great experiences. Overall, my biggest issue is with the bright students wasting their days relearning the same information. Also the work ethic just isn’t there– teachers were often the first people to run (literally) out of the door at 2:30. I feel lucky that my education in the US (public) was, overall, quite good. I was lucky enough to have had some really wonderful teachers. However, I also know that some parts of the US have terrible schools. It’s tough to imagine a solution in either country.

      • says

        I agree with you on the vast regional differences, I was making a pretty big generalization. Yes, the thought of bright students being essentially punished for being smart really infuriates me, especially the attitude of “well it wouldn’t be fair to the other students if you got ahead of them so we’re going to keep you at their level”–that’s horrible, absolutely horrible.

        Well, the solution is nowhere near as hard to come up with as is the “how” with regards to implementing it–you’re talking about changing a huge aspect of an entire culture that’s very, very deeply ingrained. People are not going to want to change and will fight tooth and nail to stop it even though it’s to the detriment of their own children. Have you seen that documentary on the education system in Finland? It’s called ‘The Finland Phenomenon’ and you can watch the whole thing here (free):

        I highly, highly recommend you watch that, it’s excellent. That is how a country’s education system should be run.


  10. says

    Hi Lauren, I appreciated your post! I thought you brought up some interesting points. I am an aupair with a family right now in the North in Pamplona. I haven’t had an actual experience in the classroom with students in Spain but so far I have been SO IMPRESSED by the education system. I grew up in Southern California and probably didn’t have the best US public education experience as I imagine you did in Massachusetts. I am mostly impressed here by the fact that the students learn multiple languages (ie. English, Spanish, and French) from a very young age and seem to have a more global view and grasp on history. The parents also seem REALLY involved here in Pamplona. And it seems students in elementary school are taught about 8 subjects? Like a middle schooler? I’m not sure if this is true around the whole country either. I thinking making pros and cons is a good idea.

  11. Gemma says

    Hi Lauren,

    you’re posts are great. Ive been searching all over the web to have a look at some other language assistant’s experiences in Spain! I’m yet to find anything about the area I will be working in (Reinosa). I am going to be teaching 3-6 year olds which I am sure will be quite an experience but i’m looking forward to the challenge! 🙂

    I am probably going into this a little bit too blind but I’m excited to see what comes from it. The company who I am being hired through have informed me that the school day runs 9-5 which I can only assume means I will have the split in between as I am only due to work around 6 hours per day?

    Any comments from you experts would be greatly appreciated!

    G x

  12. says

    Also, in many Spanish schools they charge for textbooks — I have heard up to 700 Euros / student and some I know do not allow kids to bring their own lunches forcing them to buy school lunches at 6 – 8 Euros / kid.

    • Barbara says

      Hi Linda! I think we are generalizing a lot here. I am a teacher from Spain who’s been teaching in the USA for 11 years. Previously I taught in Madrid as well. I can tell you that everything depends on socio-economics, especially here in the USA. I taught for 3 years in a very poor area in NJ and believe me most of the kids were not interested in learning and work ethics were not there either from the teacher’s part. Then I changed to the opposite private school in Manhattan, and get a sense of how elitist this society is. That is my personal experience therefore I can not talk about a whole educational system of one country based on one or two schools. I’ve worked in Madrid in schools as well and I did not have the same experience that you are describing. It is also important that when you go to a foreign country try to get familiar with the system before hand. There is a reason why teachers don’t stay at schools, and we all know why. Maybe you should do more research.

      • Vrinda says


        American society as a whole is not elitist, it’s the upper class that is. I student taught in a large town/small city that was low-income, and the kids were unruly and the parents unsupportive, but that was just one school in that town. I was told the other middle school in that town was better, and they tried getting me into a student-teaching position there.

        There are public schools in rural and sub-rural arrears where education is valued and the parents will help the teachers, and suburbs where the situation is the same. What is the common factor is that if the parents don’t instill the value or education in their children at an early age and continue to do so as they get older, they will come to school with a bad attitude and not want to learn.

  13. Meredith says

    In America, most teachers stayed at the same school for a few years or many more. If you were in 1st grade, you knew who your 2nd grade teacher would be next year and so on…. Here in Spain the system is really weird I’ve asked numerous times for explanations and I don’t even think the teachers quite understand it but they are constantly changing schools- some every single year.
    Pros- Kids are exposed to many different teaching techniques.
    Cons- Hard or little incentive for teachers to build a reputation at said school. Difficult for teachers to get a feel for how the school and the children work. Fewer bonding opportunities or ties to school and one another (among teachers).

  14. says

    I currently teach English in Thailand and they haves my similarities to what you listed. The biggest downside in my opinion is the class arrangements. Students of various levels are placed alongside one another and expected to perform in the same environment, this includes students with disabilities all over the spectrum. These students are disciplined often for just being themselves and its very unfair. I’m looking into teaching in Spain next, and it seems like an easy transition since I’m already adjusted to the cultural differences. Thanks for sharing!

  15. Anonteacher says

    I am a teacher in America, but I am here in Spain doing the auxiliare program right now. Lets just say there are multiple times a week I feel appalled at what I see happening in the classrooms I am in. For example: Yelling! There is so much yelling from the teachers and criticizing of the kids and negative talk to or about them in front of the entire class. It is not ok to reduce these kids to tears!
    -lack of integration! The “special needs kids” (they don’t even know what their needs are most of the time), gypsies (so they say to me “don’t worry about them, they don’t care about school”) or students who are new to the english program, are usually just shoved to the side of the class to do mundane tasks like coloring or copy out entire pages of textbooks into their notebook, IF they are given anything at all to do.
    – Teaching ONLY from the textbook. Plan something new and interesting for your students, please!!! Do they even have professional development for teachers in Spain? I see so many outdated teaching methods.
    -tolerance for hitting and rough-housing! I guess I am used to zero tolerance for any sort of rough housing in my previous schools.
    -Lack of resources! The computer lab has maybe 10 computers which are old. Some classrooms don’t even have overhead projecters let alone a digitial projecter. The library at the school is essentially non-existent, no bigger than a storage unit.
    – I am still trying how to figure out how to deal with lack of pc, such as students or adults saying oh they are from China *with eyes like this*…

    ugh. Frustrated I am right now. However, having said all of the above, there are some dedicated and fabulous teachers in my school. And for everything else that is negative, the kids make up for it all. They are the bright spots of my day 🙂

    • says

      Hi! Thanks for your comment and insight. I also saw a lot of yelling, belittling, and ignoring in my own personal experiences. I’ve seen firsthand everything you describe. I never taught in the US, so I have no idea how schools are there (apart from my own). But I agree it seems very outdated, and not a positive environment. It’s a shame.

  16. Wally says

    My wife and I are planning to spend 6 months in southern Spain from january to june of 2015. Our daughter is 13 years old, adopted from China and will be in the eight grade in the US. She will have minimal Spanish but speaks English fluently. Do you have any recommendations on what we should do for her schooling

  17. Ali says

    I would like to point out that in Spain many people have the attitude towards public education (in the American sense of the word “public”) that it is intended for those who can’t afford to go to a private school and get a quality education. In other words, the good schools are almost all private and unless you have no other choice, you don’t go to a public school and you don’t teach in a public school. Universities are a different story, but elementary and secondary schools, this is mostly the case.

  18. says

    Hi Aloise
    I am sending my 15 years old son to spend a year in Indianapolis attending an american Hi School and your post was most interesting to me.
    In Madrid the school system works differently, many public schools are truly bilingual in spanish and english providing a 50% share of subjects in every language that are changed yearly. Only Maths are always teached in spanish.
    Thanks God brilliant students deserve a different attention and a higher level of exigence, there even are several so called “Excellence Schools” run by the public system only for the most brilliant students, but I am afraid that they are to be banned for the new ruling municipal politicians because they consider them “unfair” for the rest and that promote “elites” that are contrary to the so call social equality they preach. What a huge mistake!
    The school my son attends (private) is very different from public ones, every year students are mixed in different classes grouped by age and three intellectual levels, and thus the classes of the brilliant ones are much more exigent. They can bring their own food and parents just pay a small fee for the children´s surveillance while lunching.
    I only complain about two facts: the lack of importance given to sports in our educational system and the massive amount of homework children bring home that keep them busy for the whole evening, some days even beyond dining time and as you may know, in Spain we dine by 21:00 h, really late by any other international standards.
    Thank you very much for sharing your points of view, they were very useful to me.

  19. Ayra says

    Learning the way schools work differently in two different countries is neat and seeing how less strict the Spanish school system.

  20. Matt says

    Hey, this helped me very much, thank you so much for doing this! Are their any other differences that are in these schools compared to U.S. Schools?

  21. Quixotequest says

    It was nice to find and read this article. My graduate school study at IE Business School in Spain was very harsh on things like cheating, and the grading-on-the-curve practiced there was unfamiliar to most. But we still had a lot of relaxed dynamic in team projects and personal accountabilities that were sometimes frustrating to what seemed normal to me. (Though if I had to stereotype the students more prone to abuse, they weren’t from Spain.)

    Anyhow it was overall very positive experience. My son, after visiting, decided he wanted to attend this year a Spanish immersion middle school local to us. They have 18 teachers from Spain here teaching, which is quite unusual for the US, and they do exchange trips to Spain with a sister school in Madrid every year. We’ve really liked the more familial approach that the school culture has. And they mix grade levels in classes there too, which often works really nice.

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