The Problem(s) with my Spanish Bilingual School

This is actually a typical conversation you might have with one of my students.

This is actually a typical conversation you might have with one of my students.

I’ve been debating whether or not to write this post  — especially because I’m not sure I’m “qualified” to write it. But then again, I’m not qualified to be a teacher and here I am. My intent for this post is not to blindly criticize, but to provide a comparison and critique of and/or have a venting sesh about the illogical classroom practices I see every day.

I understand that this is a different country and a different system, but I’m frustrated. And I want to talk about it.

I’d like to present a few disclaimers/basic facts before I start:

  • I’m not an expert on this system. If you disagree or if you have any other insights I’ve missed, please post them in the comments. I’m always open to a friendly discussion.
  • Yes, I’m American and, yes, I know our school system has plenty of problems of its own. I’m not writing this because I want to sit around and say “Our system is the best. The end. Amurica.” Because, while I did have a great public school education, there’s so much reform and work to be done, especially in our schools with less resources.
  • There are bad teachers everywhere. I recognize that. In high school I had an economics teacher who literally read the newspaper while we did worksheets or copied the textbook. One time we watched Bee Movie, because supply and demand of honey I guess. (?) We all suffered and, needless to say, I learned very little about economics. I did learn, however, that Bee Movie = two hours of my life I’ll never get back.

  • I know teaching is a difficult job. Teachers are charged with great responsibility and their work often goes unappreciated. I never fully understood that until now. There is no excuse, however, for the issues I want to discuss — especially since I work in an upper-middle class school in central Madrid. It has a lot of resources and money to help support the students, and the families are, overall, very involved and interested in their children’s education.
  • There are things I like about the Spanish school system. One of my favorite things is that students stay with the same class for two years in a row, which encourages wonderful bonds between students and (in theory) helps reduce bullying.
  • There are many amazing, dedicated teachers at my school who manage their classrooms beautifully and provide an environment that’s extremely conducive to learning. This post isn’t about them. 

Teachers are Not Held Accountable

“We can have them copy this passage. It will keep them busy for about 14 minutes, which is good because we can relax.”

At first I assumed this was your run-of-the-mill translation error. “She can’t really mean that,” I thought. This teacher, who is a kind woman (albeit a lackluster teacher), rarely plans lessons and blames the kids’ abhorrent behavior on the fact that “It’s a Wednesday afternoon and they are very nervous!”* I chalked it up to an unusual occurrence and moved on with my day.

My thoughts exactly.

My thoughts exactly.

And then, a week later, she said it again. “We never get to relax. There’s so much to do, with the Trinity exams and science and English, and we never have time to relax.” Oh, just “science and English,” you know, the classes that make up a good portion of her job, but whatever.

I asked her what she meant, agreeing that, yes, teaching is a time-consuming and often under-appreciated profession. She elaborated, mentioning that she also doesn’t have enough time to relax because “We have to decorate the school for Christmas and work on the songs for Dani.” (Dani is a children’s singer who’s coming to perform at our school March.)

I just nodded and smiled. Meanwhile, the children were coloring absently, walking around the classroom, and talking to each other.

One of the other teachers, who’s thinking about moving to the U.S. to teach Spanish, told me that she’d heard the administration staff in the U.S. can just walk into a classroom any time they want.

“I think this is really good,” she said. “Here in Spain, the teachers can do whatever they want in the classroom. The headmistress would never, ever walk into a classroom unannounced or spend time observing a lesson.”

To put it kindly, I’ve been placed with some of the less motivated teachers in my school. The majority of the lessons are a waste of time. The children who struggle with English or have behavioral issues are often ignored and simply fall farther and farther behind. I do my best to make lessons fun for the kids, but I have to refer to the teachers’ wishes, which often means I have to ask them questions about a random picture or “correct their pronunciation” for 20 minutes. I started running an activity once and the kids loved it, but the teacher decided we had to stop because they just had to copy a text from the book.

And no one does anything about it. In fact, in some cases I’d say no one knows about it, and that’s the most incredible part to me. My 2nd graders speak and understand less English than my 1st graders, but somehow nothing has been done to change that.

As far as the lesson planning issue goes, the teachers have told me they have planning hours built in to their workweek. I do think they have less than the typical teacher in the U.S., but they still have them. (Not to mention that teachers in the U.S. have to spend weeknights and weekends grading papers and exams.) Regardless of amount, you can clearly see which teachers use their planning hours wisely and which don’t.

So, let’s recap, shall we?

  1. The teacher hadn’t planned a lesson.
  2. The kids were bored and, as a result, weren’t behaving.** The solution was to occupy them with mindless work until the end of class.
  3. Thanks to this brilliant educational decision, we, the exhausted and harried teachers who just spent 10 minutes asking the kids to read the date off the board (not my idea), could relax.
  4. The kids continued to do mindless work and learn very little English. This is the most disappointing part to me. These children have a wonderful opportunity to get a bilingual education, and many of the teachers still rely on the old-fashioned methods of memorization, translation, and recitation.

*In Spanish, you the word “nervioso/a” means agitated, nervous, or excited. While the literal translation to English,
“nervous,” doesn’t have the quite same meaning, it’s a favorite with most of my teachers.
**Boredom isn’t the only reason the kids don’t behave. See my next grievance.

3 broken pencils @ Digbeth, Birmingham

As broken as my disciplinary dreams. Photo Credit: Tim Parkinson via Flickr.

Students are Not Expected to Behave

I wrote about this in my first post about my Spanish school, but I have to re-iterate it here: In most classes, the students are not expected to behave. Even though the classroom rules posted on the walls ironically prohibit bad behavior, they are allowed to:

  • Speak without raising their hands.
  • Get up and walk around without permission.
  • Yell “FINISHED!” when they’ve finished an in-class assignment. To which I’ve started replying “Great, but I don’t need to know that. Just sit quietly!” which they don’t understand, and, occasionally, “I don’t care!” which they don’t understand either.
  • Do nothing just because they’re missing some essential school supply. They don’t ask to borrow one. They just sit silently until you walk up to them and say, “Ignacio, why aren’t you working?” 99.9% of the time the response is, “Es que no tengo (insert school supply here).”The principle behind this frustrates me a lot because, even up until 5th grade, the kids show little to no personal responsibility for themselves or their actions. The same children will show up to school three days in a row without a pencil, and I’ll tell them three days in a row to ask their parents to buy them one. (The teachers also keep a supply of spares in their desks, so it’s not a question of finances.)
  • P.S. All the kids have these pencils without erasers on the ends, so they use separate erasers that are easier to lose. WHY DON’T THEY JUST GIVE THE KIDS PENCILS WITH ERASERS ATTACHED?! THEN NO ONE WOULD LOSE THEIR ERASER AND EVERYTHING WOULD BE FINE! But I digress.

This behavior continues into the upper grades. The 5th graders don’t listen at all, and it’s impossible to teach them anything.

Of course, this isn’t the kids’ fault. They’ve been taught that, even though the “Classroom Rules” say otherwise, it’s okay to do all of the above because certain teachers don’t enforce said rules.

The most frustrating part is it’s not hard to use these simple rules or keep an organized classroom, and that lack of consistency causes problems for the teachers who do enforce the rules, including me. When a teacher gets a new class that’s been allowed to throw things and talk during a lesson and make messes without cleaning them up, he or she has to completely re-discipline them. I often have to do this every. single. week.

The root problem here is that there is no kind of discipline program in place in Spanish schools. From what I can tell, the most serious thing a teacher can do to a misbehaving child is write a note to their parents. The parents can come in for conferences, of course, but immediate consequences are unheard of. Teachers don’t keep children in for recess or require him/her to do extra homework. (Except when I’m teaching the class. This is America now, kids. Mwahahahah.)

In summary:

  • Students are not expected to behave.
  • Many teachers do not enforce basic classroom rules.
  • Disruptive students keep the entire class from learning because there are no immediate consequences for their actions.
  • The teachers who do practice good classroom rules waste a ton of time trying to calm the students down.
  • Students learn less English/Spanish/math/science than they should.
A list of my 5th graders' "Rights and Duties." This was, presumably, corrected by a teacher because it was posted on their wall.

A list of my 5th graders’ “Rights and Duties.” This was, presumably, corrected by a teacher because it was posted on their wall.

Lack of English Skills in English Teachers

This is the simplest issue, so I’ll use it to wrap up my rant. There are certain English teachers in my school who do not understand me when I speak. At all. I want to note that, since Europeans are often taught British English in schools, American English is a bit harder for them to understand. I get that.

However, that’s not the problem for these teachers. I speak very, very slowly and clearly, and they still don’t understand me. That glazed look comes over their eyes and a blank smile spreads over their face. Ah, here we are again. You don’t understand me but you can’t admit it because you’re supposed to be an English teacher. I explain again with gestures and exaggerated facial expressions, but sometimes I’m forced to give up.

As I’ve said before, English is hard to learn. But these teachers should not be English teachers. If I can’t understand them, there’s absolutely no way a group of elementary school students can.

On the other hand, we have plenty of English teachers that are excellent at English. And I love working with them.

Fellow auxiliares, what has your experience been like in Spanish schools? Teachers in other countries, how does this compare to your own school?


5 thoughts on “The Problem(s) with my Spanish Bilingual School

  1. I have seen a lot of this too. I’ve worked in a total of five different institutions, and the experiences have differed greatly. At some schools, the teachers have had good English levels (as at the high school where I’m working currently), whereas at others the level was pretty awful.

    The discipline has been uniformly horrible, and I don’t know how to fix it. Most of the time, in primary, the teacher would just yell over the children, which didn’t really work.

    Also, if you’re in a public school, the teacher has even less motivation, because he/she has a job for life. It would be very difficult to get fired. Even if they did screw up, they would most likely just be moved to another centro. I really think this is a mistake, having teachers be essentially always on tenure. I don’t think they should switch to a U.S.-style system, but there has to be something in between.

    I could say a lot more about Spain’s schools, but I think I would be typing forever!

    • I’m happy (or maybe “comforted” is a better word) to hear you’ve had such similar experiences. I work with some excellent teachers who speak beautiful English and do their best with what they’re handed. But, overall, the behavior thing is the most frustrating to me. There is no excuse for the teachers to allow it, and it’s so hard to see 5th graders who can’t even stay quiet for 5 minutes straight.

      I was wondering about the tenure issue. I am in a public school, and I thought that might be part of the problem. I agree — they shouldn’t necessarily move to a U.S. style system, but I think accountability is important for performance in any job. Side note: I had professors at college who definitely shouldn’t have been professors, and yet no one could fire them because of their tenure. It’s a good concept when the teachers are good, but toxic when they’re sub-par.

      Until recently, we had a teacher at our school who didn’t teach English classes but spoke excellent English. We found out the day before he left that he was just a long-term sub for a teacher who was on maternity leave. It was disappointing because he was better at English than three of our bilingual teachers. It would have been nice (and sensible) for him to be able to stay at the school based on his skills. I agree, there has to be some kind of in-between.

      I really do feel bad for the students, and I think that’s the hardest thing of all. The good students who want to learn are completely overshadowed by the students who misbehave. And the students who misbehave are often completely ignored to the point that their English skills are dramatically decreased. A little classroom control would go a long way.

  2. 100 % EVERYTHING HERE. Luckily I only work with a couple teachers that don’t speak English well (and constantly have those miming, snail pace ‘conversations’ with them) and the rest are really good. But everything else is spot on.. The behavior pisses me off so much. The teachers act like it’s not their fault the kids behave so poorly and it doesn’t even enter into their heads that they have the ability to change that, They always say, “Oh, this is a very bad class, I can’t get anything done.” And yes, there are some groups that behave better as a whole than others. But the teachers not taking responsibility or at least trying something to make the situation better is completely insane!

    I think the level of English in Spain as a whole is lower than other countries for many of these issues..I mean many of my teachers don’t plan anything, they just look at the book the second before class starts, sometimes during, and see how they can occupy the kids for the hour. Who cares if they learn if they’re occupied! And who cares if they do their homework! None of my kids seem to have any shame in saying they didn’t do the homework, and much of the time they act like it’s optional. So many times kids said they had a test in another class and that’s why they couldn’t do their English homework. CAN YOU NOT DO TWO THINGS?! It makes me so angry!

    I’m not in a bilingual school, and I assumed the bilingual schools would be better, but I guess I was mistaken!

    • Sorry it’s taken me so long to reply! But I completely agree, and I’ve had the exact same feelings you have. I think the thing that frustrates me most is that the kids are really losing out in this situation. They’re basically set up for failure (or at least really, really poor English skills) because their teachers don’t plan anything/don’t require them to behave during class. It’s not the kids’ fault at all, but nothing will improve until the teachers start employing behavioral and classroom management skills. Sometimes I wonder if that’s part of the education degree here at all. I walked into a 5th grade class last week and three of the kids were shouting in the teacher’s face, while the rest of the class was in complete chaos around her. I was amazed that the teacher allowed that. But she did, and the students, of course, were never punished for their disrespectful behavior.

      We have some wonderful teachers at our school, and the difference is enormous between their classes and those with teachers who prepare nothing/allow bad behavior. The kids have a much higher level of English, they pay attention, they participate, and the teacher doesn’t lose his/her voice every two days. It’s just so disappointing to see so many students miss out on a quality education because the teachers don’t manage their classrooms.

  3. Pingback: What’s Keeping Me Up At Night | Travels Untranslated

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