Tuesday, October 30, 2012

mi colegio

As you probably know, I'm part of the North American Language and Cultural Assistants program. In return for a (very) modest living stipend and legal residency in Spain, I work twelve hours a week at a Spanish elementary school, assisting with English and plurilingual classes.

So far, I think I've been fairly lucky with my school. It's located in a small town that seems to be mostly occupied by farm animals and sleepy German Shepherds, which is a twenty-minute drive (add ten minutes if taking the bus) outside of Lugo proper. Some assistants have to commute as much as two hours to their towns, so I feel very fortunate that mine is so close by.

Spanish elementary schools, which are called colegios,  have students as young as three years old and as old as twelve. I spend at least an hour a week with each grade, sometimes with the English teacher, and sometimes in art classes, which my school has designated as its "plurilingual" subject. All Spanish schools are technically bilingual, with English and Spanish; because Galicia has an indigenous language, we're plurilingual, and in theory spend 33% of our time in Castilian Spanish, 33% in English, and 33% in Galician. I'm sure you can all imagine how well that works. Not. Which leads to one of my biggest issues at my school so far: the level of English.

I was certainly not expecting my students to all be great at English. But I would have expected that, by the fourth grade, they would be able to respond to basic questions like "How are you?" and "What's your favorite color?" This is not the case. Some of them can, of course, but I would say that a solid three-fourths of the classes stare at me in glassy-eyed confusion whenever I ask them anything. My teacher says this is because they're lazy, bad students, but I think it has a bit more to do with rock-bottom expectations, added to her own erm, difficulties with the English language.

I don't want to say that my teacher can't speak English. She can, kind of, speak well enough to carry on a basic conversation. Honestly, though, if I were getting paid an actual salary to teach a foreign language, I would be ashamed if I spoke and understood it as poorly as she does. Most of the time, what she teaches (or what the book teaches) isn't wrong, per se, but it's laughably far away from anything approaching the English that any human speaks or writes. Whenever I bring up an issue about that, she just claims it's because she teaches British English, and I'm American. Sigh.

As frustrating as my school's English capability is, the thing that is, without a doubt, the most difficult for me to deal with is the very different way teachers have of, erm, motivating their students. In the US, I think most teachers try to be positive and inspire their students to do better. In Spain, however, they seem to spend a lot more time shaming their students. At one point or another, every single teacher I've worked with, has straight up told their classes that they are lazy, that they are bad, that they are stupid, that they will never amount to anything. One of the most awkward moments of my time in Spain came when the English teacher told me to pick the best and the worst students in the first-grade class, right in front of them. I wouldn't do it, and she acted like I was the weird one.

I had been warned about this before starting at my school, but I still wasn't prepared for the reality of a teacher yelling at a six-year-old that he isn't ever going to do anything worthwhile with his life. I can't understand the thought process behind treating children like that; how on earth is that supposed to motivate them to work harder? Or to work at all? I don't think a six-year-old has the mental maturity to set out to prove everyone wrong. So, with a few of the kids, it's this awful spiral where they act out, the teacher tells them they're worthless, they act out again, the teacher repeats that they are slime, on and on and on. It's incredibly hard for me to watch.

Despite all of this, though, my school has been more than welcoming to me. The teachers are very friendly, and have been willing to help me with everything from figuring out my postal code to finding a place to buy sheets for my bed. I can yammer about education policy and teaching strategies until I go blue in the face, but let's be real, I'm not going to change anything.


  1. Hi boo. I'm just now catching up on all of your posts! Bad friend.

    That's what the schools in France were like, the end result being that no one wanted to do anything by the time they were in high school. I mean, most French high schoolers work hard to meet the very high demands placed upon them, but when it comes to sharing opinions, standing out, and speaking out loud, they're super reticent for fear of being shamed.

    Then again, my own kids are the complete opposite end of the spectrum. They've been told that they're SO SPECIAL and UNIQUE and SMART and get ribbons for breathing, then don't understand why I'm upset when my TENTH graders can't spell the word "pencil." In English.

    So Spain and France don't sound like they have it right, but we certainly don't either. Let's all move to Finland. :)

    1. Finland for sure. Ugh. I really don't think it should be as hard as it is to create a halfway decent educational system.