Differences between American and Spanish schools.

I've been thinking about writing this blog post for a long, long time, but I kept thinking, I still don't know the whole picture. I've only been here  months. While I suppose I'll never know the "whole picture," tomorrow is the last day of school, and marks over 8 months and three weeks of working alongside teachers in a Spanish school. A little disclaimer: any information, observations, or insight I provide is simply my own experience in the specific school I've been in and shouldn't be taken as the golden standard for all public schools in Spain. It should also be noted that I am working in a public, bilingual school; there are also private, private-Catholic, and semi-private schools in Spain as well that I have no experience with.

With that being said, here are some thoughts on how Spanish education and public schooling differs from American education and schooling.

1. It's all in the timing... While Spain isn't as relaxed with time as a country like Columbia or Cuba might be, it's still fairly laid back. School starts at 9 and goes until 2PM, with a short recess/snack break (the all-sacred "recreo"). And teachers don't have to be at school until, you guessed it, 9AM. I've walked in the door with teachers at 9, and they march right through the building to pick up their kids on the patio and bring them upstairs. And then the day begins. Teachers do have to stay at school an extra hour for meetings, parent conferences, and general planning at the end of the day, but can leave at 3. Oh, and in September and June, classes end at 1, and teachers can go home at 2.

But in America? Having been a teacher in America, I didn't dare walk in right when classes started, primarily because I would have been in big trouble with the administration. But also, I wanted things ready when my kids got there: copies made, directions on the board, emails sent, and some semblance of being organized for the day (I had to fake that a lot last year...). At my previous school, I had to be there by 7:30. The year before at another school, I was actually required to log in at the beginning of the day, and pay was docked if you were late enough times. Yikes! So as a teacher, I was required to be at school from 7:30-3:30, no questions asked.

2. Organization. One thing that immediately caught my attention as being different is that in elementary schools, children have more than one teacher for their primary subjects. The kids stay put in their classroom throughout the day (except for special subjects like music, PE, and religion), and the teachers rotate throughout the school. Unfortunately, this sometimes means that classes are cut pretty short. Teachers end up talking in the hallways between classes, or one teacher goes over a significant amount of time, and suddenly, the already-short 45 minute class is 30 minutes long. (And all the children rejoice!) This idea is so different from what I'm used to: teachers have their own class that they teach all of the core subjects to, and then students travel to classes like PE, music, and art. The plus side is that if you don't like a teacher, you don't have him/her all day long, for the entire year.

3. Teacher breaks. Last year, I always looked forward to my (hopefully) quiet, undisturbed planning periods where I could get ahead on everything from making copies to writing tests and answering that parent who insisted that her child shouldn't be graded on his poor spelling. (In an English class, no less. Sigh.) I still managed to socialize, whether I was making copies or waiting for the copier, or chatting with another teacher about the exam schedule in the hallway. Here, teachers do have some individual planning times, but there is a mid-day break where all of the teachers can be together for coffee. I love it! At noon, we all meet in the big teacher's room, while students play on the patio (supervised, of course) and have a snack and a cup of coffee or juice (provided by the school cafeteria). It's a great time to be away from students and have time to talk to adults, uninterrupted.

4. About child supervision... Students are supervised during recess, but it has been shocking for me to walk into a classroom of second graders who are completely unsupervised. Why? The teacher hasn't arrived yet. The previous teacher finished her lesson and moved on to her next class, but the next teacher has yet to arrive. It's funny to watch the kids, though, because they normally police each other. The "helper" for the day is always at the front of the class, chalk in hand, with two columns written on the board: MALOS and BUENOS. There are usually quite a few names that make it up there, though the "malos" are usually in their seats sitting quietly, so I think the "helper" has some secret vendetta against those kids. (The third grade is a completely different story, though, and I have often wondered how no one has gotten seriously hurt in the absence of adult supervision.) In America, I was scared to death to leave kids unattended for even a second when I was teaching the younger ones. I was a little more flexible with eighth grade, but it still made me nervous to leave!

5. Textbooks vs. no textbooks. There is more of a trend in the U.S. that is moving away from relying on the textbook for teaching every little thing. Many teachers choose to see textbooks as a guide, but not the end-all-be-all of the time spent in the classroom, and those teachers rely more on the use of websites, videos, blogs, and other real-life material for teaching and learning. In my school, the textbook is, unfortunately, king. Kids usually have a class book for their lessons and an activity book where they do reinforcing worksheets. And we spend so. much. time. in the books. Not only that, (and I HATE this) teachers sometimes require the kids to copy entire pages or boxes of text from the book into their notebooks. These are third graders, not juniors in high school, people. One of our friends who is an auxiliar told us that one of the teachers he works with has the students copy full pages of text and the pictures included in the text. Why? This is usually a complete waste of time. And 90% of the time, kids are either talking to their neighbor (which makes the copying process take 10x longer than it should), or calling out, "Tee-chair, what color pen do I use?" Someone, stop the madness!

6. Hygiene. While some of the American school bathrooms I've been in are decked out in Bath and Bodyworks soap, most at least have your basic pink soap and plenty of towels. Oh, and toilet paper. I nearly forgot about that one because it isn't in a majority of the bathrooms at my school. I use the teachers' bathrooms and am always pleasantly surprised when there is both soap and toilet paper, and when I don't have to hunt around for a better bathroom. But the kids' bathrooms don't even have toilet paper or soap most of the time. The toilet paper and soap are in the classroom...and in one classroom, you have to take the amount you want and tear it off because the roll is hooked up to a chain by the door that you can't remove. (Because that's not embarrassing for the little boys...) The kids are supposed to take it with them, but this whole year I've seen about four kids take any toilet paper, and I've never seen anyone touch the soap. Therefore, I use antibacterial hand sanitizer all the time.

7. Teacher/student interaction. I remember longs talks in teaching seminars my last semester of college that had to do with a teacher's code of ethics, and being encouraged to steer clear of any kind of physical touch, even things that seem innocuous, like a hug. We were totally advised against anything like that, so I was super careful in my interactions with students.

Here though, it's different. And there's something nice about the way it is different. Teachers hug kids, give them a big kiss on the cheek when it's their birthday, pat their backs when they're upset. It's not creepy, not even a little bit. And I think the lack of creepiness is rooted in the fact that Spaniards are just a little more personal and touchy than Americans are. They stand closer when they talk, and they will put their hand on your arm when they're making a point; they greet everyone with a kiss on each cheek. Of course, I'm sure it's not all rosy, but what I've seen has been very sweet, very innocent, almost motherly affection for students. 

On the flip side, the touchiness doesn't always prove to be a good thing. I've witnessed teachers grabbing students arms in ways that I hope I would neverever do, no matter how frustrated or mad I was at a child. I've seen teachers drag a totally non-complacent child across the room and physically grab kids by their shoulders to move them where they want them to go. Sometimes teachers are too rough. Again, I think there are cultural roots here. I don't say that to excuse the behavior, but to point out that even here this behavior is culturally acceptable and really hard for me to understand. (And I have seen parents do this very same thing to their children in public. While in America we'd be calling Social Services, this type of punishment is more visible and acceptable, even outside the home.)

8. The effort to become bilingual. I know both immersion and bilingual schools do exist in the U.S., but they aren't the norm. When I was seven years old, I couldn't speak two words of Spanish, and I lived in South Florida. I had my first Spanish class for a semester in seventh grade, and began taking Spanish I my freshman year of high school. In Spain, though, bilingualism is becoming more sought after, and more and more public schools are turning into public bilingual schools. Most are bilingual in English and Spanish, but there are some German and Spanish schools as well as French and Spanish ones. At times, I'm pretty critical about this whole bilingual program. John and I frequently talk about it: does it really work? At the same time, I think about what an advantage these kids have to being exposed to a different language so early in life. My second grade students this year can tell you about their apartments and their families, their pets and when their birthday is. In my most critical moments I realize that I couldn't tell you anything in a foreign language at their age and am instantly pretty impressed with what they know. There are plenty of kids who study in this program who will go on and won't use English (or German or French) again in their adult lives. But there will be the kids who discover that they like languages, and heck, they're good at them, too, and the trajectory of their lives will be different than if they hadn't studied in a bilingual program. The program is far from perfect, but there are some great things about it.

There are so many more things I could say about schools here, and maybe I will when I'm feeling reflective next week during teacher work days. But it's late, so I'll leave you with that!