When I found out my job placement in Spain would have me working as an English teacher’s assistant in an elementary school, I was ecstatic. With the Spanish government’s North American Language and Culture Assistants program, which is how I got this job, you can’t choose where you work. You can make a request stating your preferences, but at the end of the day it’s all about luck. I felt extremely fortunate that my request to work in an elementary school was granted. After a few years of teaching English to teenagers and adults, I was ready for the change. I was ready to work with some cute little munchkins.
If you find yourself moving to Spain to work in an elementary school, remember that despite some cultural differences, the basics of working with children remain the same. Kids are kids no matter what their country of origin is, but for the sake of cutting down on the number of surprises you receive upon arrival, here are a few things you can expect specifically from a Spanish elementary school.
1. Showing up to school in full soccer uniform is completely acceptable.
I’m used to seeing people dress up for school in their favorite athlete’s jersey. What I’m not used to is seeing a kid in full uniform from head to toe. Don’t be surprised if you see a mini Cristiano Ronaldo ready for the next Real Madrid game out on the playground for recess.
2. Religion is taught even in public schools.
Spanish public schools are supposed to be “laico” which translates to “secular,” but Catholicism is still taught in the classroom. Although the religion classes are focused more on the surface level morals of Catholicism such as being kind to everyone, obeying your parents and helping others, they also discuss the core beliefs of the religion as well. For this reason, religion classes are optional. If a parent chooses to opt out of religious education for their child, that student will instead spend the hour with another teacher doing extra work for other subjects.
3. If you speak English, you are British.
The kids are taught British English, and of course the UK is much closer to Spain the U.S. so I don’t blame them for thinking this way. I just had to spend a few months convincing my students that I was not British.
4. Five-year-olds will correct your grammar and pronunciation.
Unless you are a native speaker, get ready for your students to correct you when you speak Spanish. If you’re lucky they won’t do it while you’re trying to discipline them with a serious face. Don’t take it personally. They’re only trying to help. As I always tell my students: I’m learning Spanish just like they are trying to learn English!
5. Some of these kids are learning the facts of life a little early.
The poster in the picture below is hanging in a pre-K classroom at my school. I can’t quite remember when I learned the exact anatomical differences between boys and girls, but I am pretty sure it was not at four-years-old. I can’t say whether or not this is a good thing, but it certainly took me by surprise.
6. The kids will make you feel like royalty.
Spanish children are extremely affectionate. They will hug you, kiss you and say they love you everyday and several times a day. They will cheer for you when you enter the room and whine for you to stay when you have to leave. They will greet you everywhere you go. Even students who you do not work with will know who you are. In the U.S., this behavior might be excessive, but here it is expected.
7. The kids think removing a few letters (especially vowels) from any Spanish word will automatically make it an English word.
If you ever ask a Spanish child how to translate something from Spanish to English, this is the kind of thought process you are likely to see happening….
It doesn’t help me to teach them not to do this when sometimes this method actually works. For example, dentist in Spanish is “dentista.” They felt like geniuses the day we discussed that vocabulary.
8. Disciplinary methods are very different.
Many elementary schools in Spain tend to have a slightly more chaotic feel to them than what an American in particular might be accustomed to. The kids are freer especially during recess and sometimes getting them to settle down takes the entire class period. Although the disciplinary methods I’ve seen here tend to be less strict than what I’ve experienced in the U.S., in some ways they are harsher. It is not uncommon to see a teacher lightly smack a kid on the head, hand, arm or even their little butts. It is also not uncommon to see them grabbing children very firmly by the arm when they need to be moved to a new spot in the class and are being uncooperative. Many teachers often resort to yelling or even blowing a referee’s whistle to get the children’s attention or to get them to calm down. Sometimes these methods work. Sometimes they don’t. Either way it is interesting to sit back and watch.
9. Your new name is “Seño.”
Short for “señor” or “señora,” the children refer to all teachers as “seño.” The children you work with may specifically call you by stating your first name after the “seño” title, but usually it’s not necessary. Just a squealing child screaming, “señooooo,” will get someone’s attention.
10. You may work with an English teacher who doesn’t speak much English.
Amongst all European countries, Spain ranks as one of the lowest in terms of the population’s overall English skills. This has certainly been changing over the years as more and more people become interested in learning this universal language. It is one of the reasons why the program I am working with even exists. Despite this, it is not uncommon to run into an English teacher in Spain who doesn’t speak English very well and spends a great deal of class time speaking in Spanish except when it’s time to translate the vocabulary.
My experience working at an elementary school in Spain has been wonderful. I’ve learned a lot, and my students are absolutely the best. I can only hope to get a bunch of kids as funny, creative and loving as them when I repeat this program next year.