Last year, I began a new regular interview series. There are always lots of “hot spots” around the world — places where there are natural disasters, political upheavals, etc. And English teachers can be found in most of those places. If you are an EFL/ESL teacher in one of those areas, please let me know.
Where and who do you teach, and what led you to become a teacher and teach there?
I have a rather special teaching situation this year. I am what is called an ‘interina’ here in the region of Extremadura in Spain, which means that I am on a list for substitutions. ‘Interinos’ stay on the list until they gain enough points to get on full time with a permanent position within the public school system. This year I was offered a year-long substitution in a very small village called Bohonal de Ibor. The school has 15 students in total but 7 of them are the children of Portuguese temporary workers, which means that they only attend this school during the few months that their parents work in the village.
I teach 4 students, 2 of whom are in primary five and 2 who are in primary six and when the Portuguese children come, I will be teaching another 2 in year four. All of this happens in the same classroom, something that I have never done before and I am really enjoying the challenge. In other years I am normally ‘the English teacher’ but this year I am teaching math, science, literacy, art and citizenship education, apart from English. If normally the challenge is to find time for each student in a class of 25, now the challenge is to attend to the needs of children with different levels who are dealing with different syllabuses and having to do so simultaneously. At the same time, I’m finding that they get a lot out of the situation, as the younger learners are being exposed to next year’s material while the older students are subconsciously revising last year’s topics. I think that the scaffolding that naturally happens in this kind of teaching situation is something that should be looked at in greater detail as it really does seem to be beneficial to my learners.
All of this is light years away from what led me to become a teacher. As a young girl, I had always wanted to be a teacher when I grew up, but outside pragmatism got in the way somewhere along the line and I ended up working in a bank in my 20’s. I quickly realized it wasn’t for me and the twists and turns of life led me to living in Sana’a, Yemen for a year where my childhood dream suddenly became a reality as I found myself standing in front of 25 tribesmen, teaching them English.
How is Spain’s economic crisis affecting your students and you?
The economic boom-madness that led Spain towards the abyss that we are currently facing is clearly reflected in the school that I work in. For a school with 15 students and only four classrooms in total, there is a computer lab and two interactive whiteboards that now barely work. And now as the crisis is biting hard, the authorities are thinking of closing the school and shipping the students to a larger centre in a nearby village everyday.
Personally, I was lucky this year as the savage cutbacks that education has suffered has drastically reduced the number of substitutions. If I wasn’t a specialist in English and therefore able to teach many subjects, my outlook would be less positive.
Last year, I was teaching pre-school students in a school located in the suburbs of the provincial capital, Caceres where a lot of young families live and the students wanted to talk about their mothers and fathers that were now staying home instead of going to work. With unemployment around 25% in Spain, I found myself autocensoring, in the sense that we at the school felt that we couldn’t ask the parents to contribute to things like field trips. We also worked hard in finding ways to reduce the supplies that we asked the parents for throughout the year. Here in Spain, parents must buy coursebooks every year, unless they are entitled to a scholarship. But even these have been reduced.
The cutbacks also have had a serious effect on the money available for special projects (libraries etc). Then there is the fact that they are not hiring as many teachers and class sizes are consequently getting much bigger. All of these things are obviously going to have a negative effect on an education system that was already permanently found at the bottom of the PISA tables.
What predictions might you and your students make about Spain’s future in light of the economic challenges it’s facing?
The current crop of university-aged students seem to be in standby. The new teachers who are currently coming up have little to look forward to and you can see this in their lack of enthusiasm and motivation. If the crisis has done this to this group of students, I can only imagine how it will affect those who will grow up during these difficult times.
Another dark cloud on the horizon is the threat to the public system in general. There has always been a fight here in Spain between political ideologies in regards to education. There have been more than six entire overhauls of the education system in the 35ish years of the democracy, confusing teachers and students alike every time there is an election. There are powerful sectors here in Spain who are using the crisis to shift resources away from public education and divert them to private schools which will also have a serious effect on the ability for kids like the ones I’m teaching this year to have access to quality education.
Is there anything I haven’t asked that you’d like to share?
The Spanish education system is at a crossroads. What happens in the next few years will definitely have an impact on the country’s future. Our education law(s) are in line with the rest of European states but unfortunately this is just on paper. What is often overlooked are the cultural differences that one finds between children raised in the U.S, Canada or Germany and the children here in Spain. These differences make educational theory, that may work in other countries, less effective in places like Spain. While a German teacher can raise two fingers and silence their class, a Spanish teacher faces a much different situation. Class size and lack of assistants, especially in pre-school levels, will have a serious effect on the quality of the classes given and worsen the behavioural problems and drop out rates that are already quite serious.
Not all is negative though. If the current mania of austerity is reversed, well-qualified and trained professionals will be able to work through these dark times and form those who will be next in charge. As the Finnish minister of education once said when asked what was the secret to their success. He said three words, “teachers, teachers, teachers.”