Some Differences Between Spanish and U.S. Schools*
I have always believed that no matter how much of an expert you think you are in the subject you teach, you will still learn something new everyday. This has no doubt been the case here in Madrid. I thought having studied TESOL and worked in the field formally and informally throughout college and being familiar with Spanish culture would have prepared me immensely for this position. While I do feel that I am more prepared than other people who have never taught before, I still feel like I have a lot to learn about the Spanish education system as well as the English language (that is a story for another day!).
The Spanish Public Education System
The Spanish education system is quite different from the U.S. system in the way that it is structured and the subjects that the students take. Similar to in the United States, Spanish students do not have to enroll in Educación infantil, or pre-school. They are required to start school when they are 4-5 years old. This next phase is called Educación primaria, or Elementary School. It is split into three different cycles depending on the students´ ages. Students have to attend Educación primaria. The next level of schooling is called Educación secundaria obligatoria (Obligatory Secondary School), or E.S.O. E.S.O. is split up into 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th. The 1st, or 1° de E.S.O., students are usually 11-12 years-old and 2nd, or 2° de E.S.O., students are 12-13 years-old. The 3rd, or 3° de E.S.O., students are 13-14 years-old and the 4th or, 4° de E.S.O, students are 14-15 years-old. These ages are approximate because there are sometimes older students who have failed a course. After 4° de E.S.O, students are no longer required to go to school. However, if they want to continue in public education, they can move on to Bachillerato, which is divided into two cycles, 1° de Bachillerato y 2° de Bachillerato. At this point, students are required to choose an area of study that they will focus on in the future when they attend university. These areas of study are divided into three different fields: 1) Art (Fine Arts and Design, Music or Dance), 2) Science and Technology, and 3) Humanities and Social Sciences. If students want to go to college in Spain, they take an exam called Selectividad during their last year of Bachillerato. They usually find out which college or university they will attend a bit later than we do in the U.S.
Bilingual education is a big deal right now all over Spain. In order to make the next generation of Spaniards more competitive worldwide, the Spanish government has implemented many bilingual programs in public schools. In the Comunidad de Madrid (Madrid region) alone there are around 100 bilingual institutos, or secondary schools. There are also around the same amount of bilingual primary schools. Most of these bilingual schools are Spanish/English, but some offer French, German or Italian as the second language. The teachers who work in these schools must have a high level of the second language in which they teach and they usually work with Auxiliares de conversación, or teaching assistants, like yours truly. I have heard that there are approximately 1,700 of us in the Madrid region. Most of the assistants come from the United States, but there are also some from New Zealand, Australia, the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Italy.
In bilingual secondary schools, students are typically split into two groups: (1) Programa, (2) Sección. This division happens after Primaria. If the students went to a bilingual Elementary school, they can test into the Sección, or the bilingual section. If not, they will probably have to stay in the Programa, which is the non-bilingual section. This does not mean that the students cannot speak a second language, just that they do not take as many classes in the second language. Some of the Programa students are very proficient. In my school, each grade has two non-bilingual sections (A, B) and two bilingual sections (C,D). In the bilingual sections, students take all of the classes, except Spanish language and mathematics, in English. Some of these classes include biology, chemistry, technology, history, social sciences, and even physical education.
After E.S.O., or the Obligatory Secondary School, students stop having bilingual classes. They continue taking English, French, German or Italian classes, but they no longer study other subjects in English. I have heard that the government is trying to add bilingual Bachillerato programs in the near future.
Although the bilingual public education program is fairly new, I think it is a great system that will help the students significantly in the future. I can already tell that many students are benefiting from having a “free” bilingual education because the majority of the Sección students speak English very well and do not make many major errors. I think bilingual public education is something we need to implement in more U.S. schools. Knowing a second language is extremely useful in this day and age and it opens you up to so many opportunities worldwide.
Some Technical Differences
In addition to the structure of the schools, there are many minute technical differences. For example, parents do not have to pay for students´ tuition in public schools, but they do have to buy school supplies and textbooks. Unlike in the U.S., most public schools in Spain cannot provide students with books. However, I have heard that schools in the poorer regions of Spain are starting to lend books to students.
The Spanish grading system is another difference to keep in mind. In the U.S., we grade from 0-100% and most students do not want to achieve anything lower than 85% B. A grade of C, which is usually 75-84%, is considered bad. In Spain, students are given grades from 1-10. It is very difficult to get a 10 and students are usually satisfied with 6’s, 7’s and sometimes even 5’s.
Another small difference is that instead of students switching classrooms, the teachers switch. Each section of each grade has their own classroom and they stay there all day, unless they go to electives, such as music or art, which have their own classrooms. This can be more efficient because there aren’t’ many students roaming around the halls, but it can also be a nuisance for teachers and it does not allow them to decorate their classrooms. It also causes classes to start late sometimes.
Although this may not be the case in every school, it seems that Spanish classrooms are not as up-to-date in terms of technology. In the U.S., I remember that basically all of my classrooms, in both the public school and private school I attended, had new computers, projectors, and sometimes even interactive whiteboards. In my school in Spain, there are computers in every classroom but they are very old models. Only certain classrooms have projectors and some of them do not have screens, so you have to project on the whiteboard or chalkboard. However, to solve this problem, there is a PDI classroom where we can go to give presentations using a projector and screen. I’d say that my school is very modern in terms of what I’ve heard about other schools. Some people I know teach at schools that do not have any projectors or only have one in the auditorium. It may not seem like much, but technology is an integral part of language learning.
In Spanish schools, there is a place called conserjería, which seems to translate roughly to a “caretaker’s office.” I found this translation on WordReference.com since I could not come up with one of my own. It is a place where you go to take care of almost anything. It is not a secretary’s office nor is it a principal’s office; they both have their own offices in other locations. You go to conserjería for photocopies, if you need something cleaned up, if students are sick, to get classroom keys (classrooms are usually locked when teachers aren’t present), and many more things. They are also very helpful during your first few days of school when you don’t know where anything is.
In the states, we sometimes hear news of teacher strikes (huelgas) due to pay cuts and such things. In Spain, it seems that huelgas are a normal part of life. When I lived here during college, I experienced a few huelgas de transporte público, or public transportation strikes. It was interesting because unlike transportation strikes in the U.S., during a Spanish transportation strike, there is still public transportation. The only difference is that it runs less frequently. So, the metro trains might come every 15- 20 minutes. Basically, they run on Washington, D.C. time…on a good day. (I really do love D.C…)
I have been in Spain almost two months and I’ve already experienced a huelga de educación, an education strike. It took place from October 22nd-October 24th. The strike happened in response to a new law that was approved by the Partido Popular (PP), the Spanish conservative party, known as LOMCE. The law will change the Spanish education system yet again and this time, students will not have to take Selectividad (the exam to enter the university), but they will have to take exams every so often during E.S.O. and Bachillerato. Another change is that students will be required to take some kind of religion class which will most likely focus on Christianity or Catholicism. Like the U.S., Spain does have a significant population of non-Christians and it seems that many people do not agree with this. These are just a few of the significant changes that LOMCE will make. It seems that no one is really 100% for or against the law. They agree with some parts but not with others, so it has been very controversial.
One thing that really surprised me was that in addition to teachers striking, the students strike, too! Apparently, there is a student union that organizes these strikes. Thus, from October 22nd-October 24th, not many students were present in my 3° de E.S.O. and 4 ° de E.S.O classes. (Students have to be in 3° de E.S.O or up to strike). The teachers and I still had to come to school on the 22nd and 23rd, but we did not have many students in our classes. I had one class that was full, but only because they had a field trip that day. The other classes had only one or two students, so we took advantage of the quietness and decorated the school for Halloween.
On the 24th, there were almost no students and half of the teachers were not there because it was the day of the teacher’s strike. We had a meeting the day before in which we talked about LOMCE and teachers were informed that they would not be paid for the day if they decided to strike.
It may seem a little strange that both teachers and students would strike in response to a law, but keep in mind that the Consejería de Educación, or the Spanish Ministry of Education, has been changing education laws very frequently. A friend explained to me that every time a new political party comes to power, the education system changes. One of my friends, who is in her early-30’s, told me that the public education policies changed about 4 times while she was in school!
The frequent changes in education policy have certainly affected students’ attitudes towards education and teachers. Many students really do not care about learning. I know this is often the case in the U.S. as well, but it seems that this attitude is a bit more prevalent here. Although I haven’t seen this too much in my school because it is considered one of the better public schools in the Madrid region, I have heard horror stories from some of my peers. In one school, the students harassed a teacher so much that she put her head down on her desk and cried. They had no respect for their teacher, who probably worked very hard to prepare a lesson for them that day. I heard another story from a madrileño friend about a bar in Madrid that used to give free shots to students if they brought in tests with very low scores. Having heard about all of this before I started to teach, I was pretty sure that I was in for a big challenge. In my experience, though, I haven’t had much trouble motivating my students. There have been bad days, but overall, it seems that if I can make the students laugh, I can usually get their attention. It also helps to use a variety of learning tools, such as PowerPoint presentations and YouTube videos. The traditional lecture-style, which seems to be the preferred method of teaching here, is not enough to motivate the students.
Another difference, which is really just a general cultural difference, is that Spanish classrooms are a lot louder than classrooms in the U.S. Some of the teachers just ignore the background noise and attempt to teach. These poor teachers seem to lose their voices often. Others have come up with clever ways to make the students quiet down, such as counting to three. I remember when my mom used to use this technique with my brother and I when we misbehaved-we never wanted to see what would happen if she got to 3!
The final difference is also essentially a cultural difference. However, it is something that foreign teachers should be aware of and know how to address. Among Spanish-speakers, the Spanish are said to be one of the most blunt and, for lack of a better word, rude cultures. This is due to the way they speak. The bluntness, I must admit, is actually refreshing after having lived in a country that is focused on being politically correct all the time. It is nice to be able to ask a Spanish friend a question and hear their actual opinion, not a “sugar-coated” response. It can be insulting to some people, but you have to keep in mind that the Spanish do not mean any harm by their words.
The rudeness, however, is due to the words they use and the way they speak. It is not actually rude, it is merely perceived as being rude. For example, the Spanish rarely use the polite form of you, usted. They speak to everyone using tú. This is a shock to people that come from many Central and South American countries where usted is used very frequently. In my Spanish classes both in high school and college, I was required to speak to my professors using usted and Señor/Señora/Señorita + their last name. In Spain, students usually address their teachers using tú and by their first names.
Another thing that may come as a shock to some people is the frequency in which Spanish people use los tacos, or curse words. Words such as j*der (f*ck), h*stia (technically means “the host” from a church service, but also translates as “hell!”), and even c*ño (which means “c*nt” and also translates as “f*ck!”) are used frequently in conversations between peers, students, and sometimes even students and teachers. The teachers do not use these words in class, but students will say them and are not punished. Although we are technically not supposed to allow students to speak this way in class, we really do not do anything about it. It isn’t really perceived as bad manners here. You would never use these words in a formal conversation or at a job interview, but they are very normal in conversation and in school. However, since I am a “U.S. Cultural Assistant,” I do not allow my students to use these words in English. Although it is okay in Spanish culture, I want them to understand that this is an important cultural difference that they must understand about the U.S. In order to successfully learn or teach a language, you must understand one or more of the cultures that use the language of your host country and the language you are learning or teaching.
*All of this information is based on my experiences teaching in one public school and one private school in the Comunidad de Madrid. The information may differ from school to school and from Comunidad to Comunidad.