It´s Easter hols, I´m stuck on a Ryanair flight trying to draw breath; surely the slaves on the ships from Africa had more room? I could go into a rant about Ryanair being a baggage company thinly disguised as airline, but why bother when they are so frequently in the local news & on telly; it´s very rarely a good story. The company we love to hate.

Well it´s been almost a year in Spain and seven months teaching or to be more accurate an Auxiliare Conversación . You may ask what that involves? The fact is that though English has been a compulsory language since the noughties (French lost out), and a hundred thousand English speakers are resident on the island, the level of spoken English is fairly weak when compared to say their maligned neighbour Portugal.

 Of course, the northern Europeans are on a different level and often it´s difficult to detect they are not native speakers. So the idea of Auxiliare Conversación is to help the kids (I work in the primary CEIP system), by assisting the English teachers improve the level of spoken English; the literal translation of the term, is that you help them converse in English. In the primary system this is somewhat of a daunting undertaking. The Spanish schooling system starts at three years old. Yes, these kids barely know how to wipe their bum and we have to give them language lessons. Consequently, we mainly use games, puzzles, song, music, painting, drawing, craft art, movement a la CBBC´s, to entertain them. We really articulate the English language, by giving out instruction on what the goal of the lesson is, with little emphasis on specific learning objectives. We really want the kids to engage with the use of the language instead of shutting down with the Spanish shrug & no entiendo. Luckily Spanish kids love a song, visual art can easily grasp rhythm, and have a good knowledge of grammar after the age of ten.

Kids just wanna have fun?

The kids just really want to play (a critical part of their learning) but for example, we do basic housekeeping with them by teaching them; which month it is, which day it is, which number day it is (ordinals), taking roll call, & getting them to do this interactively with a children-friendly calendar. The children also have an assembly each morning, where they can vent their feelings or review events following the weekend. We communicate in English which is largely understood, but alas they often prefer Catalan, or Spanish however halting. Daily, they seem to enjoy themselves & each others´ company and they can let loose in the ecological (we grow food) playground. Also, they go swimming (the school is basically four classrooms) and on excursions every week.

I don´t like Mondays

Having said this some, make it obvious they would prefer to stay with mum and we find Monday´s particularly bothersome. Whether it is the return to our regime or some biochemical blitz that occurs on the weekend, I´m not sure. We feed them a non-processed lunch so maybe something else gwan. The school being up in the mountains (Tramuntana), is pretty cold most Mondays, but this seems to have little effect on the kids, except that nearly every week so far, they have been riddled with some sort of virus.

Results dear boy

So the 64 million dollar question; Do they learn English? My two schools operate two different teaching methodologies. In Palma it is more traditional with name assigned desks and set Books. In Montessori-style school, one class has no desks, and we don´t use books.

Well subjectively, the kids often know some English as often one of the parents is English speaking, so we rarely start on ground zero. I´m happy to report that they certainly pick up vocabulary (we give out instruction in English) and often they have a decent pronunciation given the age. Native speakers notwithstanding (they often talk English at home) it´s too much to ask them to produce a basic conversation at three years old, and given that they will also converse in Catalan, the dominant language in both schools. The children have a reluctance to converse in English e.g. replying to a specific question. A monosyllabic response (Yes/no) will often be the response.

Should we worry? I do think three is too early for a child to attend formal schooling (indeed we call the youngest kindergarten), and I would be more comfortable with the Finnish system which doesn´t start formal lessons until seven. I started serious French at that age, but it´s difficult to pick an age, as children all have different development levels. We may be teaching English numbers to a child who has barely grasped the number system of their own language(L1), and I know we often teach vocabulary that the kids don´t know in their L1 or L2 … not ideal. Overall play teaching is fairly demanding, as you may dream up an activity that is not liked or simply age inappropriate. This sadly only comes with experience or experiment … part of my learning process. Also, you want to ensure some language learning is occurring, else what is the point? With no desks, Mondays can become a bit like herding cats as the kids roll across the floor, chase each other, fight or simply stare at the wall.

Roaming or Rooming

Again, getting the configuration of the room’s critical & I´ve been impressed with some of the activities in China which use interactive white board and chairs for child interaction. This seems must better than a Montessori free for all, where children undoubtedly have fun, but quite often the teacher doesn´t. In Palma, we also have discipline problems, but as they are literally locked in by their desks; the natural roaming behaviour is limited. But these are Western kids, not Chinese & one thing I learnt early on is that either you control the classroom or the kids will; not the ideal situation for a teacher to be in.

La Doctoressa

Reading Montessori´s Biography I read with a certain smile a passage from an English student on a 1916 Montessori course in Barcelona:

I had ample opportunity of observing startling results of touch as an aid to learning both in the schools in Barcelona and at a very remarkable school in Palma, Majorca, and that the whole system has a wonderful way of turning rampageous little urchins into cheerfully diligent little students, whose pleasure it is to be quiet, industrious, and well behaved.

Montessori

So the discipline problem is hardly a new one; you need to get across there´s a time to play and a time not to play … not easy. I was also surprised to learn that Montessori lived in Barcelona for twenty years with the Catalan government´s support, only leaving when Franco seized power. So the experience of this more personal type of education is extensive.

Luckily I also teach in a more conventional school in Palma with books, desks & curricula. The regime is fairly brutal; if you fail the year you don´t go up.

I must admit the level of English of the Palma students are at least a year higher (per age group) than those from the mountains. The Palma students here don´t seem particularly unhappy, but there are still discipline (usually with the weaker students) problems (luckily I´m not in that school on Mondays). The Palma students (largely immigrant) have better numeracy in all languages; with the 11 yo (y6/y7) I can have quite sophisticated conversations (about jobs/careers)  and even with the 9 yo (y4) I can converse to an adult level.

Conclusions

  • The (Spanish) Catalan Education system is pretty efficient with very dedicated skilled staff & often a very modern comprehensive (they teach cooking?) curriculum.
  • There is a lack of native speaker support for English, even though many students are native speaking migrants.
  • Discipline is a huge problem in the CEIP if not globally, but it tends to be at a low (noisy) level.
  • Technology is hardly used with often a brittle ICT infrastructure and support.
  • The children are generally very friendly, loving and pretty bright; your expertise is appreciated, even though you´re not a teacher. You must learn their names!
  • Teaching conditions (notwithstanding the classroom problem) are good with a plentiful supply of materials etc.
  • The temperature can be very cold & the children frequently have virus infections.
  • The traditional education system is more efficient than the looser Montessori style, which is well versed in Catalonia.
  • The children start at 3yo & I think this could be delayed till about 6 yo like the Finnish system.
  • Catalan is the dominant language in the Balearic Schools, which are intrinsically multi-lingual. Something to be applauded, given Mallorca´s rural background.
  • English whilst not Japanese, is up there with the difficult languages, spelling being the elephant in the room, even for a native speaker. As a result, children lose curiosity & get through lessons.
  • Children will readily eat unprocessed foods.
  • Speaking a few words of Spanish is pretty useful particularly with the weaker students.

Finally I wouldn´t say an Auxiliare Conversación is a particularly easy job; there are many hurdles you have to navigate, often without sufficient experience.The only way you can improve is by making mistakes, like your students. Mistakes = learning . From the outset, I determined my success or failure was not going to be governed by others, the system or indeed Spain. Whatever obstacles were thrown at me, and there were quite a few, it was going to be about me, and not about them. I expected chaos, contradiction, blocking, misinformation, … I was not disappointed.

You keep fighting every day, but on the other hand, I did not expect love.

I decided early on that my goal was to teach English, no matter what. I was not supposed to teach, I did. After every class I wanted my students to have learnt something and not wasted the time. The noises orf were not going to be a reason for failure. In fact, much of education is about preparing you how you deal with chaos. I get asked if you need Spanish to do this job? I would say it´s not required (you will often have a Spanish speaker in the class) but it does help, particularly with the weaker students who often won´t understand a word you´re saying. Because of their age, you won´t need a huge repertoire of Spanish, but a few imperatives won´t go amiss (callarte=”shut up”). Like English, Spanish is not a particularly easy language to master, but what I have found is that the native speaking kids will often explain to their mates what they need to do. Pairing weak vs strong is a great strategy.

Every morning I get up to go to School, I feel very positive on what I´m doing.; I´m contributing. There are not many jobs I´ve had that feeling and maybe that´s what counts?

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