Culture Shock

One thing that I learned quickly as an EFL conversation teacher in Spain, was that routine is key to getting the kids to learn.

I worked in two schools in Spain. The first was a Bilingual Public School, through a program created about six years ago by the Community of Madrid. It was in the countryside outside of the city of Madrid. There, we had five hours of English class every week, and we had an additional five hours of subject classes, variously: Art, Gym, Computers, Music, Science. I saw each of my classes at least an hour a day, and although I only worked four days a week, the kids got used to the routines that we created.

We consisted of me– the assistant– and a Spanish teacher who was the main classroom teacher. They do it that way because they want Native-Speaker teachers, but because of the Government’s rules, they can’t hire anyone who doesn’t have a Degree certified by the Spanish Ministry of Education, and who hasn’t passed their extremely difficult and annoying Certification Test. It is also good for the kids to have a new person who influences their enthusiasm for the new culture as well as the new language.

We worked in the classroom together, except when I took small groups. Towards the end, I sometimes took larger groups, and even in the middle I sometimes created the lesson plans, but essentially I was truly an assistant. I didn’t grade, the only discipline I did was to follow the routines, and really it was the only discipline we needed most of the time.

The second school I worked with is better than the first one, at least on paper. It was a large prestigious Charter School in the heart of Madrid’s Financial District. Charter school doesn’t exactly describe it, but essentially it was a semi-private school run on a combination of funds from the Church, Parental “Donations,” and Public Monies.

But where the first school was small and felt like a family, the second school was huge and a lot of the teaching we did ended up feeling like an assembly line. At that school, the first year I gave classes to Kindergarten and to Third Grade. I had more students in those two grades than were in the whole of the previous school. I saw them less hours a week, even though I worked more hours. Third grade I saw either one or two times a week in a classroom with half the class. One or two because the way we taught was by splitting the class. Kindergarten was the same deal with splitting, but since they only had two days a week of English, I saw each half-group only once a week.

With less hours to see the kids, establishing a routine was next to impossible, so the students didn’t advance as quickly, and there was greater resistance to working in class. In part this resistance was due to the ways in which the structure of my English classes fell outside the normal classroom culture prevalent in that school, and perhaps in Spain in general if my Spanish friends’ anecdotes hold true for the population as a whole.

The children were taught that they had to take notes by copying things exactly from the board. That they had to use the same color pen as the teacher did, and the same color pen for everything. They were not encouraged to think for themselves, only to memorize. And certainly, all Spanish children can tell you the way to say each regional name of a person from any place in Spain, and they can do long division by third grade, but when they are graduating from high school, none of them know how to do Calculus, and they have more personal than philosophical arguments about politics.


In the US, and even in the Bilingual School where I worked in Spain, there is an emphasis on work. Children are given work in the form of projects or spelling words or math problems that they take home, do, and are graded upon. Sure, in High School my teachers seldom corrected my homework, but by then I was (mostly) in the habit of doing it because when I was little, I was given grades on homework. My working habits were continually assessed until it seemed like I was doing enough work to get by.

In my second school in Madrid, the students were only given work to help them do better on their tests. The work was not graded, it was barely glanced at even when they were very little. The tests were not on a select few words from the reading or on a few of the rivers in Spain, the children were expected to spit back verbatim EVERYTHING that the teacher covered in class, which meant that the exams were grueling and long.

So, since I wanted to teach the kids to speak, I gave them applied writing exercises, which they never completed because to them the work wasn’t worth doing if they thought (at nine years-old) that they could pass the test. So then, they failed not only the work, which I graded very lightly, but the exams as well because I took the exam directly from their writing and oral presentation homework.

In the testing based system there is little incentive for the students to work once they know the relevant information since it will not change their grade to do more work. The teacher is left threatening to fail them if they don’t do the work, but without rewarding the good kids who did the work. Then the kids who work don’t see why they should bother working if they don’t get any bonus for it. As my friend Pablo put it, “In Spain, there is no system to reward work, only a system to punish lack of knowledge.” They treat the symptom as if it were the disease.

Tomorrow, I’ll write a little more about how the grading system is different and how this all influenced my ability to teach as an Assistant Language Teacher.

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