School’s Out—A Reflection on a Year in a Madrid High School

School’s out for the summer. Weren’t those the sweetest words when you were a kid? Summer meant possibilities, everything open and waiting for you: swimming pools, summer camps, driver’s ed, athletic conditioning (wait, was that just my school?), endless days when all you did was eat popsicles and jump in the sprinkler. Ah, summer. It’s too bad that summer, at least the idea of it as a three-month-long break, had to end—for most.

For teachers, there’s still Summer with a capital s. Teachers may not see summer the way kids do—they’ve got responsibilities and bills to pay. But summer is still there, and the idea of summer motivates us from February to June. School’s finally out here in Madrid. Most of the exams are finished; most final grades are being handed out as I type this. Camps start next week here in Spain. Done! Finished! Terminado! 

This school year was a fun one for me. After having lived through a rather unpleasant experience last year (and that’s putting it rather mildly), I came into this year with low expectations. But my low expectations were met by great teachers. Teachers who cared, teachers who worked with me rather than against me, and teachers who spoke English well. (Weird, isn’t it, seeing as they’re English teachers?) We had a great year together, and I am so thankful for the opportunity to have worked in one of  Madrid’s most historic educational centers, where the alumni have names like Lopa de Vega, Calderón de la Barca, and even Juan Carlos I. The classrooms were old, certainly, but for the most part my classes were conversational in nature, and we worked with what we had.

Teenagers are teenagers everywhere, though, so of course my efforts to speak English were met with some resistence. Nonetheless, at the end of the day (year), I can say that I left with them knowing more English, with them having a better perspective on my home country than they started with. A simple goal, yes. But a goal achieved is a goal achieved.

They say that the auxiliares de conversación program is the luck of the draw, and I’ll have to agree. After two years at different schools with not-so-pleasant results, this year it was my turn to finally work with great coworkers, even if I also had to put up with the sometimes surly attitudes of teenagers. I did a lot of fun activities, spoke mostly in English, and felt fulfilled. You can’t really ask for better.

Here’s to the Crazy Ones: Teaching English in Spain

Last year (well, last school year), I thought I found the perfect job:

  • I was working in a primary school.
  • The school was bilingual, and the kids could understand me.
  • The kids were mainly wonderful, and I loved working with them.
  • The school was fairly close to my house. (For Madrid standards)
  • I felt confident and happy.

Too good to be true? In my experience here in Spain, yes. Way too good to be true. I wasn’t waiting for the other shoe to drop, but when it did … it made a bang!

About a month after I started working, my co-teacher disappeared. I was working with sexto de primaria, the last year of Spanish elementary school. The kids in sexto take an English exam (Cambridge), and they are very serious about it. Thus, I was working with only two classes, which is rather unusual for an English assistant. It didn’t bother me, though, because I really enjoyed them. The teacher, however, was quite another story. Let’s call her Teresa. (Helpful hint: Her name wasn’t Teresa.)

Teresa was an odd bird. She didn’t know much English, which is perplexing, since she taught English. Afterwards I would learn that she used to be a Spanish-language teacher, a fact that cleared things up. Every day, upon entering the classroom, she would bark, “Raise the blinds!” to the children. There was just one problem: she pronounced blinds as “bleends,” with a long /iː/ sound. Thick of the word bleeds, and add an N. Many of the kids knew this proununciation was incorrect and would ask me why I didn’t correct her. (“Because she’s bat-shit crazy, that’s why!” I said in my mind as I just smiled vaguely back at them. She also told them shooting stars were rockets, another thing they approached me about.) After the ceremonial blind-raising ceremony, I would take a group of students with me. The students were divided up into groups based on level, A to D. The A students were my favorites (I know, I know, I’m biased) because we could have actual conversations, and they were mostly well behaved.

Well, one day Teresa fell or something and hurt her knee. She wasn’t elderly, so I didn’t expect this to keep her out for more than a few days. NOPE.

Teresa was gone for a month!

She left no notes or lesson plans. She never really told the directora, the principal, when she would be returning. So they never got a substitute. May I repeat? They never got a sub. They just left me there to my own devices. Sometimes a teacher who was de guardia(on call, so to speak) would show up and observe, as though I were running a mildly-interesting clinic on the English language. But mostly I taught the class by myself. For a month.

It helps to keep in mind that I am not a certified teacher—not in Spain nor in the U.S. I did have experience, but still—this crap isn’t supposed to be allowed. I made the best of it. We did lesson after lesson. We played “Around the World” with past-perfect verbs. We did a few science experiments with magnets. I taught the class. Me. And I did a good job! The principal (who in Spain also teaches) observed the class and told me what a great job I was doing. Other teachers remarked that I seemed to be handling myself well.

One day a substitute finally came. He seemed sweaty and nervous, and he asked me what he was supposed to do. The certified, qualified, Spanish teacher of English asked me. “Um, teach?” was what I wanted to tell him. But instead I showed him what we had been doing. And then I led the class as he watched from the back of the room.

The next day Teresa returned, in all her glory. By glory I mean terror. Teresa stood about 5’7” tall and was constantly moving her legs, as though she couldn’t help herself. I don’t know why, but it seemed like a nervous tic that, in turn, unsettled me. The electric-blue eyeliner she wore day after day served to accentuate her face, caked with ghost-white foundation. (Do they sell that? It seems that she found the whitest shade possible.) I admit to being relieved that the real teacher was back, even if she did scare me.

Soon after, Teresa got crazier. One day I was on a break and popped a piece of gum in my mouth. Teresa barged in the room and berated me for chewing gum, because the kids aren’t allowed. I happened to be using my phone to look up some exam-prep questions. She told me in no uncertain terms that I damn well better have been using that for schoolwork. Not that I had anything to prove to her, but I told her that I indeed was using it for work. Harrumphing, she left. There were several more instances of her making me feel uncomfortable and unwelcome, including making me teach in front of her so she could criticize my every move.

Then one day a student’s parent came to pay her a visit. The parent was angry because Teresa wasn’t including students from groups C and D in the exam-preparation sessions. Quite reasonably, the parent thought her child should be allowed to at least try. Well, Teresa and the mother got into an angry shouting match, and Teresa said the mother followed her down the street, yelling all the while. Her story didn’t quite add up. This led to Teresa having a time out in the principal’s office.

After all this controversy (and the sharp reprimand from the principal!), Teresa decided that I was out for her job, that I wanted her fired. Ridiculous! I couldn’t care less about her employment status so long as she left me alone. She told me she wanted to work with some other auxiliar, one with more empuje (drive). This enraged me. I don’t have DRIVE? After teaching the class by myself and preparing all the lessons? That was a bit rich. The principal didn’t want this. So I wrote the principal an email expressing my feelings and saying I wished to work with another teacher, that I couldn’t work with Teresa anymore. Teresa found out about this email and sent me to the computer lab, so I could print it out—so she would “know what had been said.” I felt so nervous, almost sick to my stomach. Again I talked with the principal, who insisted I didn’t have to do anything of the kind. So I told Teresa that I wouldn’t be doing it.

Wrong answer! Her eyes were like daggers as she stared me down at the break table.

I ended up going to the Madrid education office on Gran Vía to complain. They tried to work it out, but nothing could be done. Curiously enough, they told me that, because of what Teresa had done to me, they were looking into getting her removed from the school. This was of little comfort to me, but I appreciated the effort.

This year, I am working at another school—this time a high school. The students have a bit more of an attitude, but the teachers make all the difference. So far no crazy. So far so good.

If you’re an auxiliar, have you had any unpleasant experiences at your school or past schools?

Teaching English; Forgetting English

It always irks me when Americans, after spending three whole months in Spain, say they’re forgetting English. How adorable! You’ve spent a total of 90 days here, and you’re already losing your native-language skills.

Or not. Because you’re not. No, really, you aren’t.

That’s why I won’t be claiming anything of the sort. Nope, what I want to talk about is overanalyzing the way you say things. You must know what I’m talking about. Have you ever read or said a word over and over again until it seemed like it wasn’t even a word at all, just a jumble of arbitrary letters and sounds? Let’s try an experiment:

Squirrel. Squirrel. Squirrel. Squirrel. Squirrel. Squirrel. Squirrel. Squirrel. Squirrel. I don’t know about you, but that word is weird. I even had to refer to Google to make sure I wasn’t spelling it wrong. And I was a sixth-grade spelling-bee champion! Squirrel. Ugh, is that even right? Okay, yes. Yes, it is.

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Teaching in an Instituto (High School) vs. a Colegio (Elementary School)

GIF Version.

Having worked in two institutos and two colegios here in Spain, I feel very qualified to write this post. When you work in a colegio, you are godlike. The kids may draw pictures of you, write you love notes, bring you presents, pick flowers for you out on the playground … you get the picture. When you work in an instituto, not so much. You are most likely seen as a welcome distraction from the day-to-day monotony of regular English class. But it’s also possible they think you’re, like, totally lame. (You got me.)

So what’s the difference, anyway?

When you want to play a game

Colegio (Elementary):

Excited Kids

Instituto (High School):

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