First Impressions

Here in Spain, publicly funded education starts at age 3, although it isn’t compulsory until age 6. Last week I arrived for my first day at my school on the same day that all the 3 year olds were arriving for their first day. When I got off the bus, the streets were clogged with parents and strollers, leading their students to the school and then lingering outside the fence, waving at the little ones waiting in haphazard lines with their teachers. I walked in the gate behind a tiny boy who was clutching a half eaten tostada in one hand and looking around apprehensively, huge eyes full of tears and pieces of a paper napkin stuck to his face.

I could empathize. My first day was a blur of schedules, greetings in Spanish and Valencian and English, and dos besos from every teacher in the building. There are many things to adjust to here in Spain, and even three weeks in it doesn’t quite feel real to me. As soon as I got to school, however, I immediately began to feel a little less estranged from reality. Even with so many unfamiliar elements, being in a building with student art on the wall and kids everywhere felt more homelike than any of the gorgeous scenery that I have felt pasted into.

Now that I am done with my first week, the shape of my work here is getting a little clearer. As a conversation assistant, I am spending most of my hours with the English teacher. I also am going into two kindergarten and two 3rd grade classrooms on my own to assist the classroom teacher (who are tutores or tutoras here) during their time for English lessons. It looks like I will have a fair amount of free reign in these classes, since the teachers are not native speakers and are glad to hand over lessons to me. In addition, I am assisting in two 6th grade clases de plásticas – which confused me at first. Plastic class? As it turns out, these are art classes taught by the classroom teacher (tutor/a). Like in the U.S., there are especialistas who see all the grade levels to teach music, physical education, a foreign language (English, in this case), and – unlike in the U.S.! – religion. Art, however, is left to the classroom teachers. I am in the plásticas classes with the 6th graders, to provide extra English support in addition to their weekly class with the English teacher. For this first week, this just consisted of some relevant vocabulary that I wrote on the board, and practiced the colors, but in the future I am excited to plan some hybrid art/language lessons.

There are some dramatic differences from what I am used to in the U.S.:

  • The environment of the school is much more laid back and casual – students call teachers by their first names, and on my first day I felt very overdressed, just because I had on long pants and a shirt with sleeves. I’m sure it’s different in secondary schools, but here in the colegio there are many teachers dressed in shorts, sundresses with spaghetti straps, or strapless shirts. This is necessary since there is no air conditioning, and the temperatures in the classrooms currently range from mildly balmy to nearly unbearable. It also fits with the general attitude I’ve observed in Alicante – fashion is still alive and well here, but in a much more laid back and less covered way than in, say, Madrid.
  • Classroom management is very different from what I have observed. I haven’t seen the structured systems of classroom management that I’ve seen (and used) in elementary and primary classes – flipping cards or moving names, three strikes, etc. There are administrative referrals for serious offenses, but in general there is just a lot of shushing, supplemented by occasional guilt tripping in English or Valenciano.
  • In September and June, schools only are in session until 1pm. The rest of the year the school day lasts from 9am until 5pm, with a long lunch break in the middle, but for the beginning and end of the school year, everyone goes home at lunch time. As a teacher explained it to me: It’s the beginning and end of the year. The kids are too wild, the teachers are too tired, and the building is too hot to be in school all day. Genius! Can I bring this tradition back home?
  • In addition to the long lunch break (once we are in session all day), there is a half hour recreo in the middle of the morning – where students go out to play on the patio (playground), and teachers descend upon a cart full of warm bread and hot coffee in the break room. Once again, genius.
  • English is the third language taught in my school. Technically, the entire Valencian region is bilingual, with two official languages: Castellano (that is, Spanish as it is spoken in Spain) and valenciano – which is similar to Catalán, and to me sounds like a mixture between French and Spanish. In Alicante Valencian is used less than it is in other parts of the province, closer to Valencia, and I haven’t encountered it much on the streets, other than some signs. My school, however, has an immersion program for Valenciano – at each grade level there is one classroom taught entirely in castellano, and one entirely in valenciano. In the Valencian classrooms, usually the teacher gives instructions to the class in Valencian, explains them to me in Spanish, and then I explain things – very slowly! – in English. I want to find out more about the immersion program, but it seems to be a great way to teach students both languages. For me, it has been a little confusing, since valenciano sounds familiar enough that it usually makes me think that I am just terrible at understanding Spanish – and then someone switches to castellano and the light bulbs in my brain turn back on!

Of course, there are many things that have been comfortingly familiar. Even though it is all in castellano or valenciano, the teacher talk in the lounge is exactly what I’m used to. There are the same stories about students, chats about the news, laughter and ranting, fussing over the copier or laminator (based on my now-international experience, never has there been a laminator in a school that works for longer than a week or so in September) and worries about jobs and funding. A Fulbright ETA from last year wrote this very helpful post about the educational system here, which is especially interesting in light of the current educational woes in the United States.

Overall, I am very excited about this coming year. It has been somewhat uncomfortable to just sit and observe, and I am looking forward to actually planning and teaching activities this week.

I am also looking forward to not being ill. The night before my first day of school I started to feel a little under the weather, and in the past week I’ve gone through various stages of some kind of allergic, snotty, cough-ridden disaster. I’ve tried everything from medication from home, lying in my dark room through many sunny afternoons, and even (as recommended by native Alicanteans) going to the beach, but it’s still lingering.

Perhaps next time you’ll get to hear the tales of trying to go to the doctor in a foreign country? That should be exciting.

Today I got back from a weekend in Valencia, and I have plenty of things to share, but that will have to wait until later. I know I have been woefully neglectful of this blog. I will do better. I promise.


3 Responses to First Impressions

  1. Chelsea says:

    ahhhh 🙂 a long awaited post. i can’t wait to hear more. i’m so intrigued about the differences in educational systems (it’s obviously a topic that has recently become relevant). off to read that post you linked to… feel better!!!

  2. This is a great post! I shared it with my Spanish mother-in-law (who teaches elementary school), who loved the US-Spain cross-cultural comparison. Keep it up!

  3. Dear Sara,

    Keep it up. I intend to read whatever you write. It sounds like quite an adventure! I am sure that you will see all of life in the USA, and in our schools with totally new eyes.


    Aunt Patti

    ps. I am in WA with Kathleen and all of the Vander Veens. And getting to know the newest, Mary Grace. She is SO blond!

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