Prior teaching experience:
-suburb of Minneapolis
-2 years in a public high school
-9-10th graders (with a handful of 11th/12th graders each year)
-Geometry and Algbera 2
-Americans (new Americans, 1st-2nd-3rd…+ generation)
-class sizes 28-38.
Current teaching experience:
-suburb of Madrid
-1 year in a semi-private school
-English levels 4-6
-Spaniards (new Spaniards, 1st-2nd-3rd….+ generation)
-class size 25-30.
The most obvious difference is my lack of preparation to teach English. I knew going in that I was going to have to adapt to a new content area by researching topics, observing experienced teachers, and remembering my own language-learning education. What I didn’t think about was how some of the same successes and challenges I face as a math teacher in the states could possibly show up in my inglés classes in Spain. There are some major differences between typical classrooms in each country (more on that later), but some of my first reflections on teaching here have been about how relatable the two experiences are.
First, some necessary background on education in Spain.
There was, and arguably still is, an economic crisis in Spain that started in 2008. Spain’s current unemployment rate is about 18%, which is down from the roughly 27% that it hit back in 2013. For those under 25, the unemployment rate still hovers around 40% which is still an improvement on the 55% from 2013. People are struggling to find consistent work, are not being paid fairly (because employees can easily replace them), and/or are overqualified for their jobs.
Why does this matter?
1) It makes it difficult for students to see the value in education. There is no incentive to go to university and spend a lot of money (that you don’t have) only to get a useless degree. That trickles down into secondary education, resulting in a lack of motivation to take school seriously.
2) Teaching is the most secure ‘option b’ for people who cannot find work in their field. The education system isn’t going to disappear like a bankrupt company might. While all of the teachers I’ve met so far seem to be committed to their job, I’ve been told there are a lot of educators who are not invested in their students or school community. If nothing else, it puts a lot of unprepared and unqualified teachers in classrooms.
3) The government has made a huge investment in English-learning as a strategy to escape their economic hardships. Each year they offer an opportunity for about 4,000 native English-speakers to work in local schools in Spain as conversations specialists (known as auxiliares). HOWEVER, the goal is to prepare students to take the Cambridge English Exams and pass with a certain level of proficiency. Do you see where this is going?? Teaching to the test. Every hour. All day. Every day.
So… Despite the new system and content area, I’m facing several familiar challenges and rediscovering some of my favorite successes.
1. Drill and kill instruction.
I am a month in and I already want to burn every Cambridge work book and student book I ever come across again. (Let’s see… that would be two books for every student.. and I have roughly 200 students… which gives me a really big bonfire.) I struggle watching almost every class be based on pre-made bland exercises from a textbook designed and sold by the company that also runs the proficiency exams. Scam, anyone? And it’s not just the kids who lose. I have gotten to know the vibrant, creative personalities of the teachers I work with, but it’s stifled because they’re forced into this lifeless instruction of teaching to the test. It’s not just boring, it’s painful. What’s exponentially frustrating is that it is SO MUCH EASIER to incorporate student interests into language learning than it is into math. But instead I watch student engagement absolutely crash and burn.
I struggle with this in math as well. I try really hard to find innovative ways to present topics, practice concepts, and analyze our work. That’s not very easy in secondary math, but I’m an optimist here, people. I want to have a variety of instructional tools to offer students that center on their curiosity. I acknowledge that I’m not there yet. And the pressure to get students to pass a standardized test definitely exists in the US, too. I guess sometimes we all operate under certain expectations that are out of our control.
You know what you don’t have time for when you’re constantly having students race through hundreds of exercises each hour? Any sort of informal formative assessment that doesn’t include observations. The most I’ve seen so far before a summative four-unit test is a paragraph or two turned in once a week. Possibly a couple short presentations here and there, but nothing substantial or with any significant followup. And there’s absolutely no time for feedback, reflections, or revisions on work. It seems to be the norm for students to be kept completely in the dark about their scores until the end of the semester. (Let’s just take a second to imagine the kind of backlash we’d get for that in the US. Only for a second though, because we don’t want any nightmares.) What does this do to students? At worst, leaves them left far, far behind, and at best, completely unaccountable for their learning. Kids just copy down answers onto page after page without being held responsible for actually understanding anything that’s going on around them. The lack of clarity of learning targets and feedback has resulted in students that are confused, frustrated, and defeated. A lot of the time I just walk around telling them the objective of the activity because they don’t know what it is that they’re supposed to be learning, let alone if they’ve achieved any sort of mastery in it.
I struggle with this in math as well. Getting students to care about the process instead of the end result is no small feat. “Is this going to be graded?” seems to hold the fate of their effort for the next 55 minutes. How do we teach kids to track, analyze, and appreciate their growth as learners? Yep, still working on it and trying out lots of different approaches. I think it starts with offering opportunities for reflection, providing strategies to evaluate their work, and teaching about the value of mistakes. It also involves intentional teaching of the purpose of the topics being covered and clarity about the desired outcomes.
It’s always easier to fail when you never tried in the first place. You save yourself a lot of embarrassment/shame/guilt by boldly proclaiming that you don’t care. Since English is a mandatory subject and the students are not tracked (meaning they are not separated by academic ability), there’s a wide array of levels in the same class. It can be intimidating for those who struggle with the language to engage with the material for fear of making a mistake in front of others. I really enjoy helping these kids find success. They are able to achieve more than they realize if only they were willing to try. The best is when you ask them to consider sharing their ideas with the whole class, because you think others would really benefit from hearing them. Such a simple confidence booster and a truth we don’t share enough with students. Still working on convincing a couple, but the look of pride on their faces is satisfying and maybe by the end of the year they’ll agree.
This is one of my favorite things about teaching math. A little piece of my heart breaks every time someone claims they just aren’t a math person, as if it’s some innate knowledge that a special group of people are born with. So many students give up before they even walk through the door because somewhere along they way they’ve convinced themselves that success is impossible. Or worse, someone else has told them success is impossible. Convincing kids that you really do see a potential far greater than the one they’re currently envisioning requires time and effort. But the breakthroughs are oh, so satisfying. A student seeing their hard work finally pay off makes all the hours spent planning/prepping/grading/convincing worth it.
Here, students stay in their classrooms while the teachers move around each hour. So each class of students stays within the same four walls surrounded by the same classmates every hour of every day for an entire year. Usually they stay with the exact same group of students for 2 or more years at a time (longer in primary than secondary). This creates some interesting dynamics, as students have spent a significant amount of time together over the course of their lives. It’s a different scenario than in the US, but the power of establishing relationships with individuals as well as the entire class always amazes me. It takes a while for students to get to know you in order to establish a level of trust and respect. I definitely present a different approach and style than their typical teacher (more on this later too), so we all are learning how to best collaborate with one another. But I’m starting to see some changes in attitudes as students are realizing that I really want to help them engage in their learning, that I really value effort over perfection, and that I really believe that kindness matters, even when being firm. Hearing their personal stories and sharing my own is the absolute best, especially when we are able to compare experiences from different cultures. This week I had conversations about binders (theirs have 2 or 4 prongs while ours have 3), telling your parents you’re going to bed but really you just scroll through instagram for hours (classic teenager move that I’m guilty of), ear piercings (I keep chickening out of getting mine double pierced), what it’s like to have a locker (this along with red solo cups is so American it blows their minds), and how to explain the usage of the Spanish verb ‘molar’ (it’s an abstract concept to describe how you think something is cool).
Math topics often don’t directly lend themselves to personal narratives. Which is why I find it so important to intentionally incorporate personal experiences into explanations or applications of math lessons. Or even just to start/end class sharing stories about my life. I’ve had a lot of fun talking to students about things that are currently affecting me like: how many times I’ve eaten pizza in the last week, how proud I was of getting 1,999th place in a half marathon, or how I was considering quitting teaching when my google site supposedly got 16,000 likes on google plus (had to backtrack to explain google plus) and that even though I was pretty sure it was a glitch I still felt really awesome about myself and promised I wouldn’t forget them in my newfound fame. These stories aren’t directly related to our math curriculum, but it makes a big difference when speaking about things that are. I like prompting questions that invite students to tell their own stories and it’s rewarding to see their willingness to share increase as the year goes on. It establishes a welcoming, positive environment and I hope it creates a sense of community in which we support one another in every aspect of life whether it be factoring trinomials or waiting for taco Tuesday.
Teachers gonna teach. Whether it be in Spain or USA, in English class or Geometry, in private schools or public. Just goes to show that Ellen Degeneres is right: “…if you take away the labels, you realize that we’re far more alike than we are different.” So big cheers to loving this profession despite the struggles and big cheers to finding ways to reflect, relate, and grow through diverse experiences.