Having taught high-school Spanish in Nashville, Tennessee, for three years before moving to Madrid, I found I had to adapt some of my teaching strategies.. In this post, I explore how classrooms in the United States vary from classrooms in Spain. I explain how I changed 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. Schools expect teachers to have a bell-ringer assignment for students the second they walk into the classroom. The school then expects students 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. Spanish teachers view the sound of the bell that marks the official start of class time as a warning to finish their cafecito and conversation with their colleagues within the next 10 to 15 minutes and then proceed casually to their class.
Find a Blend
For me, I have found that a balance of these two approaches works best. It is certainly inefficient to waste 15 minutes of class time. However, 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. They also provide the lesson with a clear beginning, middle, and end. When teaching in classrooms in Spain, however, I found it better to spend the first few minutes talking to my students about their day. My students felt very eager to practice their English with me. As long as they spoke 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 in the US
I’ll be very straightforward. The testing culture in the U.S. is beyond absurd. Anyone who sat through Statistics 101 can 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. The University of Tennessee-Knoxville School of Agriculture created this formula to predict crop growth. That’s right, in Tennessee, they predict student test scores the same way they predict crop growth! If the student does better than predicted, they correlate the performance with positive growth. If the student does worse, they correlate it with negative growth. Notably, if they predict a student to score in the 95th percentile, and the student scores in the 90th percentile, that’s negative growth. Even if the student performs as “advanced,” the negative growth statistic hurts his or her teacher’s evaluation.
Overtesting is Very Real
My last year working in Tennessee, I was employed at a very high-performing school. Over 80% of students scored as proficient or advanced. It still earned a 1 out of 5 on the school-wide TVAAS. It gets worse. As a Spanish teacher, they decided one-third of my teacher evaluation with the 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 benchmarks, AAPL, and IB Spanish exams over the years. My evaluations didn’t use any of those scores because they didn’t come with TVAAS scores from the state.
Florida has a similar system called VAM. Higher-ups use these seriously-flawed measures routinely to justify pulling funding from public schools. They then redirect this funding 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 these tests place on schools, teachers, and students.
Testing Culture in Spain
The testing culture in Spain is very different. The biggest sources of testing stress I noticed amongst Spanish students were the Cambridge English exams and tests are required to move from ESO to bachillerato. Bachillerato is the equivalent of 11th or 12th grade in the U.S. and 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, the students are under a lot of pressure. My own experience of classrooms 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. I 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. They were then able to begin to understand the concept of dialectal variations in language.
There’s no denying that 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 more motivated to learn English. Being bilingual 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. Now this I attribute to 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 regard English as “the language everyone should speak in America.” They attribute promoting English to protecting their culture and way of life.
Reality of Motivation
However, the reality is that one in four Americans ( 26%) 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 being replicated elsewhere across America too. However, many people living in mostly English-speaking communities refuse to recognize how acquiring a second language will help them.
Unfortunately students who are motivated to learn a second language in the U.S. are often at a disadvantage because they typically do not begin studying another tongue 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 would have to work far harder to become proficient in a second language than students who have been studying a second language since early childhood.
Integration of Technology
It is much more challenging to integrate technology into classrooms in Spain than in the U.S.. In the U.S, I regularly used Google Classroom, 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 90s, 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. Students used paper dictionaries (or just told me the word in Spanish and I translated it for them to save time). This annoyed me, because I 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 educational reform, to put students first (not at all like the educational reform movement in the U.S.). Many decisions are decided by politicians far removed from the reality of contemporary classrooms in Spain and the US.