I am completely exhausted and struggling with a bad cold (I am convinced that Spanish germs are more potent than English ones), brought on by a slightly surreal first week of teaching. As I mentioned before, I was assigned by the British Council to two schools; on Mondays and Thursdays I take the bus from Príncipe Pío station to the tiny town of Moraleja de Enmedio, a forty minute journey to the west of Madrid, where I teach at the Instituo del Sección Africa. On Tuesdays and Wednesday I have a shorter commute, a half an hour metro journey to the Instituto Rey Pastor in Vinateros, a district in the south-east of Madrid. This week I have taught fifteen different classes, all with around 10-30 students. Needless to say, it’s all a bit of a blur.
There some quite obvious and interesting differences between the two schools. The Instituto Sección Africa (ISA) only has 189 pupils, the vast majority of whom have lived in Moraleja their whole lives. This has given them a very clear collective identity; they all dress the same, enjoy the same hobbies and share the same dreams for the future. El Instituto Rey Pastor (IRP), on the other hand, is enormous, with each grade having at least 5 or 6 large classes of pupils made up of about half madrileños and half immigrants from all over the world, but most frequently from countries in Africa or South America. Discipline is also handled very differently in Spanish schools; it seems that it is entirely normal for kids to talk continually throughout the class, to interrupt the teacher or each other, and to get up and go to the bathroom whenever they want without being challenged.
I am teaching kids aged between 12 and 18. They are organised into 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th ESO (up to GCSE level) and Bachillerato (6th form). I assumed the general rule to be the older the kids, the better their English, but when I voiced this assumption to Carlos (head of English at ISA) just before one of our classes together, he laughed and told me ‘age does not necessarily mean they are any better – not when you are dealing with 4th ESO’. I realised what he meant about fifteen minutes later, when I was teaching that particular class and asked them if they had any questions for me. They stared at me blankly for a few minutes in awkward silence, before one kid finally piped up ‘phwaaat eees yo-er tiiaym?’ It was only because I’d had this question at least once in every class I’d taught so far that I was able to interpret his thick Spanish accent and answer ‘well in England its Liverpool but here I obviously support Real Madrid’.
The level of English (even from the teachers) is –on the whole- surprisingly low; before arriving in Spain I had held the idea that everyone in Europe was far better at languages than the English, and some could even outperform us at speaking our own language. I therefore assumed that most of my pupils would be able to converse fairly fluently with me, an idea that was supported by the linguistic brilliance of the Miranda de Sousa family. I quickly discovered that the de Sousa’s language skills were not in any way indicative of those of the general public. Most of my classes followed the same format; I gave a short slideshow presentation about myself and my life in England (once I had given this presentation 15 times I knew it off by heart and was sick to death of myself), and then answered the students’ questions – whether these were enforced by the teacher or the product of genuine curiosity varied from student to student.
In every lesson I answered the same questions over and over again; whether I liked Spain, how long I had been here, where I was living, whether I liked Spanish food and – most frequently – what my favourite football team was (everyone here is obsessed). Occasionally the students would sit and stare at me in silence, wide eyed, like rabbits caught in glaringly bright headlights. More often than not, the teacher would ask the ones who were too terrified, confused or disinterested to ask questions to introduce themselves to me with a few details about their lives. Embarrassed, they then spoke every sentence in the same tone, with their voices growing higher towards the end of a phrase. It went something like this: ‘err…’ello, my, err, naiimme ees Jorge, I ‘ave fourteen years old, I leev in Moraleja, I ‘ave one bruver and I don’t ‘ave en-ee pets’. This template was repeated by every child in the room. After the third class of my first day, I had the mildly encouraging smile-and-nod manoeuvre down to a tee.
The questions became more of a minefield the older the kids got – they didn’t necessarily understand everything, but they were usually braver, and always more inappropriate. One boy, who must have been about 15, asked me – to the delight of his classmates – whether I prefer my men ‘Eengleesh or Espaneesh?’ To a chorus of ‘Espaneesh! Say Espaneesh!’ I miraculously managed not to blush as I replied with the blandest answer I could think of; ‘Well, English men are more polite but Spanish men are more confident’. Disappointed, they went back to asking me questions about the weather. It was a small but significant personal triumph. I had to resist the urge to do a victory dance around the classroom.
In my final class of the week, I was observing a group of fourteen to fifteen year olds learning relative pronouns. My cold had suddenly erupted earlier in the day, and I was sniffling and coughing miserably at the front of the class, trying to control my yawns (I had to get up at 6.30am to get to the school on time), and occasionally being called upon to confirm the correct spelling of ‘suitcase’ or ‘puppy’. I couldn’t wait to go to the bus stop and get home to indulge in a spot of siesta. I felt like the students were looking at me disdainfully, as if to say ‘what’s the point of you?’ It was a bit of a low. When the bell rang, the students all got up and made a dash for the door. In the chaos, I heard one boy shout ‘Florence ees beeooteefool!’ To my surprise, I felt a little warm feeling in the pit of my stomach, and, forgetting my previously depressed state, a smile began to spread itself across my face. Yes, it was completely superficial, almost entirely inappropriate, and not really indicative of the dignified teacher-student relationship I was hoping to build, but it had potential. And at that point, potential was enough.