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9 Things I Didn’t Expect about Teaching English in Spain

Language Assistant and English teacher
Once I arrived in Spain and start teaching English in school, there have been many things that I've found quite surprising. Here are 9 things I didn't expect about teaching English in Spain.

This is my first time living and teaching abroad. So, I didn’t have many expectations to begin with. Still, once I arrived in Spain and started teaching English in school, there have been many things that I’ve found quite surprising. Here is one thing that I’ve found to be universal among students, plus 9 things I didn’t expect about teaching English in Spain.

Universal Things Among Students

I’ve been with kids for a big chunk of my life, though. Mainly, as a summer camp counselor and tutoring English and other school subjects. So, it’s been interesting to compare my experiences teaching Spanish kids with those teaching American kids.

Despite the obvious language difference, there are some characteristics that I think are universal among all students of particular ages.

For instance, the other day I assigned partners in one of my secondary classes. When I told them to start the activity, two girls faced away from each other and remained dead silent. When I approached them, they both told me they refused to talk to each other. Another student informed me they’d just had an argument over a boy.

So of course, things like this happen regardless of the country you’re in. But I have had some unexpected experiences since arriving in Spain. Here there are 9 things I didn’t expect about teaching English in Spain.

1. Kids Are Really Freaking Funny

I do know this from my previous experience with children, but I thought the language barrier might make it harder for students to say funny things during class. Boy, was I wrong.

I think I started taking notes of funny secondary students’ quotes the first day I started teaching because I knew there’d be some good ones I’d want to look back on. Enjoy.

Day 1: I asked my students if they had any questions about me or the US in general. Here were some common ones:

  • “Do you have a boyfriend?”
  • “Do you play Among Us/Fortnite?”
  • “Is it true every American owns a gun?”

I started a discussion with the question “What do you think will happen after Covid-19 ends?”

First two answers:

  • “The aliens will come.”
  • “Zombie apocalypse.”

I asked, “What type of exercise do you do to stay healthy?”

Answer:

  • “Tik Tok dances”

I was doing an activity from the textbook where students practice giving advice, and I read the prompt, “Sarah has a crush on a boy. What should she do?”

  • Student 1: “Kiss him!”
  • Student 2: “No, that’s too much.”
  • Student 1: “Okay, kiss him on the head!”
  • Student 3: “DM him on Instagram!”

During the same advice activity, I asked: “My brother is annoying. What should I do?”

Student replied:

  • “Kill him!”

I showed a picture from a textbook of a scene with a horse-drawn carriage and asked what time period they think it’s from.

  • One student confidently said, “1990!”

I asked, “What is your goal in life?”

  • Student 1: “Be taller.”
  • Student 2: “Do make up on dead people.”
  • Student 3: “Move to the US and become a stripper.”
Lamb in Spanish school for Christmas celebration
They even brought a lamb to help tell the Christmas story!

2. My Voice Is Exhausted by the End of the Day

I love talking. I’m the type to rarely find a quiet moment in a conversation. But I was not prepared for the amount of talking I’d do as a Language Assistant. I collaborate teaching from 8:30 AM to 2:30 PM. Pretty consistently throughout the day, I’m speaking quite loudly because I do small group practice while the teachers do their main lesson. And on top of talking over others, I’m wearing a mask, of course, which tends to muffle the sound.

The other day, I actually lost my voice! However, I don’t teach English all day. I also help with PE classes, which only requires speaking when I’m explaining rules of a game, so that’s a nice break. And by now, I’m accustomed to it.

3. On Discussion of Sensitive Topics

When I arrived, I was expecting a bit of a culture shock in this sense. Even during our online orientation, we were told to avoid discussing “sensitive topics”. So, I decided to play it by ear and get a feel for the environment first.

I’m glad I did this because I soon realized that the teachers (and students) are all very curious about current and historical events in the US. I love that I’m able to openly talk about these things, and most importantly that the students take a genuine interest in them.

But to be clear, I’m not saying walk into the classroom on your first day and start discussing. Obviously, get a feel for the environment and ask around to see what people are comfortable with you teaching.

Catholic school in Spain gathered for Christmas celebration
The whole school gathered for an outside assembly for an early Christmas celebration.

4. Very Young Children Don’t Understand the Concept of Someone Not Being Fluent in their Native Language

I teach all ages, but with Infantil and early primary kids, I’ve noticed this interesting trend. Their English level isn’t as high, of course, so they mainly speak Spanish. And while they know I’m not fluent, they still constantly speak rapid-fire Spanish to me. I have to remind them each time that I don’t understand and need it simplified, just like they do in English. But somehow, the message still doesn’t get across, and they remain with a confused and adorable look on their faces.

5. My Students Think I’m Really Cool, Mainly Just Because I’m American

I noticed this from day one, but it never gets old. Students of all ages will excitedly greet me every time they see me. They find any excuse to talk to me, especially about non-academic topics.

While it’s important to stay on topic, I don’t like to completely discourage this – not only is it another way to practice English, it’s a way for students to get to know me (and vice versa) more personally.

They also frequently ask to follow me on social media, which I always decline of course. But it’s nice to know my students see me as more than just a teacher.

Language Assistant and English teacher
Me and the secondary English teacher — we dressed up for the last day before break!

6. Kids of All Ages Are Great at Wearing their Masks Correctly

This one doesn’t require that much explanation. I was initially worried about teaching all day with masks, especially with the little ones, but they’re all so responsible and understand the importance of masks and cleanliness. Many adults could learn a thing or two from these kids.

7. I Frequently Run Into my Students Outside of School

Living in a smaller town means this is pretty much inevitable at least a few times a week, and it’s led to some funny stories.

The worst was running into one of my high school students at the grocery store as I was picking up some stuff for a party…

Besides that, it can be hard to recognize my students outside of school because:

1) they aren’t wearing their uniforms,

2) they’re wearing masks, and

3) I have at least 100 students, and admittedly know about 5-10 of their names… it’s hard!

Regardless, they always recognize me since I’m the only Language Assistant at the school. So, any time I’m walking around town and hear a group say “Hi, Abby!!,” it’s safe to assume it’s my students, and I respond enthusiastically while conveniently avoiding saying any names.

8. Kids’ Perspectives about the United States… and How Accurate They Are (Sometimes)

I was already aware of the stereotypes about the US, but hearing them firsthand is definitely amusing, and even eye-opening. As I said, a big one is guns. I’ve had many students ask me if I own a gun or if hunting/shooting targets is a common hobby here. I’m from North Carolina, so it is fairly common here, but I’ve tried to convey that not every American is a MAGA hat-wearing gun owner, fortunately.

And speaking of, Spaniards (and I assume Europeans in general) love talking about Trump. They mainly make fun of him and ask my thoughts on him, which I don’t mind talking about, though it did get a bit tiring during the election.

Another common stereotype is that we all eat fast food daily. The students were shocked (and a bit disappointed) to learn I’ve never eaten at McDonald’s or Burger King.

Many also see the US as two main places: NYC and Hollywood. One primary school kid thought every American was famous, and many middle schoolers have asked me if I personally know various actors/singers. I enjoy seeing their reactions when I tell them no, my home state is roughly the same distance from California as it is from Madrid.

9. My Fellow Teachers and Administrators Are So Kind

I touched on this in my previous post, but again, some of the first people to welcome me to Spain were the teachers at school. Many of them have offered to show me around the town or get socially distanced drinks or tapas after school. They love practicing English with me (and put up with my imperfect Spanish).

On my last day before Christmas break, I went into the teacher’s lounge and was welcomed with little pastries and chocolates, along with a tote bag with the school’s name on it and a very sweet letter addressed to me. I’m definitely the youngest teacher and of course, there’s a language barrier, but the friendliness of the teachers makes me feel right at home.

By Abigail K., 2020-2021.

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