Learning Difficulties

If you have been keeping up with my recent blog posts then you could be forgiven for thinking that since arriving in Spain I have done nothing but eat. However, despite appearances (and whilst I freely admit to spending an indecent amount of time gleefully consuming ladles of frozen yoghurt and garlic prawns and jamón ibérico), the majority of my attention has been directed in a less appetizing direction: school.

The last couple of months have been a steep learning curve. With a public school background, no teacher training and a very limited knowledge of the Spanish education system, it was more like being drowned in the Atlantic then thrown off the deep-end. I have grown skin thicker than the manliest of elephants. However, it has taken several mildly traumatic incidents to get me there.

A couple of weeks ago, I had the brilliant idea to give a presentation about Guy Fawkes Night, thinking the kids would be fascinated by this insight into British culture. It was an assumption that I would shortly come to regret. With 30 pairs of Spanish eyes staring accusingly at me, I found myself desperately trying to justify the apparent barbarism of my ancestors:

“But, really, we didn’t kill him because of the Catholic thing – it was – I mean they were terrorists! …Well, because they wanted to blow up the House of Parliament! … No,‘pahl-a-ment’ – pahl-Big Ben? Right… No, I’m not a Catholic… (long pause)… Well, because I’m just – I mean, I don’t have anything against – I love Catholics! (slightly longer pause)…Look, Guy Fawkes Night is great, we have fireworks and lots of food and bonfires, and we burn a Guy…No, we don’t burn a real person, it’s – No, we DO NOT burn Catholics… Look, it’s really fun, I promise! … (embarrassingly long pause)… Maybe you have to be there.”

Another regular dose of pain comes from my weekly hour of torture, otherwise known as class 2A. This is the class that I previously ranted about, after a couple of boys managed to make me feel so uncomfortable that I told the entire class that I never wanted to teach them again. My threat seemed to become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy when the following week I was allocated another class to work with. Unfortunately, however, the teacher seemed to think a week’s break was sufficient relief (either that or he couldn’t face teaching them alone) and the following week I was thrown back to the lions. The more time I spend in the school, the more I realise that it’s not just me. “Segundo ‘A’” have an appalling reputation amongst the staff. Last Monday, I learnt that there had been a bit of a situation involving 2A on the previous Friday. Apparently, the hellish behaviour of two boys in particular had caused enough of a stir to get the headmaster’s attention. When they received a summons to a meeting to discuss their futures at the school, the two boys had very different but equally disturbing reactions. The first broke down in tears and became hysterical, almost having a panic attack. The second completely lost his temper and began punching the walls. I should mention that both these reactions occurred in the middle of a lesson, terrifying their classmates and distressing their teacher, who struggled to regain control. Needless to say, I was very thankful that I avoided that moment – but mingled with my relief was another, more alien feeling: guilt.

Behaviour like that doesn’t come from happy kids. Both boys demonstrated a complete inability to express their emotions in a healthy way. And they’re not the only ones; I was teaching a class of 13 year olds in the school in southern Madrid and found myself increasingly frustrated by the arrogance of a certain boy who was slouched back on his seat in the centre of the class, pulling faces and mimicking me, whilst chucking scrunched-up balls of paper at the back of his classmates’ heads. After I gave him several cold looks, he reluctantly pulled out his notebook and seemed to be working, but when I snuck a glance at the pages, I realised that instead of doing the exercises, he had been sketching cartoons. Infuriated, when the class ended I immediately marched up to the teacher and began to rant about his behaviour. My anger vanished in a second when she told me that the first 5 or 6 years of his life had been spent in the city slums and that he has severe learning issues. Apparently, even getting him to get his notebook was a huge achievement. For me, the ‘achievement’ was bitter-sweet.

The problem is, kids like these boys receive almost nothing in terms of help and encouragement at school, and, as a result, they never improve. Instead they sit in the same classroom year after year, their inability to concentrate or engage with a lesson hindering not only their own progress, but also that of their classmates. This is not just the fault of the teacher; it is a combination of an ill-thought-through education system and a lack of government funding. Firstly, if a child fails their module tests at the end of the year, they are forced to retake the year. However, they do not receive any extra help in the form of private tutoring, but are instead expected to somehow understand the second time round what they couldn’t the first. This results in many students retaking the same year over and over again, unable to progress further. A friend who is also working as a language assistant has a boy in her sixth-form class that has been nicknamed ‘el abuelo’ (the grandfather), because, at 22 years old, he has repeatedly failed to graduate. In my opinion, this is an enormous flaw in the system.

Secondly, the majority of teachers are hugely over-stretched, with classes of 30-35 students. Thus, the kids with learning disabilities either sit vacantly staring out of the window during a class, unable to keep up, or – when the teachers are slightly more proactive – are given a worksheet to look at in the corner, whilst the teacher focuses on the more able students. When this happens in my classes, I find it extremely difficult to deal with; technically speaking I am a resource, there to improve the learning experience of these kids, and, as such, I feel that my input is particularly valuable to those kids who are struggling to engage with the subject. I have never once heard a member of staff use the term ‘dyslexic’ to describe any of these kids; instead they are referred to as ‘special’ at best and ‘stupid’ or even ‘idiotic’ at worst. Many teachers give them up as hopeless cases and ignore them completely. Yet, I cannot condemn these teachers, who are trying to do the best they can with the lot they are given. They receive no training in pastoral care or learning support. And now, with the enormous cuts in Spain falling particularly hard on public service and education, this seems even more unlikely to happen. I know that the staff are not happy with the status quo; many went on strike for the Huelga General which swept across Europe. The majority of those who didn’t strike failed to do so not because they are satisfied with the state of affairs, but because they simply couldn’t afford to; for every day they strike, 150 euros is docked from their salary.

But whilst the situation across Spain as a whole is deteriorating, my personal affairs are flourishing nicely. I feel my improvement can be summarised neatly in one particular episode that happened last week as I was teaching a 4*ESO class (15 year olds). We were playing a game where I showed the class a photo of a celebrity as a child, and they had to guess their identity. When they had guessed correctly, I revealed a photo of the celebrity as an adult. They had just correctly guessed Kirsten Dunst from a photo of her as a baby. When I showed a photo of the grown-up Kirsten at a movie premiere, a boy made a –seemingly involuntary – loud, sexual grunt of pleasure, immediately causing his classmates to erupt with hysterics. This was all well and good, until a girl at the back piped up, “Hey! It looks like Florence!” 19 heads – including the male teacher’s- immediately swivelled to stare at the unfortunate boy who had made the rather inappropriate noise, before turning back to look at me, and bursting out laughing. The poor kid turned purple with embarrassment, looking anywhere but at me. I, remarkably, did not blush. Instead, I looked at Kirsten on the interactive whiteboard, smiled mildly, and acknowledged the compliment with a nod of the head. When the bell rang I sailed out of the class with my dignity intact, feeling more than a  little smug. I call that progress.

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