I’ve gotten a lot of questions from friends and family about what exactly it is that I will be doing all year long at an instituto in Madrid. The next question is: Gee, Cassandra, what are the differences between high schools in the US and Spain?

Back to school!

My answer to both? I’m not completely sure.  The Fulbright Commission has over twenty different  Teaching Assistants (TAs) spread out around Madrid, and each has slightly different functions. Depending on what our school wants us to do, we may present lessons in English, help bilingual teachers improve their second language, translate articles, prepare some coursework, and discuss American culture.

Speaking of culture, it is always interesting to note how other countries operate so that you can look inward and realize what defines your own. This past week I’ve been reading up on literature provided by the Fulbright Commission which is intended to educate the fellows about how the Spanish school system is run. Some of the items are understandable, such as the warning that these  schools are much more laid back than theirAmerican counterparts. (I was advised, for example, not to panic if I still don’t know what the focus of next week’s lesson will be, or if I’m given extemporaneous speaking assignments. In my three-day-long teaching career, both have already occurred.)

Here are some other differences that I think you may find interesting:

“Sports teams are not affiliated with the schools, and extra-curricular activities are not as much a part of the high schoolexperience, if they exist at all.”

“Tracking, or separating students by ability, is currently illegal in Spain. There is no such thing as “Advanced”, “AP”, or “Remedial” classes. Therefore, you are teaching to the highest and lowest achieving students at the same time, which can be frustrating. Also, you may find students with serious behavioral issues and/or learning disabilities are fully integrated in classes with little or no “Special Ed” attention.”

“Teachers float while students, for the most part, stay in the same classroom all day.”

“The style of teaching is most often traditional, in which teachers lecture using a whiteboard or blackboard to aid them and students take notes.”

“[K]ids are not used to voicing their opinions, constructing arguments, or writing essays. There is more emphasis on memorization than interpretation and creative problem solving.”

“Each classroom is treated as a communal rather than an individual space. … grades, punishments, and praise are all shared with the rest of the class.”

“Classroom etiquette is not as rigid or enforced as you may be used to. Students will shout out answers without raising their hands, interrupt each other and the teacher, and generally have a more informal relationship with authority figures.”

“British English is taught in the schools.” (I have been advised to brush up on my British English, and rightfully so. In one class I asked a specific about going to the movies. The kids all stared at me until I realized they knew the expression “go to the cinema.”)

“There is high teaching staff turnover year to year due to the nature of teachers as funcionarios, or civil servants. There is a complicated ranking system based on seniority, scores on civil service exams, and available positions, which determines future placement. Teachers can be switched around from school to school for many years before securing a permanent location. This means in a given year, a significant number of teachers are new to the school, though not necessarily to the profession.”

“There isn’t a formal dress code for teachers. While Spaniards are quite fashion-conscious and never sloppy with their appearance, they are also more casual across all contexts, work included. Jeans and t-shirts are fine for work.”

“Professional relationships are more informal. Colleagues are very affectionate with each other, frequent coffee breaks are social occasions, and there is less time officially set aside for things like planning and administrative tasks. Rather, these things are done in a more impromptu manner, and Spaniards pride themselves on being good improvisers.”

“At the end of each term, there are evaluaciones. This is a week-long period where all the teachers gather in groups to discuss the grades of the students they have in common. This means that coursework and behavior in one class can sometimes affect the student’s grade in another.”

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So, as you can see, there will be many, many differences between American and Spanish high schools. I wonder what else I will notice during my year abroad?

This girl from my ‘hood looks particularly eager to jump back on the school bus.