Classrooms in the United States and Spain
Having taught high school Spanish in Nashville, Tennessee, for three years before moving to Madrid to teach abroad, I noticed many key differences and adapted some teaching strategies to meet those needs. In this post I will be exploring some key differences between classrooms in the United States and classrooms in Spain and how I adapted my teaching practice in Spain to accommodate for different cultural and systemic factors.
- Concept of time
In the United States, the push is for bell-to-bell instruction. Teachers are expected to have a bell-ringer assignment for students the second that they walk into the classroom. Students are then expected to be occupied for every second of the class. In practice, this is nearly impossible. It is, however, upheld as the “ideal.” I once sat through a professional development in which it was calculated that if you waste two minutes per class on inefficient “paper passing procedures,” that equates to a “week of lost learning.” This flawed logic completely ignores the reality of cognitive studies that consistently demonstrate that having occasional mini-breaks promotes better overall productivity.
On the other hand, nothing runs on schedule in Spain. The sound of the bell that marks the official start of class time is viewed by Spaniard teachers as a warning to finish your cafecito and conversation with your colleagues within the next 10 to 15 minutes and then proceed to casually to your class. ¡No pasa nada!
For me, I have found that a balance of these two approaches works the best. It is certainly inefficient to waste 15 minutes of class time, but allowing students a few minutes to settle into class before starting the lesson helps immensely. In the U.S, bell-ringers and exit tickets do help with classroom management and to provide the lesson with a clear beginning, middle, and end. In Spain, however, I found that it was better to spend the first few minutes talking to my students about their day. My students were very eager to practice their English with me and as long as they were speaking in English, it was time well spent. This is also a good way to build relationships with my students. In short, teachers can value efficiency and productivity without running their classroom like a drill sergeant.
- Testing culture
I’ll be very straightforward. The testing culture in the U.S is beyond absurd. Anyone that sat through Statistics 101 should be able to quickly see that the metrics used to measure teacher and student performance are neither reliable nor valid. Tennessee uses something called TVAAS to measure teacher performance and student growth. This formula was developed at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville school of agriculture to predict crop growth. That’s right, in Tennessee student test scores are predicted the same way that crop growth is predicted. If the student does better than predicted, it is correlated with positive growth. If the student does worse, it is correlated with negative growth. If a student is predicted to score in the 95th percentile and scores in the 90th percentile, that’s negative growth. Even if the student is “advanced,” the negative growth statistic hurts his or her teacher’s evaluation.
My last year working in in TN, I worked at a very high performing school in which over 80% of students scored proficient or advanced. It still earned a 1 out of 5 on school wide TVAAS. It gets worse. As a Spanish teacher, 1/3 of my teacher evaluation was decided by TVAAS scores of all freshmen English I tests. To clarify, I did not teach English and taught very few freshmen. My students also took the National Spanish Exam, Spanish bench marks, AAPL, and IB Spanish exams over the years. None of these scores were used for my evaluations because they didn’t come with TVAAS scores from the state.
Florida has a similar system called VAM. These seriously flawed measures are routinely used to justify pulling funding from public school and redirecting it to private or charter schools in the name of “school choice” (that’s another post within itself). The biggest issue here is the undue anxiety and stress that these tests place on schools, teachers, students, and communities alike.
The testing culture in Spain is very different. The biggest sources of testing stress that I noticed amongst Spanish students was related to Cambridge English exams and tests that they must pass to move from ESO to bachillerato. Bachillerato is the equivalent of 11th or 12th grade in the U.S. Students must get a certain score to continue their studies, otherwise they go to work or to a technical school. With unemployment over 20% in Spain, this causes much anxiety for students. My personal experience in Spain with test prep was mostly related to helping students study for Cambridge exams.
I felt that these tests were at least a valid measure of language learning and was able to devote an appropriate amount of time to practice activities fairly easily. The only challenge was “British vs. American” English. My students were quick to tell me that I “didn’t sound like the people on the tapes.” This was however a good learning experience. I played them tapes of Caribbean and South American Spanish speakers and they were able to begin to understand the concept of dialectal variations in language.
- Language skills
There’s no denying that overall, Europeans boast much stronger bilingual (and multilingual) skills than Americans. Still, Spain’s overall bilingualism is lacking in comparison to the rest of the European Union. There’s a huge push for bilingual education, and in particular English language acquisition. This is why Spain routinely gives visas to so many native English speakers to work in Spanish schools, despite high unemployment numbers. Having taught English in Spain and Spanish in the U.S, I can say that overall Spaniards are much more intrinsically motivated to learn English. Being bilingual in English in Spanish opens up many doors for them throughout the European Union. English language learning is therefore viewed as a priority.
In Spain, it was much easier for me to conduct classes mostly in the target language. I attribute this to both higher student motivation and higher language proficiency. I really enjoyed being able to teach at a higher level and incorporate more advanced reading and speaking activities into my lessons. Students in the secondary bilingual school in Spain begin studying their second language as young children. Although the system admittedly has its flaws, the vast majority of secondary students begin their studies with an intermediate proficiency level in their second language. I enjoyed being able to push students to discuss deeper topics in their second language and work towards refining their language skills.
On the other hand, in the majority of the United States, learning a second language is not viewed as a priority. This can partly be attributed to political reasons. Despite the fact that the United States does not have an official language, many U.S citizens regard English as “the language everyone should speak in America.” They attribute promoting English to protecting their culture and way of life.
However, the reality is that 26% of people in the United States are proficient in a language other than English. In many regions, that number is significantly higher. For example, in Miami-Dade County, Florida (where I currently live) 27% of residents speak only English, and 64% of residents speak Spanish at home (this number is higher if you count those that speak it as a second language). Bilingualism is the norm rather than the exception. This trend is present in many other parts of the nation as well. All demographic trends point towards multilingualism continuing to become more common in the United States. However, many people that live in communities in which the vast majority of the population is English speaking do not recognize how acquiring a second language will help them.
Unfortunately, even students that are motivated to learn a second language in the United States are often at a disadvantage because they typically do not begin studying a second language until high school. Even then, it’s only a single course. On the other hand, in bilingual schools, students take additional courses (such as Social Studies, Science, or Math) that are taught in their second language) In my last year of teaching in Tennessee, I had a Spanish I class that consisted almost entirely of high school sophomores. The vast majority of these students did not have any prior significant experience learning a second language. Even my most motivated students in this group would have to work far harder to become proficient in a second language than students that have been studying a second language since early childhood.
- Integration of Technology
It is much more challenging to integrate technology into the classroom in Spain than in the United States. In the U.S, I regularly used Google Classrooms, BlackBoard, and language learning apps to supplement instruction. Integrating technology into instruction and preparing students to utilize 21st century skills is prioritized. In today’s world, students are generally very tech savvy and typically enjoy using technology in the classroom. Furthermore, from the teacher’s perspective, I prefer to have as little physical paper as possible. It’s much easier for me to keep my files organized online than it is with physical copies.
Spain (at least the school that I was at) had far less access to technology. The computer lab looked like it was from the 90’s, there was a school-wide rule against using phones in class, and the Internet was often painfully slow. I therefore had to create paper versions of many activities that I would have much preferred to have had students complete online. I also had to have students use paper dictionaries (or just tell me the word in Spanish and translate it for them to save time). This annoyed me, because I, myself, just look up words online. However, this pushed me to be extremely flexible and adapt my instruction to the resources available.
To conclude, through the experience of teaching in a variety of settings, I’ve learned that there are no “perfect” schools. I’ve also grown to see that there’s never one “right” way to reach a goal. Furthermore, I’ve grown passionate about the need for education reform (not at all like the education reform movement in the U.S) that puts the needs of students first. Many decisions that are decided by politicians that are far removed from the reality of contemporary classrooms do not put the best interest of students at the forefront.