Monday, 30 June 2014

Working at a Spanish school

The main thing I noticed about the Spanish education system from my school is that, like many other aspects of Spain, it seems a lot more relaxed than the UK. For example, if the teacher was a few minutes late it wasn't a big problem and the teachers did't always seem to mind spontaneous lessons. This can be a good thing because then the lesson isn't so restricted and students can express themselves in different ways. On the other hand, if lessons often have the same or no structure it can be boring for the students.

Exams were also more relaxed. I remember when I was at school we had to go to the sports hall to sit our exams. For me that was all very efficient, but perhaps too efficient, because it did waste of lot of time. In the classes I was in, the students stayed in the classroom to sit their exams. All students had individual desks, so it was easy to organise the classroom so it was suitable to sit an exam. This does save a lot of time and resources. However, from what I understood in Spanish, some of the students in some classes copied from the text book or each other during exams. This didn't really surprise me, because they had their bags under their desks, their coats on the back of their chairs and with the exception of me and the teacher (who sometimes sat at the desk marking), no invigilator.

The school day in Spain is shorter than the UK, starting around 9am and finishing around 2:30pm. The break in my school was 30 minutes between 11:20 and 11:50, during which time the students would probably have a small snack and drink, then have lunch at home after school. These shorter days are understandable because in the warmer months the heat starts to get uncomfortable at around 1pm, which isn't particularly pleasant when you're stuck in a stuffy classroom.

Some classes are also quite big. I think the biggest one in which I taught was 36 people. Sometimes it was so crowded that I couldn't reach the black board. I have no idea how one teacher manages to deal with them alone. On the other hand, some of the smaller classes were sometimes as small as 15 students. To me it would make sense to move some students from the larger classes into the smaller ones, but I don't know all the facts and I'm sure there's a good reason for the way in which the classes are organised.

Foreign languages are much more integrated into the students' learning in Spain. The school was multilingual and many lessons were focused on English. I also taught English in drama classes and when I looked into some other classes I could see that many different lessons were taught in English. I think it’s fantastic that students have the opportunity to put their language skills to practice; I wish I could have been able to do that. The level of English that some of the older students could speak really was outstanding and put my Spanish speaking ability to shame. In the UK I suppose we are lucky, because English is considered one of the main international languages so learning foreign languages is not as vital for us. However, I don't think that is an excuse not to make an effort to learn another language. I've noticed that the UK is often more intolerant than other countries when it comes to foreign languages and cultures and especially immigration. 

Once somebody has experienced another culture through travelling I think they become much more tolerant. By this I mean properly travelling, not just sitting on a beach somewhere exotic or visiting Disney World. I mean meeting local people, trying local food, experiencing local customs and events and making a bit of an effort to learn the language. Until we have done so, I do not feel that we have the right to judge immigrants, asylum seekers or people who can't speak English or have a foreign accent. Have you any idea how difficult it is to perfect the accent of another language? It would probably take a lifetime.

After speaking to some teachers, I heard stories of misbehaviour, which is probably inevitable at most secondary schools. Some students who had very high levels of bad behaviour were suspended, during which they could either stay at home or have support sessions from different teachers at the school. I think the latter is a good way of dealing with bad behaviour, because it gives the student the chance to reform. When I was at school I can't remember students being given such opportunities to reform, they were only punished through detention, suspension at home or permanent expulsion from the school. Another interesting notion I was informed about was that sometimes when there is one student with particularly bad behaviour, they can be swapped with another school. However, one teacher told me that this often results in the school receiving a student with even worse behaviour than the previous one!

Sometimes the relaxed atmosphere at school seemed to lead to disorganisation. I hadn't had much contact with the school before I arrived, which wasn't particularly reassuring. They also couldn't seem to decide what to do with me. I was rarely asked to work the full 12 hours per week that I was supposed to work, which seemed a bit of a waste, especially as there was another English Language Assistant in my school. I spent my first week in English classes where I introduced myself and the students asked me questions. After that I was transferred to the Social Science classes for the next 3 months, which meant that I didn't follow up with the classes from the first week. The Social Science lessons were taught in Spanish, but the students had text books in English. Sometimes communication between the teacher and I was difficult, because she couldn't speak any English and she had a really strong accent from Andalusia (a region from southern Spain), which I struggled to understand. I wasn't properly introduced to the new Social Science classes and I think this was confusing for both me and the students. Because of this, as well as school trips, public holidays and cancelled classes, I didn't have the opportunity to get to know students as much as I had hoped. As an English Language Assistant, I was expecting to be in English lessons, but found myself trying and failing to teach Geography, History and Drama, all of which I know very little about, at least in the context which I was teaching them.

I really struggled in these classes because I don't have any Geography or Drama qualifications.  During most Geography lessons the teacher either asked me to read one paragraph and explain the vocabulary to the students or didn't ask me to do anything at all. At first this was really embarrassing because I didn't know most of the geographical vocabulary in English or Spanish and the students laughed at me when I couldn't define a word. After that I decided to teach myself from the Geography book in my free time in order to teach the students, which seemed a bit pointless, especially if the teacher didn't ask me to do anything during a lesson. I later found out that the Geography teacher who I was working with was temporary, which is probably why she didn't seem to know what to do with me in her classes. After a new Social Science teacher who taught in English and Spanish was hired, my timetable was then changed back to English classes for the last 5 months, at which point I couldn't remember which class was which and if I had met them before. This whole ordeal seemed like an awful waste of my time, the Spanish government's money and the school's resources. I often wondered whether it was really worth me flying from the other side of Europe, when I didn't seem to contribute much to the teaching.

Some of the many timetables that I had didn't include the class or room numbers and I was left wondering around the school trying to find the class, or I went to ask at reception. I tried to ask what to prepare for each class in advance, otherwise I was sometimes asked to prepare something vague the night before or sometimes even on the spot. I spent days trying to think up lessons for the little information given to me and occasional sleepless nights worrying about them. When I was asked to plan a class, sometimes teachers reorganised the class and didn't use my plan, or if I wasn't asked to prepare something, the teachers sometimes asked for my plan was at the beginning of the class.

I often felt like I was more of an annoyance than an assistant. Sometimes I did a few activities in a class with the support of the teacher, which was the kind of thing I was expecting to do. Other teachers either asked me manage the whole class, which was stressful and overwhelming at times or didn't ask me do much at all, which was pointless and boring. Sometimes I felt like I should work with initiative, but other times I felt like this might seem like I'm trying to take over the class. The fact that many teachers had requested for me to attend a specific class and didn't ask me to do anything in the lesson or acted like I was an inconvenience is beyond my comprehension. Teachers didn't always let me know their plans for the lesson in advance, which was incredibly annoying when I got to an early morning class, only to discover that there was an exam/ the teacher was absent/ I wasn't needed for the class. I understand the teachers were busy, but just because I had a lot of free time didn't mean I had no life of my own. Although a difference in culture may have been the reason behind many of the difficulties I faced, there is no excuse for a lack of respect. I often travelled between Thursday and Sunday (my days off) and coming to school knowing I could have left/returned a day earlier/later was so frustrating. Most of Melilla's residents seem to have or at least use a car and I don't think people even considered that it took me an hour to walk to the school and back, which was especially difficult with my foot injury. I don't think it should have been my responsibility to work out if I was supposed to be at school or not every single day. Despite this, there was one teacher who went out of her
 way to be friendly and helpful, showed me around the city, invited me to a meal at my house and introduced me to her family. I will always be grateful for this and I hope one day I will be able to return the favour. She made ​​the experience bearable, otherwise I think I would have just given up.

I felt really shy in the beginning and because of all the awkward situations I never really overcame this or felt fully comfortable in the school. I usually arrived to lessons on time and waited outside the classrooms because I didn't know what to do in the class alone, I didn't want to seem like I was trying to take over the class and I didn't want to deal with any problems in the class whilst alone. I felt like an idiot and some teachers didn't seem to take me seriously. Most teachers told the students that I couldn't speak any Spanish. While this was good for the students' learning, the students didn't take me seriously either and teaching on my own became impossible.  They often spoke about me in Spanish and I found it amusing when they were surprised and embarrassed after they eventually realised I could understand. Once I sat behind a student on a flight, during which they were talking about me in a rude way in Spanish. Finally, some students heard me speaking Spanish with a teacher, and then started a rumour around the school and after that teaching became a bit easier. However, if students weren't paying attention to me, I would try talking to them in Spanish, and they would often laugh at my accent (even though lots of them have really awful English accents and I didn't laugh). It just felt like I couldn't do anything right.

It wasn't my responsibility to teach a whole class, discipline the class or mark essays and exams, as stated in the paperwork I was given by the British Council, but the school didn't seem to regard that. Some problems arose during the times when I was left teaching classes alone and this is probably why the rules are put in place. Several months before the end of my assistantship I was asked to do some marking. I said I don't think I'm really supposed to be doing that, but I was told it was acceptable because there was a marking key, which is fair enough. I was given marking to do in my free hours, which in all fairness were pretty awkward and boring anyway, but I still felt like I was being taken advantage of. More teachers then saw that I was doing marking, so I was given more marking and even essays and exams, which obviously didn't have a key. Despite this I tried to make the most of the opportunity. After my second week in Melilla, I had already planned and taught a class alone. I was very nervous, but many students seemed to enjoy my classes and participated well. Other classes were a complete nightmare, would not be quiet and laughed and shouted at me in the streets. One time a class was being rude to me and the teacher actually laughed about it!

However, I enjoyed preparing lessons and tried to make them fun. I liked to make my own worksheets and a teacher said that she had been training teachers for 6 years and had never seen anyone do this. Before Christmas I made mince pies for all my classes and English teachers and brought magazines, newspapers and food from England. Unfortunately I didn't use everything that I had brought with me because I was never asked to prepare a lesson of my choice and my resources didn't always fit the lesson I was asked to prepare. I think if the teachers had known what I had brought from England and knew about my degree I could have offered some really interesting subject specific lessons.

Towards the end the teachers seemed to grow tired of my presence: most of my classes were cancelled and my hours gradually decreased to almost nothing. It got to the point where I was just counting down the days until it was all over. I can't comprehend why some teachers who have studied English language and culture didn't seem to want to take an interest in a native such as myself. I text some of them and asked to meet up out of school, so it's not like I didn't try, but most of them ignored my messages. Sometimes they walked past me on the street and completely blanked me. Occasionally I was invited to social events, but I could see that it was half-hearted and the invitation was rarely followed up, which seems common in Spanish culture. I understand that it must be frustrating to have someone inexperienced in the school and to receive new assistants each year. However, if I had been in an atmosphere where I would have felt able to be myself, I think I could have gotten on really well with some teachers and been a good teacher myself. I feel that this would have been possible if I had gotten to know the students and teachers on a personal level early on, but this was prevented by my change of timetables. The case was usually the same for my private English lessons, so in the end I gave up trying to find more. It was bad enough being messed about at work, let alone in my free time and I felt that it wasn't always worth the extra money. People didn't always consider the time I spent walking to and from classes and if I included this time in my wages, I ended up being paid less than when I was working in the fast food industry, which was really insulting. I know that I definitely wasn't the only assistant who had these negative experiences and Melilla wasn't the only region that they were experienced in. However, I felt very envious of my friends who were also English Language Assistants elsewhere in Spain, who had been welcomed and appreciated from the very beginning until the end. I resent the negative experience that I had in my school, especially because it has put me off learning Spanish, living in Spain and becoming a teacher, but I won't write off the idea completely just because of one negative experience.

I also think that people assumed that I can't speak much Spanish. The reality is that I could barely understand English in corridors full of shouting children, let alone Spanish. I can actually speak Spanish quite well as soon as I feel comfortable somewhere. Sometimes I even find it difficult to make conversation in English in an uncomfortable situation. I just didn't feel comfortable in the school and I felt like could barely speak a word of Spanish, even though the sentences I wanted to say were organised perfectly in my head. In the English Language Assistant induction session in Madrid, I overheard some assistants claiming that other assistants weren't qualified enough. My interpretation of that was that some people thought that others' levels of Spanish weren't high enough and I want to point out that speaking Spanish isn't actually part of the job description. During the induction sessions some previous assistants said they had worked without any knowledge of the language of the country they went to (although I wouldn't recommend that).

During my last weeks Maria was visiting and I thought it would be interesting for some students to listen to her talk about her Erasmus year in Chester and learning English as a second language. I was really worried that the school wouldn't be welcoming, but to my surprise they were. When she was in school with me it was the best week I had there and the students were really attentive. In some of my last classes the teacher allowed the students to ask me questions before I left. I was asked questions like "How old are you?" and "Do you have brothers and sisters?” To me it seemed crazy that they were asking these kind of questions in my final class. It would have made much more sense for them to have had the opportunity to ask them at the beginning. Anyway, in the end two classes signed a big card with goodbye messages for me and one student gave me a handmade bracelet, which were really sweet. I don't want this post to give the impression that my experience was completely awful, because I did have a few good times at the school, such as sharing a Christmas cracker, mince pies and Christmas puddings with my classes and my Halloween lessons. My experienced seemed to be at its best in November and December and appeared to go downhill the following year. I think it could have been a lot different if I had integrated into the school community, which would have required a little more effort and communication from both the teachers and myself.


Sometimes I enjoyed teaching and I felt like I'd like to be a teacher and other times I've felt annoyed and wonder what the point of me even being there was. In my second year at university I started getting grey hairs (!), which I think are due to dyeing and straightening my hair so many times and possibly stress. This year I have so many that I can't even pull them all out anymore! I think my hardships were partially due to the lack of hospitality of the school. However, I'm sure it's equally frustrating for them to have someone new with little experience. I was really shy and awkward and I don't doubt that this sometimes came across as rude to them, even though that wasn't my intention. I'm not sure if this year has encouraged or discouraged me to consider a career as a teacher. I definitely don't like being an assistant, but perhaps I would enjoy being an actual teacher. Even though it had its ups and downs, I think the experience was definitely character building and I've learnt a lot. In all of the many jobs I've had I've always been the underdog, which unfortunately has given others the ability to disrespect me and take advantage of me. I hope that one day I can have a higher position and if I do, I hope the way in which I treat my employees will not depend on their position, age or nationality.

I felt that Erasmus and the British Council were very effective and supportive. However, I feel that the disorganisation of the Spanish Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport and my host organisation and their lack of communication with the intermediary organisations has caused me many problems. I think the Spanish Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport should give clearer instructions to the host organisations on how to deal with English Language Assistants. My experience was dependent on the attitude of the host organisation and unfortunately it was not as good as I had expected. There should be greater communication between the host, home and intermediary organisations to assess my welfare. I felt unhappy in my host organisation and I can't think of many occasions when I was even asked how I was getting on by anybody, especially because I didn't have a mentor teacher. These days I don't listen to music that often, but I almost always listened to music whilst travelling to and from the school just to clear my head from imagining what the day would bring and reflecting on what had happened. Even now, I struggle to reflect on my year abroad positively due to my experience at the school. Sometimes I regret choosing to work at the school, but earning money as well as having my university bursary, Erasmus grant, student loan and the money I saved up from working two jobs last summer have enabled me to do all the travelling that I have shared on this blog and plan to do over the summer .Hopefully the Social Science department now has their English teaching organised and the school's next English Language Assistant won't be as messed about as I was. In all fairness, I probably should have stood up for myself more than I did. However, it was worth putting up with it for all that time because I got a really good grade thanks to my employer evaluation. I guess that just demonstrates the school's real lack of awareness of my struggles and that their expectations were probably for me to just get my head down and get on with things without complaining so that they can maintain the grant that I imagine they receive for taking on English Language Assistants. I am writing this on my blog now because I think the organisations involved should know about my experience and endeavour to make improvements. 


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