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Teaching English in Spain: The Low-Down

I first started teaching English in September of last year. While I grew up with a slight suspicion that teaching could be an option for me, I never intended to make it a career. Though it’s true that I don’t have plans to return home as a teacher, the experience of teaching abroad has made me realize a lot about myself, the profession, and the world. It’s an incredible thing to do – to be a representative of your language to students from another place. If nothing else, teaching English in Spain has made me appreciate how many amazing things come with being a native English speaker. For better or for worse, we’re extremely privileged.

In Spain, students start attending school as young as three years old. While it isn’t mandatory to begin that young, most Spanish kids do. When I walked into my first infantil class, I was amazed – these kids were the littlest things, and would be playing at home all day or in a day care if they were in Canada. Instead, they were here, learning about several different things.

To break it down, these are the academic levels – here in Spain – along with the corresponding ages:

Infantil: 3-6 years old.

Primaria: 6-12 years old.

ESO: 12-16 years old.

Bachillerato: 16-18 years old.

For my first six months in Spain, I taught ESO and Bachillerato students. I was taken aback at how the youngest student was only ten years younger than me, meaning my oldest students were merely four years younger than myself. Later, I moved onto teaching Infantil. I currently work in Primaria, meaning I’ve managed to cover every age group in Madrid. Here are my thoughts on each, with an idea of what schedules (for teachers) are like:

Infantil:

If you want to play with little kids, this is the position for you. As an Infantil teacher, my job was to round up the kids, walk them to my class, sit them down in a circle, and begin my routine. Here’s the kicker: you always do the same thing with children in this age group. I had to start off the class by saying “hello”, asking them how they all were, what the weather was like that day, along with the day and month. Kids in Infantil are restless, so I would always have to move on to games – Simon Says, flashcards, etc. – very quickly. I have no qualms with singing in front of groups, so this made my job a little easier. The little kids in Infantil love to sing, play, and display their knowledge.

The upside: Little kids are adorable. My students would never cease to let me pass by without a “hello!” or hug. On my last day at work, all of them hugged me and insisted on kissing me on the cheek. During my actual classes with them, they would often fight over who got to sit next to me, help me with the games, or even talk to me. Although I did have a few “problem” students, most of them were as sweet as pie.

The downside: As cute as Infantil kids are, they’re also incredibly draining. While you’re there to teach them, you also have to discipline them, meaning an abundance of energy is required. My voice would often die on me, I would always be sick, and not even a daily coffee, coke, and nap would give me enough energy. The schedule was also broken up quite a bit, meaning I would be at school from 9:15am-4:30pm and only have officially “worked” about 5 hours due to breaks.

What I learned about myself: I always knew I liked kids, but this solidified it. The kids are what made this position worthwhile, as they would always make me laugh and have fun despite making me feel exhausted by the end of the day!

Verdict: Depending on the school, Infantil can be fun, dynamic, and an amazing learning experience. Regardless of where you work, it will be mentally tiring, so this isn’t the best age group to work with for the more introverted. I would do it again for a short bout of time, but for an entire year, my body would probably give out!

Primaria:

If you want to work with more independent, yet still adorable, kids, Primaria will be your best fit. I’m still in the early stages of teaching primary students, but as I’ve experienced it very briefly the year before, I know that English teachers in primary have an easier time. Primaria students are generally much more interested in school than their older counterparts are, yet also have the capability to do things on their own (unlike Infantil kids). The younger students in Primaria are a little more to handle, but are beginning their quest to “grow up”, and are very much proud of the fact that they can take care of themselves!

The upside: Besides the older groups, Primaria students are still very adorable and little. The youngest students are just out of Infantil, thus are still very affectionate with you, but will be able to open their own books and follow most instructions. The youngest Primaria kids are a little draining, but most students in this age group aren’t. They follow instructions easily, will be much nicer than the older students will be, and are overall a more pleasant group to teach. There are also less ups and downs, as they haven’t quite hit their moody stage yet! As teachers, we can also follow books and lesson plans more, making our jobs easier. Also – no extremely creepy boys, and all nice girls? Jackpot!

The downside: The schedule is similar to Infantil, but with slightly longer classes. This means that you’re usually working from 9:00am until 4:30pm, with about two hours’ worth of breaks. For a lot of teachers, this is an awful predicament. For me, it isn’t, particularly as my school provides us with complementary lunches!

What I’ve learned about myself: Though I enjoy my job in Primaria thus far, I’ve definitely learned that I like to be more involved in teaching the students than I currently am. While I expect my position to change slightly, it will still be a lot less demanding (should this be an upside?) than in any of the other age groups. I’ve also learned that, again, I am not a kid-hater. Even the brattier boys in Primaria are still likable, and I find it easy to be in these classes.

Verdict: Based on my experiences in Primaria, I find it to be the age group that just about anyone can fit into. Even teachers who like more involvement in classes will still appreciate the relative ease of working with this age group. I’m extremely appreciative of being placed in Primaria, as any of the other levels would have been difficult for me to do again!

ESO:

Students in “ESO” have a bit of a bad reputation. Teachers are known to call this age group the “troubled” ones, and with good reason. ESO kids aren’t exactly like high school students, as the 1st and 2nd years of ESO are the equivalent of the 7th and 8th grade in Canada. However, that’s still a mixed bag. Some students are interesting, but others are just a pain. The 3rd and 4th ESO groups are students in 9th and 10th grades of high school, meaning they can be hyper-active, a little perverted, but often still great kids. I was always partial to the even numbers in ESO – the 2nd and 4th levels (8th and 10th grades) – as they always seemed to be better students. Still, as an ESO teacher, your job involves dealing with teens going through the infamous pubescent stage of their lives. That alone says it all.

The upside: It can be incredibly rewarding. Though working in Infantil and Primaria is also rewarding, it’s a little different in ESO. These kids are in the process of choosing their career path because in Spain, students are filtered into different subject groups before they hit the Bachillerato stage. This is the age group where your influence can be easily seen, as these students are molding into the young adults they’ll soon be. The schedule is also amazing if you work at a school where ESO students finish earlier than the younger kids. At my ESO school, I had days where I was at work as early as 8am, but on those days, I never finished later than 3pm. I usually worked in short bursts, sometimes working from 11am until 2pm.

The downside: Teenagers suck. Some teachers do admit to preferring this age group as they get along better with teenagers (and feel awkward with kids), but I have always preferred kids to teens, even as a teen. I could also never get past the strange/non-nonexistent student-teacher dynamics of ESO. My school expected me to grade these students, but the students treated me as though I was their big sister. Although the point of these teaching programs is to have you be like a slightly older mentor, my position as one of the youngest people in my program teaching some of the oldest kids in the school led to many inappropriate comments and moments. Some would say that’s inevitable with this age group, but it go to be too much for me. As great as my schedule was, I rarely looked forward to making the trek to work. I always had favourite classes and students, but even my favourites would sometimes let me down. C’est la vie.

Verdict: If you aren’t comfortable around little kids, ESO is great for you. If you like a challenge and want students with attitude issues, even better! Though ESO isn’t all bad, I wouldn’t do it again. Not even the improved schedule of ESO would take me away from Primaria!

Bachillerato:

Bachillerato teachers always have a unique perspective on their time with the 16-18 year olds. Many absolutely adore these students, while some find it difficult. As a Bachillerato teacher, I often enjoyed my discussions with this group. Unlike Primaria and ESO, Bachillerato is not mandatory for Spanish students. Those who choose to pursue their education until 18 years old are doing so to attend university, thus making this group more focused than its predecessors. They often have their career track planned, are more serious, but still have their “teenager moments”.

The upside: These students are more mature than those found in ESO. They are also less likely to be rude or moody, meaning your classes are less difficult to deal with. They listen more, will discuss topics more readily, and are as a whole an intelligent group. The schedule is like that of ESO, except even better as Bachillerato students can potentially finish earlier than other students. It’s also great to be able to prepare classes on more taboo topics that can’t be covered with the younger kids. I always found Bachillerato gave me an insight into young Spanish life.

The downside: Bachillerato students are still teenagers, meaning they can still be difficult to deal with at times. Though my most difficult moments were with the ESO kids, I had some inappropriate students in Bachillerato, too. As these kids are also older, they see less of an age difference between you and them. This can sometimes mean they respect you more as they do see an age difference, but it can also mean they think of you as their counterpart when you most certainly aren’t.

Verdict: Some schools have very focused Bachillerato groups with only a limited number of students being admitted, meaning they can be very challenging and very rewarding. This group is great for aspiring teachers, as many different things are addressed when working with Bachillerato students. However, despite the upsides, I wouldn’t be inclined to teach this group again. I would, however, consider it, unlike ESO!

In the end, a lot of how teachers feel about teaching in Spain depends on how accommodating their schools are. The first school I worked at gave me a great schedule, but absolutely no time to train or observe anything. I walked away from that experience very jaded with the process, and teaching in Spain in general. My second school made me look at things differently again, as I fell in love with the students and had a great experience with most of the teaching staff. My current school has given me benefits neither of my two previous schools gave me, though I’ve yet to be there for very long. As such, my perspective has changed several times.

If you’re contemplating teaching English in Spain (or abroad), I hope this guide helps you decide whether it’s right for you, and what to expect in each group!

Are you teaching English in Spain, Korea, Japan, or anywhere else? If so, what are your thoughts on it? Your favourite group or experience?

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7 thoughts on “Teaching English in Spain: The Low-Down

  1. I enjoyed my sexto de primaria students a lot. Still young enough not to be total jerks, but old enough to be able to talk to me, joke with me, and truly interact with me. I loved those kids! Too bad the teacher was an idiot …

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