Present Perfect Poop: Teaching English in Spain

Co-teaching English in Spain is an experience akin to being cast in a two-man show, for which only your co-star has the script, just as the curtain is rising. I can’t say I was wholly unprepared as I had taught in Chile before, but…well, yes, I was wholly unprepared. But more than that, teaching in Spain comes with certain idiosyncrasies that made my year as a Language and Culture Assistant at a Spanish bilingual public school a hilarious, frustrating, enjoyable, and confusing experience.

As I alluded to above, it would be an understatement to say that there is a lack of effective communication in Spanish public schools: between Director and Coordinator, Coordinator and Teachers, and especially between Teachers and Language Assistants. A perk of being a Language Assistant is that there’s no lesson planning involved. We’re simply expected to show up to class and lead activities and lessons according to the curriculum the school and head teacher provide for us. The downside of this is that we’re unaware of the lesson plan before entering the classroom, and sometimes are even unaware of what class we’re in, be it English Language, Science, or Arts, all of which are taught in English in a bilingual school.

I took classes at the Second City when I lived in Chicago and I must say that being an assistant English teacher in Spain is the very best training in improvisation that one can get. One of my co-teachers, Adrian, would consistently start scenes at the front of the classroom and involve me in them without warning or consent. I’d be contently and cluelessly standing in front of the class when suddenly, Adrian is playing a sick patient and I’m supposed to be his doctor and explain to him, and the class, what are the proper steps one can take to stay healthy. I have, at various points throughout this school year, been cast on the spot as a waitress to a picky customer, a scientist researching the effects of eating only cereals, a lost tourist asking for directions, a nosy reporter asking too many personal questions, a realtor, and a pet owner. My stage fright dissipated as the year went on, but my performance skills never improved, and I could never predict the show times.

In another instance of this, I once arrived a couple minutes late to a fourth grade class because I was using the bathroom. When I entered the classroom, the head teacher, Belen, asked me, “What have you done?” I stopped in the doorway and looked blankly at her as the students stared back at me. Did she really want the details of my recent restroom rendezvous? After a quick sidebar, I realized she was reviewing the present perfect tense and was trying to coax an example out of me. I almost answered, “I have pooped,” since it was true and would have been grammatically correct, but I decided against it and went with something more along the lines of “I have studied” or “I have eaten breakfast” (which incidentally preceded the pooping).

I can’t call the school disorganized. There is a curriculum in place; I’m simply not privy to the specifics of it. My school follows The Bilingual Program’s Top Secret Curriculum (Not for Language Assistants’ Eyes).

The Glitter Trials: A Waste of Time
Working in Spain, you have to expect and accept that a lot of time will be wasted. My school growing up was very similar to Spanish schools in its time wasting techniques. Every day there was a holiday to celebrate, a cause to support, an assembly to attend, a spirit week to dress up for, a performance to watch, a Jewish festival that necessitated the ordering of falafel and the suspension of Hebrew class, a new moon that required we eat bagels. We could come up with any excuse not to have regular class. This is why I’m so smart. So I’m not really astounded, as my fellow Language Assistants are, by the school’s ability to waste time. That, I’m used to. But as a teacher, rather than a student, this time around I do find it frustrating to stand at the front of the classroom and get nothing done in a day; to try my best to get a lesson going and to have no one, not even the head teacher, acknowledge my presence.

On one day in particular, Belen walked into the classroom and noticed that a small vile of glitter had been moved from one of her organized cubbies to another and that some of it was missing. The class exploded into a full-on Jerry Springer-type spectacle as the students accused one another of moving and using the glitter. Belen would not stop egging them on until she found the culprit with glitter on her hands (all the suspects were female). By the end of the trial, Belen had called no fewer than six witnesses to the stand at the front of the classroom. I shouldn’t have been so surprised by this newfangled waste of time since this teacher’s daily routine was to enter the classroom, futilely shout at the students for a little while, and then retreat to her computer to watch videos on YouTube while I taught the entire class or worked with a small group in the back, as I was regularly instructed to do. On the day of the Glitter Trial, I don’t think we ever quite got to the “Belen surfs the internet/ Elyssa teaches” phase of the class before the bell sounded. No verdict was reached in Belen vs. the Second Graders, but it was a trailblazing case for Craft Supply Rights.



I’m fine, thank you, and you?
Each grade in the school consisted of three classes, and Language Assistants were generally assigned to three different grades. I was assigned to teach first, second, and fourth grades, which I welcomed with open arms after my experience with uncontrollable, disrespectful middle and high schoolers in Chile. Kids are hilarious and ridiculous and cute and annoying and gross, and this past school year will officially be referred to in historical texts as “The Year Elyssa Began Finding Children Tolerable and Even, In Some Cases, Likeable.”

I am the type of person who holds my breath for a minute if anyone within a 100-foot radius of me coughs or sneezes. I am a person who not so secretly shuns people who don’t wash their hands after using the toilet (I know who you are). I will refuse a hug from a child with watery pink eyes and will remember not to high five you if I have recently seen you blow your nose. So working in an elementary school should be my very worst nightmare. If I had a nickel for every time I had to explain the Dracula Coughing Method (Covering your nose and mouth with your elbow when you cough or sneeze so that you bear a slight resemblance to a caped Dracula), tell a student to please remove his wrists from his nose or to please refrain from touching himself under the desk during class, and peel a sweaty child from my torso after a nonconsensual hug, I could afford to never teach English again.

Despite its flaws, my time spent at the school was a surprising highlight of my year in Spain. Especially because my housing situation was less than fantastic, I really found comfort in spending my days among the truly innocent. I didn’t always pay attention to the exceptional occurrences of each day; I didn’t always notice each student. Sometimes all I do in a day is think about how tired I am. Often I’d leave class not even really sure what just happened. Such is life. But my year was salvaged in those small hilarious and surprising moments, not quite “Kodak” but not something else entirely. Like when I’d pass a student in the hall and she would automatically say to me, as though it were all one word, “I’m fine thank you and you,” not realizing that it’s a response to a question and not a salutation. Or when one second grade student would clap his hands at the back of the class and enthusiastically shout “Incredible!” whenever a classmate answered a question correctly. Or when I’d turn around from facing the blackboard and catch a student chewing on the sleeve of a jacket that hung on a hook 3 feet away and I could not contain my laughter. Or when a little six-year-old girl came up to me after class, put her hand on my shoulder and said (in Spanish), “You’re a very hard worker. Have you always been a very hard worker?” These little side dishes made my year, and I wish that I had noticed more of them, and that I had let those be the object of my focus instead of the thieving landlords and bitchy roommates; that I had let the positive define my time there instead of letting the negative permeate every facet of my life in Spain.

I’m not yet sure if I will return for another year at my teaching job in Madrid. The stress of the year, which had almost nothing to do with teaching, caused me a lot of problems, and part of me thinks I should just move on and leave Spain in the dust. There are other countries to explore and other jobs I want to do, though none of them as safe or stable as Spain and my job there. My mind changes every day, but if I do return to Madrid in the fall, I’ll be happy to see the kids again and will wave at them profusely in an effort to avoid a germy hug.

*Names have been changed to avoid the innocent and my termination.

  1. July 13, 2014
  2. July 15, 2014
  3. July 16, 2014
  4. July 17, 2014
    • July 18, 2014