10 Differences Between Spanish and American High Schools

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Yes, I teach English in a Spanish high school. Yes, I am a bit crazy. Yes, the students are loud, talkative, and they don’t particularly care that I’m there.

But … How is a Spanish high school different than an American one?

I can only tell you my experience. Meaning that I grew up in a small town in Indiana (20,000 people), and my high school was a nice one. I didn’t, for instance, go to school in the inner city or in the country. So I can’t speak to those experiences. Also, my high school was not racially diverse. My high school in Madrid is somewhat racially diverse, with students hailing from many South American countries, Bangladesh, Morocco, Bulgaria, China, Japan, and on and on. Nonetheless, I will attempt to tell you how a high school here in Spain differs from a typical high school in my area.

A typical-looking Spanish high-school classroom
A typical-looking Spanish high-school classroom in Madrid

1. The students don’t move from room to room; instead, the teachers move.

This was one of the first things that really struck me as odd. The students are all put into groups (denoted by a letter, so say: 11th A, 11th B, 11th C, etc.) They generally stay in their room, but do move when it comes time for certain optional classes like art or music or religion.

2. They call the teachers by their first names (or sometimes “profe,” short for “profesor”).

Again, this really caught my attention. It was a shock to hear my first coordinator being called Chema (a nickname) by his students. I admit to not liking this one. I wish there was more respect in the names they use for their teachers. Me, though … they can call me Kaley. Or as most call me, Kelly.

3. They don’t eat lunch at school.

In primary school here, they get a two-hour long break (normally) to go home and eat. As a teacher, that’s really annoying if you don’t live near the school. I love that in high school we have a jornada continua (continuous hours), from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. (or 3:20 p.m. for certain students in the bilingual program). Yes, they go until 2:30 p.m. without lunch! But that’s okay, because Spanish lunch can start anywhere from 2:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m.

4. They take religion class.

Or at least they have the option to. It’s an optional class now, but it used to be obligatory. Nowadays, many opt out of the classes for alternative ones. And when I say religion, I mean Spain’s One True Religion: Football. (Just kidding; it’s Roman Catholicism.)

5. The dress code is pretty relaxed.

Unless they wear uniforms. They can’t wear hats in my high school, sure. But they can have crazy Mohawks. I’m talking serious, two-feet-high Mohawks. Dye your hair pink/purple/green? No problem. You want to wear really short miniskirts? Okay. Teachers can wear jeans or leggings or casual clothing too. In my American high school, this wouldn’t fly. Teachers, for one, had to dress somewhat formally, except for on payday Fridays, when many would wear jeans. Students couldn’t wear shorts that didn’t hit their knees. No dyed hair. No “weird” piercings. You get the picture. Spain is much more relaxed. On the one hand, I like being free to wear casual clothing. On the other, perhaps it contributes to a generally more laid back attitude? I’m not really sure. Make your own conclusions.

6. There are no honors classes.

I was in honors classes all throughout school. (Sorry for the #humblebrag.) I loved them, because—if you didn’t get this yet—I am a giant nerd. It was great to be challenged and to learn with others who shared my passion for learning and knowledge. It was also nice to have this acknowledged when we graduated. Here, though, equality is seen as more important. Students are all grouped together, regardless of ability. You have classes with those of your agey ya está. While I like the idea that better students can help slower students, I’m not so sure it works that way. I wish my faster students would care enough to help the slower ones, but they don’t. Not really. And we can only go as fast as the slowest students or risk leaving them behind completely. I often dream about getting my better students together to learn more things, things that are challenging to them. And then just doing basics with my slower students, because they need those reinforced.

7. They don’t generally have any school spirit.

It’s not that they hate their school. It’s just that there’s no “Go Big Blue!” type of attitude coming from them. School pride doesn’t really exist. I would say they take more pride in their respective football teams if they have them or perhaps their Madrid neighborhood.

8. They don’t have lockers.

American movies are big here, so I get asked a lot about American high schools and, yes, lockers. Why do they love them so? I guess it would be like they were in a movie, and that thrills them. But here they just take their backpacks to class, since they don’t move around, and they keep all their stuff there.

9. School sports have nowhere near the meaning they do in the U.S.

In my American high schools, sports were huge. You had practice every day, camps in the summer, lots of games (which people other than your parents attended!), and on and on. We used to dress up for certain game days or all wear our jerseys with blue jeans. We decorated lockers of football players. You know, typical American stuff. Here … nope. None of that. They do have some school sports teams, and the kids do participate in them, but if you’re any good, you won’t play for the school. You’ll play for a club team, a feeder team for the professionals, perhaps. And the girls don’t go to the guys’ games or vice versa. It’s just not that important.

10. They don’t rent their textbooks; they buy them, and they can be quite expensive.

Spain prides itself on its “free” public education system, and for the most part, it is free. However, I was surprised to see that they don’t rent out their textbooks like we do in the U.S. And the textbooks can add up—sometimes up to $400 or more! That seems quite expensive for a “free” system. Even in the U.S., we had to pay fees, but not $400.

What other differences have you observed, good or bad?

54 thoughts on “10 Differences Between Spanish and American High Schools

  1. Most of these differences are the same in primary schools here in Spain, too—be it the Profe/Teacher Trébol calling-my-name, the lack of a dress code for students AND teachers, and the fact that the kids stay in their room while specials teachers hop in and out. At my school though, we don’t have the jornada única…ugg

  2. My personal high school experience was somewhere in between. There were about 2000 kids in my Southern California school, just about half white and half Mexican. There were surfers and skaters and cholos and jocks and preppies. All different groups that mixed very little. The only kids that cared about the sports were those on the team. Definitely no dress code for kids though the teachers were a little more formal than here. We only had one teacher that we called by her first name. The thing that seemed strangest to me besides the teachers moving classes was the amount of subjects the kids have and how much memorization they have to do.

    1. oh yea, the groups I mentioned in my post that were bused in pretty much stuck to themselves too. one exception was my friend Pam. we were in vocal ensemble together and became friends. she was probably an exception. where did you go to school? me: James Monroe high in (now) North Hills (was Sepulveda when I went there).

  3. muy interesante. no sabía nada sobre las escuelas en España pero….switching to English ;) you had to dress up for high school? I think our teachers wore business casual clothing but we wore whatever we wanted. did you go to public school? I went to high school in the Los Angeles area so my experience differs a bit from yours. the sports stuff is all the same and we had lockers too ;) but we were definitely integrated. in fact, there were kids bused in from other parts of L.A. just so that we could be integrated. they all must have had looooooong days! anyhoo….thanks for the interesting post. I learned a lot :)

    1. No, we didn’t have to dress up. I meant that teachers had to wear business casual and we students could wear whatever as long as it wasn’t too short or had drugs/alcohol or whatever. You know, a dress code.

  4. I’ll admit I LOVED wearing whatever I wanted. I was afraid I’d have to go out and buy a whole new wardrobe of clothes but when I saw all the male teachers wearing sweats every day, I knew I’d be safe. Though of course I’m not the kind who wears super short skirts or halter tops (which I did see a female teacher wear once) to work. There was recently a whole article about some school somewhere in the US banning girls from wearing leggings without shorts because it was considered “provocative” clothing around boys. In another country, maybe but in the US that is just ridiculous!

    And the two hour lunch break drove me crazy. They could get out an hour and a half earlier if lunch was restricted to 45 minutes! That’s why I got out no later than 2:37 every day.

  5. When my students first looked at me and yelled “Profe!!” I would simply respond “Student!!” They got the hint, and now they call me by my name. (This is helpful since there are the main teacher + auxiliar in the room…)

    1. LOL I love that. I still respond to “Profe”, but I can see how it might be better to make them learn your name and call you by it.

  6. Interesting that the teachers move. I get that logistically it makes more sense, but I’m not sure I could have survived high school without those breaks in between classes.

    1. No honestly, it doesn’t make that much sense. Yes, fewer people move, but all the students go out of class during the breaks … and in the younger groups, they all cause mayhem. They are definitely not waiting quietly in their seats or anything. And all of the teachers I know lament the fact that they can’t have a classroom to decorate (whether it be with maps for geography teachers or English flags/maps/etc. for English teachers). Even with its flaws, I think the U.S. system is better!

      1. I agree, I think it’s better if the students move. I think it’s good for them to get up and move around, chat with their friends a bit, and the change of room “resets their minds”.

  7. Super interesting! I’ve never worked in a Spanish school, so I’ve had zero contact with that part of the culture. I really can’t believe they have to buy their own textbooks!

    It’s funny they ask you about the lockers. I thought they sounded glamorous and exciting too from the movies. We weren’t allowed to have them because my high school was essentially a den of tiny drug dealers who apparently had used the lockers to stash their goods. So, no lockers for us.

    The mixing levels is interesting. I liked having honors classes too and definitely found them more enjoyable, just because there weren’t generally as many disruptive students. I think it’s better having options for different learning styles/levels.

    1. years ago the same textbooks were valid year after year, so that meant that brothers, cousins or friends hadn’t got to buy them, and someone getting from 5th to 6th level for example would give his books to someone younger getting to 5th level.

      but everything changed, and now textbooks are different year after year so families are forced to buy them…i imagine that the Ministry of Education transferring education policies to all 17 regions has got to do, so what we’ve got now is a joke, and a big mistake of 17 regions with their own education policies with different textbooks, etc

      oh as for the lockers, well this is something that Spaniards have grown up with, watching those great american movies of the late 80’s and 90’s often with boys and girls in collage with their adventures in L.A, break-ups, etc also famous TV series like Saved by the Bell…so it is fair to say that we’ve been in love or excited as you say with lockers.

  8. Ooh, I really enjoyed this post, since my new placement for the fall is in the ESO/Bach portion of a school in Galicia! And considering I’ve only interacted with infantil in my school…this is going to be interesting, to say the least.

  9. Great explanation of the differences, Kaley! I’m awaiting my specific school placement for next year in La Rioja. We’ll see if I end up in a primary or secondary. I selected no preference on the application.

  10. These are so spot on, from my experience as well! I grew up in Tampa, a mid-sized city with a very racially diverse population. It seems like we had a very similar high school experience, even with the population and diversity differences. I really wish that the students switched classes here because instead of them walking into a teacher’s territory (and therefore rules), the teacher walks into the class’ territory. No good when the class is a terrible one. Also, the lax dress code also makes me uncomfortable. I used to try to bend the rules with a shorter-than-dress-code-allows skirt or dress every now and then, but I routinely see student midriffs and bra straps and cleavage and ugh it goes on.

  11. Spain and France are neighbouring countries, but no student in France would ever dream of calling their teacher by their first name. Students address their teachers with the formal you. How about in Spain? I guess if Spanish students are calling their teachers by their first names then they wouldn’t use the formal you.

    Like in North America, the teacher stays in the same classroom and the students move around.

    At the middle school level the students come into the classroom and stand until the teacher tells them to sit down.

    Religion classes are illegal in French schools (except for in Alsace).

    Almost everyone eats lunch at school and they eat a hot meal in the cafeteria with the other students.

    Great post Kaley.

    1. in Spain and at primary school we all called our teachers with the very respectful manner of Don and Doña followed by their first name, also in secondary school….but nowadays it seems that kids and teenagers have no respect, so they just call a teacher with only their first name, which is a total lack of respect as if a teacher were your brother or sister.

      as for the little ones nowadays, the children, it is not so bad to call a teacher “profe” because such a term used by the little ones or infants do have a sense of innocence, happiness, without any evil.

      1. I’m from Valencia Spain and I’m currently in Bachiller.
        I’ve got to tell you that it is not “a total lack of respect”, in fact teachers tell us to call them by their first name. If a teacher told me to call him with Don/Doña I would do it happily.

        Also watch who are you degrading because if you dislike the attitude of the kids and teenagers nowadays I’m afraid to tell you that your generation raised us.


        1. With all due respect, I don’t think I’m old enough to have raised a child in high school. You can’t blame me for that!

          I don’t think it’s the kids’ faults re: the name thing, but I do believe that using Mr./Ms. (Don/Doña) would lead to more (subconscious) respect.

      1. I wonder which part of my post merited this kind of remark? Thanks for defending me, Kaley.

        What I wanted to say with my comment is that I find it amazing that France’s school system is so different from Spain’s system even though they are neighbouring countries that share so much.

          1. I didn’t see Pedro’s post in between. There is nothing in his post that would merit such a response. What a stupid thing to say.

  12. So great your post! I can see similarities between Spanish and Brazilian schools (I am from Brazil), and American and Canadian schools (I am living in Canada). Very interesting points! Also, I am a teacher! :)

  13. I’m a 30 years old mallorquin. I’ll share my own (and long past) experience with you. What you say in your post is pretty spot on with what I lived a student, but in my case some things were different.

    When I went to this very small Primary School we called our teachers ‘Don _____’ or ‘Doña ______’. Very polite. Apart from that, pretty much what your post says. We stayed always in the same classroom, had no lockers, jornada continua…

    When we entered High School we started calling our teachers by their first names, I don’t know why, that was just how it was. We had lockers and we moved from class to class instead of being the teachers who moved. We still had jornada continua and everything else you state was true for me too. We and the High School next to ours used to have a small rivalry. If someone knows Palma, those high schools were Francesc de Borja Moll and Antoni Maura, in Polígon de Llevant, a.k.a. “El Borja” and “El Maura” (I was from El Borja) But it was more a verbal territorial primitive rivalry than based on ‘school pride’. It used to be a poor neighbourhood with drugs troubles… so a lot of kids were young criminals. You get the picture.

    At safer environments I guess things were a little different. I know of a High School here in Mallorca where high school sports are pretty big for spanish standards. La Salle. Abnormally large high school with football (soccer, of course) pitch, tennis courts, paddel, indoor football, swimming pools, basketball courts… they’re particularly good at hoops. There are other big high schools who endorse sport, promote it and are good at one particular sport (i.e. Sant Josep Obrer and swimming) but La Salle is the only one I can think of being known for its sports, at least in the island.

    Great post, Kaley :)

  14. Really interesting post! I absolutely hate the fact that all of the kids are thrown together despite their level. It makes planning activities nearly impossible as part of the class will be left behind if the lesson is too hard. Those with a lower level usually lose interest and end up distracting the ones who could actually benefit from the lesson. I also don’t think it’s fair to make the advanced students responsible for helping those who are behind. If I were in the position of an advanced student I would be extremely frustrated.

  15. Glad to hear someone else shares all my qualms! For a while I was trying to be so open-minded, thinking “Things are different here, but it doesn’t mean it’s better or worse than the U.S. Hooray for cultural differences!” But lately I’m just like….Spain needs to overhaul this casual, first-name, no sense of pride, teachers-switching-rooms system. THERE I SAID IT.
    P.S. My students don’t buy their books! The school provides them, I’m almost positive.

    1. Yeah, there are some things that I just think are better. But sure, there are things I think that are better about the Spanish system so I figure it all evens out :)

  16. Eveything that you have said is actually true. Nevertheless I think your post focuses more on the Spanish educational and institutional flaws compared to the US system.

    It is actually true that books are quite expensive but as some people commented previously they are given to friends family or even they are sold in second hand book stores. Lots of parents used to do that a lot.

    Regarding going to eat at their houses it is not utterly true. I don’t know if you are teaching in a private or state school but normally or at least in my experience half of my friends would go to their houses to have lunch and other half would have lunch in the school. Of course I bet the Spanish food in the school is way much healthier than in any US school. Regardless of that it is good to say that sometimes working class families cannot pay for lunch and they rather feed their children in home which is cheaper. It is also important to say that lot of people in Spain do not get out of work until 6 7 8 or even 9 so having kids there until 5 maybe taking some sport classes until 6 is good for them as a kind of a babysitting while they play the sport they like.

    Regarding the sport thing it is totally accurate what you say. It is a shame that we do not have that kind of sport spirit as you Americans have. Actually if you want to be a good football player your parents need to pay a lot of money and you would probably won’t get any government grants or anything. Furthermore, as an almost graduated university student on English Studies I must say that I love British and American culture. I am happy to say I have been in both countries and they are wonderful. My girlfriend is from America and she used to be a cheerleader and yeah… to be with a cheerleader is a Spanish dream, at least in my experience but I do not understand why do they have to cheerlead for men. Maybe it’s only my view but I see it as if girls’ aim in sports would be objects for men. In Spain I think we are less sexist about it that is maybe why girls do not care about boys matches.

    Finally concerning to the change of classes that is good or bad depending on how old your students are. As you know and you have said Spanish students are more “rebel” and lately irrespectful too I am not going to deny that at all. That is mainly why you cannot leave 13 year old kids or younger alone so as to change of classrooms or they will probably end up in the playground bathrooms or any other place that is not the class in which they should be in. Besides, there are some classes that last 2, 1 hour and a half and others 1. Assuming that in Spain in comparison to US schools are way smaller (in fact as everything, compare Walmart to “Mercadona” or “Día” for example or a Spanish house and an American house) and assuming that we are talking about Madrid which schools tend to accept lots of students everytime that some kids would go out to change of class it would be impossible for another class to be given while kids are shouting and playing in the hallways. Not to mention that if schools are that small because the square metre is way more expensive than in US, there is obviously no place to put lockers that is why is better too to keep them in a class with their things and close it aftr they have gone so that none will get inside and steal anything.

    Yet I admit again that all you say is true and I am sad to confirm it as a Spaniard.

    1. Of course not everyone goes to their houses to eat at the high school I work at. However, their lunch time is not included in the school day. And I recognize that it’s different at primary schools. (I worked at one too!)

      I don’t try to focus on the negative, but if you were at my school in Madrid vs. my high school back in the U.S., you would see a marked difference in behavior.

      1. Sorry then I thought it was good also to write some positive things regarding Spanish education. Not everything is bad.

        1. No, but unfortunately we tend to point out the bad instead of the good sometimes.

          Positives: it’s “free” (paid for by taxes), the children start learning languages at an early age, the food is healthier for children at primary schools who eat there … Those are the ones that come to my mind.

  17. This year I’ll start uni so I can say I know Spanish schools and high schools (state ones). I live in a little village in Castile and Leon and even if we use the teacher’s first name we aren’t disrespectful (except for some annoying dudes). We have “jornada continua” from 9 am to 2:55 pm, so we have 55 min. lessons and little breaks of 5 min, and I agree with you those 5 min are chaos, in addition we have a 30min break at 12 more or less. Related to religion it also shocks me but it’s optional. And abou honour classes I think they should exist ’cause many times good students get bored in class because others can’t reach their level and it harms their/our performance.
    I also like to add other positive thing about Spanish (state) education and it’s the quality of most of teachers

  18. Take a look at Spanish extracurricular activities and clubs!!!!!! They don’t exist!!!!!

  19. The author of this blog also said you can point out OTHER differences between America and Spanish schools that you’ve noticed other then what the author wrote.

    One difference I am curious is if Asia schools have the *prison* mindset like America schools do where in big cities they have the experience equal to a Category C prison and you wonder why half the kids come out as criminals which a lot of them say that prison makes them feel *comfortable* since they are familiar with it both at jail and at school.

    Here is Wiki’s description of a C security while A is the highest in which you are locked down 23 hours a day:

    C Those who cannot be trusted in open conditions but who are unlikely to try to escape.

    It sounds like despite staying in the same classroom there is a bit more *freedom* then in C prisons which American schools more and more model afte.r

  20. How many American students are at your school? Is it a high school? What do you think are the hardest adjustments for an American teenager in Spain? We may be moving there and I’m concerned for my 15 yr old. We have lived over seas before and the biggest adjustment was lack of social life.

  21. I am from a small high school in South Carolina. I’m currently teaching in Barcelona. These are all so true! I also noticed that students have the option to end school after 4ESO & switch to vocational college instead of 1batx & 2batx.

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