What I Know Now About Teaching Primary School in Madrid
So, do you think teaching primary school abroad is easy? Think again. Between the constant questions of “teacher, teacher, do you speak Spanish?” and the requests for a last-minute change to your lesson plan, being a foreign language assistant and teaching primary school can be exhausting.
I spent two years working in a concertado school in Alcalá de Henares. Concertados are basically the same thing as charter schools. They are partially funded by the Spanish government and partially funded by parents’ payments.
These schools require much more from the average language assistant, as your function in the school is essentially that of a teacher. They pay a higher stipend per month, but the hours are longer. If you are looking to have a professional position within a school, however, this is definitely the way to go.
My experience in my concertado was difficult but rewarding. Here are some lessons that I learned teaching primary school in Madrid.
1) Always Expect the Unexpected
Here in Spain, everything is done last minute. From the granting of your visa to the server giving you that ketchup you asked for when your burger was still on your plate, the country consistently runs on a timer set 10 minutes slow. School is no exception.
When I first began teaching primary school, I had absolutely no teaching experience. I was thrown in front of a class of wide-eyed Spanish children screaming my name with no classroom management skills. Boy, did I learn quickly.
Not only did I learn how to be a teacher in a week, but I also quickly learned that teachers have a tendency to request the moon when you’ve prepared the sun. What I mean is that I would, at times, prepare an entire lesson on the opposite topic of what the teacher wanted that day.
What I learned was to always be prepared with simple games that could be easily adapted to any topic. One of my favorites was a game where I would have the kids make paper planes. We would have a competition where the students would say a grammatical structure. If they were correct, they could throw the plane to attempt to get a point for their team.
Kids never behave like you think they will. Sometimes, a class will be so quiet and perfect that you have 10 extra minutes at the end of your lesson, and other times you won’t even get halfway through by the time the bell rings. It’s important to always roll with the punches, and keep your cool.
2) Teaching Primary School Can Be Fun!
Teaching primary school, despite how taxing it can be at times, is an absolute delight. Younger primary kids love to sing, whilst older primary students love a good old-fashioned competition. Basically, your multiple personalities get to shine depending on what class you’re teaching.
With the little ones, I used to love to find songs related to our lesson plans and do a live performance. I would force all my students to stand up, sing, and dance with me. I also used the program GoNoodle, which is a fantastic educational website that offers various activities like dances and brain breaks.
It is important with younger kids to provide a daily routine. Mine always began with a song or dance in English. For them, it subconsciously signified that it was time to start English class and that we would not be conversing in Spanish. I also learned that younger kids don’t have an attention span of more than 15 minutes. Activities that are longer than 15-20 minutes will inevitably cause classroom disturbances.
The older kids don’t need as much structure, as your presence in the classroom will be enough to get them in the mood for English. Upper primary students love games and competition, although rules of respect must be set far in advance. Sometimes, they are a little too competitive.
Teaching will be as fun as you make it, so it’s important to get your creative thinking cap on when you’re lesson planning. If you do it right, the kids will literally chant your name when you come into class. That’s because they know that you are a break from the monotony of other teachers.
3) Your Kiddos Will Need Lots of Love
If you are from the United States like me, the physicality of countries like Spain will shock you. Pre-COVID, I would have at least five children come up to me and hug me before the class started, and normally at least two after class had ended. Here in Spain, teachers believe that children need a lot of love. It is okay to show them appropriate affection like hugs, or kisses for the babies.
It is important to remember that children are often products of their environment. Unfortunately, this means that many kids who act out or are disrespectful, are often taught to do so at home. No child is actually “bad,” rather they are modeling behaviors that they have learned at home or from something they’ve been exposed to on TV.
One of the most important lessons that I took away from teaching primary school in Madrid is to always try and meet kids where they’re at. That doesn’t mean that you have to cave for them if they are being disrespectful, but you should always try and see the child as a person.
No child is stupid, annoying, or hard to work with when you are in the classroom. Save your complaints for closed doors. You just might be the reason that a child, who all of the other teachers openly hate on, believes in themself and tries to be better.
4) The Power of the Justificante
After moving to Spain, I discovered that this country is a mix of two really frustrating things; disorganization and bureaucracy. Justificantes are a Spain-specific type of paperwork. Essentially, a justificante is a piece of paper stating that you were at a doctor’s appointment, visa appointment, etc. They are the only way that you can be excused from school if you have either a medical problem or some sort of issue with paperwork.
Without a justificante, a school can deduct your pay for a day that you skipped, even if you actually were at a doctor’s appointment. They are incredibly important to the school system. However, there are some ways around the justificante if your school coordinator (aka your boss) is nice enough to offer. At my school, if we ever had to miss a day without a justified reason, such as cheaper flights a day after the school holiday ended, we were allowed to stay an extra day at the end of the year to make up for our lost time.
When working and traveling in a new country, it is incredibly important to be aware of the specific guidelines of that country, particularly when it comes to paperwork. The justificante was a concept that I was unaware of until I got to Spain. However, it is incredibly important to your job when you fall ill or need to get some paperwork sorted. Always do your research when you travel, particularly when it comes to paperwork or visa guidelines. You never want to get caught on the wrong side of bureaucracy.
5) Don’t Forget to Explore a Little
If you go to another country to teach, it is super important to explore. Ask your colleagues about interesting places to go in the area. Do some research.
While I was in Madrid for two years, I made it a point to get out every weekend, even if it was just for a simple walk or a tapa. I researched the best places to go in the community and asked around. I learned a great deal more about exploring my city and the community of Madrid by simply reaching out to people and asking.
Even though I was a teacher, I learned a lot by forcing myself to meet people and experience things that I was not necessarily comfortable with. I never thought that I would eat an octopus, but now I can say I have tried it (although I was not the biggest fan). By learning about the area that you are living in, you will have the most authentic experience possible abroad. You will find the places that people actually go to eat, rather than the tourist hotspots. You will find a quiet corner that you never knew existed, and now feel that belongs to you.
Teaching primary school in Madrid has been one of the most rewarding and interesting experiences that I can boast of in my professional career. Teaching abroad and working with children is rewarding, and one of the easiest ways to have an authentic cultural experience. You will be exposed to a country in a way that only comes from living there.