‘HELLO TEACHER’… SOME REFLECTIONS ON TEACHING ENGLISH IN A SPANISH SECONDARY SCHOOL

‘Helloooo teacher, how.are.you?’ some of the students greet me as I enter their class for the third time that day. 

For those of you that are a little out of the loop, I’ll recap…

A little over two months ago I landed back in the south of España, heading, this time, to olive oil central, aka Jaén (I kid you not, the province alone produces more olive oil than the whole of Italy, according to some of the websites I peaked at when writing this post). At the time, I was two weeks from starting my 8-month placement as an English Language Assistant or auxiliar de conversación at a local secondary school. The scheme, run by the Spanish education authorities sees native English speakers like moi help out in Spanish primary, secondary and adult language schools for around 12 hours a week. The recent trend for bilingual education, in Andalucía in particular, means that these lessons are not just English language classes (indeed, we’re actually not supposed to help in these ones!) but range from science to geography and even PE … all taught in English (or at least that’s the aim). The idea is that we auxiliares (or auxies as I’ve come to refer to the role) help improve students’ English pronunciation and oral abilities, in particular, acting as an assistant to the main classroom teacher – although, it must be noted that the level of responsibility varies greatly from school to school and teacher to teacher.  

Having been in the role for just over 7 weeks now (albeit with the last two of these spent self-isolating), I decided it’d be interesting (for myself… and I hope for you too, if you’ve made it this far) to reflect on some of the things I’ve learnt over the last month and a half, both about the Spanish education system, and my own personal life plans. 

Before starting, one of the things that most concerned me was what impact the safety measures taken to reduce the spread of COVID-19 would have on my day-to-day school life. 7 weeks in this is what I’ve come to notice:

  • Face masks have been obligatory for both students and staff in Spanish secondary schools since the start of term, and, although, inevitably, I always hear the occasional ‘pull your mask up’ grunted at a student who’s snuck it a little further down their face, leaving their nose exposed, there seems to be fairly little fuss, and everyone just gets on with it – perhaps because masks have been compulsory in public spaces in Spain since May this year. 
  • Something I’ve found slightly more bizarre are the lab coats that quite a few staff members wear. When I first arrived, I remember thinking ‘gosh there are a lot of science teachers at this school’ and that continued until my coordinator offered to sort me out my own lab coat a few weeks into term, explaining that they were being used as an extra layer of protection against coronavirus. Although I initially found it a little strange wondering around in a bright white jacket, to be honest the extra warmth it offers has been quite welcome given that classroom windows must be kept open to allow for ventilation. The next step… find myself some fabric pens so I can jazz it up a little bit.  

So that’s our teacher PPE covered, but what about the actual classes?

Like everything this year, the auxiliares programme hasn’t escaped being affected by coronavirus. While, in previous years, auxies have usually had a fairly consistent timetable throughout the year, working with a variety of subjects and classes simultaneously, that’s not my case.  In order to reduce the risk of infection, I work with just one group a week, attending 12 hours of the bilingual classes on their timetable. Although, on the plus side this means I get to know the class fairly quickly, it’s always a little sad saying goodbye after just 4 days with a group (side note… I get Friday’s off) knowing it’ll be a good few months before I work with those same students again. Indeed, from their perspective, I imagine they’re glad to see the back of me; although many of their classes are officially ‘bilingual’,  the lower English level of many of the students means that a fair amount of these classes are still explained in Spanish, and I do feel a little bit like the mean English lady when I join their class for the week, forcing them to read out maths sums in English, and confusing their frazzled brains with the English billion (which has three less zeros than its Spanish cognate!)

This brings me onto a further point… subject content. Never in a million years when I signed up to the programme back in January did I think I’d be teaching cell organelles or powers and roots in English… and yet here I am! While I do remember a fair amount of the subject content from my own school days (7 years not totally wasted, haha!) being back at secondary school has definitely been a bit of a refresher for me, from revising what on earth BIDMAS is, to the names of musical notes which, despite having taken singing lessons for the best part of 7 years, I’d somehow forgotten. On the other hand, the specifics of the Spanish KS3 curriculum has even got me learning new material. In a technology class a few weeks ago we spent an hour going over how to determine pencil hardness (while I tried not to laugh at the inuendo of each student saying ‘my pencil is hard because…’) and paper sizes… who knew you could use powers to work out how many A5 sheets make up A1 … and who knows how useful that is, anyway! 

To end on a bit more of a personal note, the last few weeks have got me reflecting a lot more on language teaching as a possible career. Having decided to study French and Spanish way back in October 2015, I can’t even begin to count the number of times I was asked: ‘what are you gonna do with that, become a teacher?’ To be honest, such comments actually put me off of the profession entirely, almost out of spite, and a desire to prove a point that languages graduates have many more opportunities open to us than a secondary school teacher (or translator and interpreter, for that matter). 

This said, over the last month and a half I’ve found myself growing quite fond of English teaching, and equally look forward to the weekly Spanish classes I’ve been giving to my flatmates … almost against my will! Along with Jess, the other language assistant at my school, I’ve created an Instagram account for the students to follow, and I actually quite enjoy thinking about what post I’m going to create next, whether that be some 5-post long story explaining idioms we have to do with beans (there’s quite a few!) or introducing students to cultural events we celebrate in the UK. Equally, I’m enjoying being able to put into practice the teaching techniques I’m learning on my online TEFL course, and observing how the students respond to the activities I’ve planned. 

All of this even led me to attend a virtual Train to Teach event organised by gov.uk to see about a PGCE in Spanish and French teaching. And yet, therein lies my biggest dilemma… 

While my students here range between super enthusiastic and extremely reluctant to speak any English, I think they’re aware of its importance on the global stage, yet I’m unsure as to whether teaching English students to speak French and Spanish would be an equally rewarding experience. The passionate linguist inside me would like to think ‘sí’ but the memories of my own secondary school language lessons leave me just a little doubtful, so perhaps that’s one I’ll have to ponder a little longer before jumping back into further education… thoughts??? 

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