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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.
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 age, y 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.