Having been here now for over a month, I have managed to somehow settle into a routine of sorts. Of course, each day at the school is different – otherwise I wouldn’t enjoy it so much, but I thought I’d give you a taste of what most days are like for me in Spain. I also want to describe my first week’s experience with running a drama class for six year olds, perhaps so you can share my pain, perhaps so I can gain a little sympathy – needless to say, it’s no mean feat, teaching drama in a language the children have little comprehension of.
I usually wake at 7am, the sound of violins plaguing the morning air, as the children of the family I’m staying with practise every single day, come rain, come shine, come Sunday. I had expected a lovely long lie-in on Sundays, snuggled in the duvet, enjoying the last few hours of darkness and warmth. However, this can’t be the case for me. Instead, I get the screech of the bow across the strings, and the shout of the mother who doesn’t want the child to play that note, that way, thank you very much.
Breakfast is a scratched attempt of whatever is in the kitchen. Here, breakfast isn’t such a big deal – it tends to be rather small, maybe a biscuit, a yoghurt, oats with milk (but not hot – that would be porridge, and that would be disgustingly English), or cereal, eaten from what else, but a mug. The notion of having cereal in a bowl here, for kids, is as strange as we would find it drunk from a mug, with warm milk and chocolate flavouring. It’s essentially hot chocolate with corn flakes. Suffice to say, I don’t partake in this particular breakfast offering.
School starts at 9am, and already by this time, my hand is aching by the amount of waving I have to do between getting out the car/dismounting the train, and walking up the stairs to the Sala Profesores (staff room). I usually have classes straight away – there’s a few lucky days where I can sit on my laptop and work in silence, preparing for the tutoring I’m doing, the Science in English (yes, you read correctly – Science classes in English) that I take twice a week with eight and nine year olds. Mostly, though, it’s class time. I’ve yet to observe a register being taken – part of me doubts that it exists as a process in Spanish schools. Class is supposed to begin at nine, but by the time the children have moved from their own classroom to the special English room, or in the case of the younger children, hung all their clothes, ‘mochilas’ (schoolbags), and sportswear on the pegs, then returned to their seats – it’s already around 9.15. Some lessons are only half an hour long, so this usually means that the class lasts ten minutes, and then the children return to their own classroom or get ready for the next lesson to begin. This continues until 11am, when it’s time for the first break of the day, lasting half an hour. It’s common for kids to eat a sandwich, what looks like a whole packet of biscuits, or even cereal in a tub, without the milk.
Recently, it’s been raining quite a bit, which means the children stay inside on their break, and of course cooping them up like that makes for difficult behaviour in lessons. They’re pent up with play that they couldn’t get out the way, short bursts of energy taking over what they do inside the classroom. It doesn’t help that the discipline system here doesn’t seem to be that effective. The most ‘telling off’ I’ve seen is a list of the children’s names on the blackboard who weren’t sitting in the correct place at the correct time. It often seems that they can get away with murder: shouting, screaming, meandering around the room and corridors to their heart’s content. What I do in classes depends on the age group. From eight years old upwards, I take children out the class and practise spoken English with them. This can range from simple ‘I like hockey/swimming’, telling the time, posing questions related with ‘to be’, or starting basic grammar in preparation for ESO for the children in their last year. ESO is our equivalent of secondary school, and all the children in their sixth year here aren’t excited about learning English there – because they think it’s going to be page upon page of grammar conditioning. They’ve moved out of the ‘English is fun’ phase, because they no longer get to play bingo, or participate in a quiz show. I find them an interesting group to work with. They’re very difficult sometimes, because they don’t want to behave, but their level of English is relatively good, so it’s nice to see them put a sentence together, or the concentration on their faces when they’re struggling to get the words they want to use out their mouths. It’s also a lot more fun in other ways – they begin to understand you can have fun with English, which means we result in sentences such as ‘Miley Cyrus has got a potato nose’ when dealing with describing people, or ‘Pablo has fish eyes’. During this same ‘description’ session, I became affectionately known as ‘Blonde Giraffe’. I’m sure that they’ve called me that because I’m the only one tall enough to turn off the digital projector without using a ruler to press the button – Spanish women, and men for that matter, tend to be shorter than us.
For the children younger than eight, I take the role of ‘button-presser on the computer’ or ‘skipper of the next track on the CD player’. That is, I walk around the class, and simply act as an assistant to the teacher. I rarely go out the classroom with these children, because they don’t have enough language skills to make oral expression practice worthwhile. Every morning, we ask for the weather, the date, and run through basic questions with the younger children. Whilst I appreciate they’re very young, and it’s difficult to learn another language, I can find this a little frustrating. Bear in mind they do two hours of English a week, from the age of three, and very little changes during the first few years. They start with reciting the date – which is usually quite easy for them, but then we get to the difficult part. ‘How old are you?’ ‘What’s your name?’ ‘What’s your favourite colour?’ Sometimes the children have no idea how to construct these questions, and often give the wrong answer even when it’s given to them word by word. Yes, it’s difficult – it’s another language, and I myself have problems with Spanish, but it can be frustrating repeating the same thing time and time again to no avail. Mostly the classes with the younger children consist of listening to annoying songs about crayons and toys, and reciting parts of the body like there’s no tomorrow.
So, then 1pm arrives, and it’s time for lunch. Now I come to the saga of the drama classes in English. When I suggested taking these classes, I imagined doing drama with children of around 9-10 or more, where the level of English is relatively good, and they are able to understand full sentences with good ability. Others had different ideas. It seems that the family I’m staying with were keen to get their children to do drama – considering here it’s not a curriculum subject, and they don’t get much chance to express themselves in this manner. I think this is problematic, and agree they should be doing drama classes – but not in English. Imagine doing drama with a group of nine/ten children who are six years old. This is quite difficult in itself due to the attention span, the time that the children are doing the classes (it’s 1pm and their usual time for lunch, so they’re hungry), among other factors. However, when you throw in the fact that they don’t speak the same language as me, this takes an entirely new level of difficulty. I can’t imagine being able to do this all year – sure, they can play games in English, but limited ones, that they already know. They can’t do drama with a basic vocabulary of primary colours, classroom objects, and farmyard animals. We wouldn’t get much further than three sessions, tops. I’ve been shocked at the lack of organisation on the school’s part, the parents’ willingness to leave their children alone in a laboratory (yes. Laboratory. That’s where you do drama now, apparently) with a woman who doesn’t speak Spanish or Catalan and isn’t CRB-checked, nor a qualified teacher. I’m essentially just a girl who happens to have done a drama degree, and that speaks volumes amongst Spanish parents apparently, as of course that means I am trustworthy, capable, and can work miracles with a group of young children who don’t have a clue what I’m talking about.
Suffice to say, the drama classes aren’t going to happen any more.
Lunchtime ends at 3pm – yep, that’s right, two whole hours for lunch. Some children go home, leaping on their father’s motorbike, or trailing behind after mum with their nose streaming because they want to finish their painting of a squirrel. Two hours works for the kids that go home, but the ones who stay here seem to have it a little tougher. They eat at 1, so it doesn’t take them long – even though there’s three courses every day. I eat at 2 o’clock, with the rest of the teachers, and try to imagine I understand what’s going on, when really I have no idea. Usually it’s the wrong thing – the other day I was convinced they were talking for twenty minutes about pasta, when I think in fact it was football. The children, when finished at approximately 1.20-1.30, then have until three to run rampant and generally scream themselves hoarse or collide into each other until they’re exhausted by it. This is when it’s not raining. When it is raining, they’re back into the classrooms they’ve spent all day in, playing Conectar Cuatro or trying to dance on the tables.
3pm, and classes begin again, with little point, in my opinion. The children are excited from lunchtime and playing, and they don’t want to do anything that requires concentration for over five minutes. I have one of my Science classes straight after lunch, and whilst I love it, it isn’t half a slog to get the class interested enough to participate for the whole hour. It’s not really what you would describe as a ‘Science’ class, of course, being in English. Most of the complex vocabulary relating to that subject prevents learning about osmosis, the central nervous system, or photosynthesis, and so on, and so on. Instead, we learn about body parts, muscles, things we can feel, different senses, and parts of the skeleton for the older kids. I really enjoy it, and I think the children do as well – in my first session, they all moaned and groaned, but now when I come through the door they shout in happiness, and all of them tell me English is their favourite subject. So either I’m doing a good job, or it’s an entire class of teacher’s pets. It helps me pick up Spanish as well, even though I’m not sure how much ‘clavicular’ (collar bone), ‘caja torácica’ (rib cage), and ‘columna vertebral’ (spinal cord) are going to help me in my day to day life.
The last lesson of the day begins at 4pm, and finishes at 5. The children watch the clock at this time, and are generally either asleep on their desks, or ridiculously overexcited because it’s nearly hometime. Most Tuesdays – my ‘small people’ day, I spend the last ten minutes of the day waking up a particularly sleepy little Natalia, who always conks out on the table and wakes up with a handprint on her tiny cheek, wiping drool from her mouth and looking especially confused at the girl who orders her to wake up in incorrect Spanish. Then we get the children dressed properly, as they’re still not able to figure out how to put on a rucksack the correct way, or notice that their ‘xandal’ (tracksuit) is on inside out.
Home-time, and I’m usually hard at work, preparing tutoring sessions, learning Spanish (and failing), and looking for new ideas for Science classes. I spend little time with the family, who remain rather closed off, and occasionally play with the children if I’m not too tired or in the mood to be ignored for a good two hours by the parents. Dinner time can vary – they’re trying to get the children to bed earlier these days, possibly because of the winter nights, and that means dinner is often at 7:30, a staggeringly early time for Spanish ‘cenar’. Sometimes, however, it can be as late as 10pm, if we don’t eat with the children, and the parents unsuccessfully call me downstairs. I’m getting used to the way of eating, and now I’m even at a point where I can’t decide which I prefer. My mother kindly brought some parkin over when visiting recently, and it was rapidly devoured in the staff room over comments that it was rather rich, but all agreed it was certainly nice. When describing that it was made with oats, some had been a little timid about trying it, but gave a good effort and listened patiently when I explained in bad Spanish about November 5th and Bonfire Night.
No day, of course, is the same, but I hope that what I’ve given is a taste of my life in a Spanish school – sometimes difficult, often testing, but very enjoyable all the same. All I can say is, I’m at a stage where I wish I could speak Spanish, had a PGCE, or a qualification (despite the fact that Spanish teachers receive a lower pay packet than English ones for much more work in the school day) and I’d try to teach here in an instant.