I have a schedule posted on the board in the English department’s office. It pretty much lists the twelve classes I will attend each week, all different levels of students ranging from ages 12-18, with correlating levels of English (seventh graders being the lowest level, twelfth graders the highest). However, since Spain has a different way of labeling students and grades, I haven’t quite memorized the various levels, nor knew, during my first week, what ages I would encounter until I entered the classrooms and asked students how old they were.
On my schedule in the English department are beautiful little boxes where the teachers can write the topic of the day. Beneath my schedule is a plastic funda, (I don’t know this word in English), where teachers can put photocopies of activities or, in most cases, of the textbooks that they make the poor students purchase, that we will be discussing that day.
This is how it should work: the day before the lesson, my beautiful little boxes should be filled with notes, copies should be underneath in the funda, and I can enter each of my twelve different subjects prepared to teach.
But let me review the teachers’ day in Spain. Yesterday I think it was 98 degrees (haven’t quite learned Centigrade yet, but I’m guessing over 40). Please note: no air conditioning. Students remain in the same room, together, all day, waiting for various teachers to filter in from all over the building, a pile of books and chalk in hand. Each teacher has at least three preps, usually five, and the schedule for all varies from day to day. There is not one moment of consistency. You cannot expect to go in and teach level one English during period two, five days a week. It will be three times a week, and the time changes depending on the day. Hopefully you can appear in the correct classroom at the correct time with the correct materials. So far, I have not succeeded in doing so.
I have not a qualm in the world then, when I return home and tell Bruce about my day, and he replies with, They are taking advantage of you because you showed them that you’re too good in the beginning, and I shoot back with, You have no idea what it’s like for them.
Today I had a plan for one of three classes, as one teacher put her copies in the funda and wrote her topic in my beautiful little box. I attended the bilingual meeting, where I was again reminded that I do not speak nor understand Spanish, other than when the music teacher (my new favorite person) spoke in a clear, slow, perfectly-understandable accent. I heard bits and pieces of conversations, and one somewhat heated debate involving menus, prices, and places to eat, having to do with, perhaps, everyone getting together on November 9? My goal for the end of the year: to know what happens during these weekly meetings!
I attended the first, prepared-for class. The teacher wanted me to run the entire show, beginning to end, and I felt confident that I at last understood my job. I am the only one who speaks English with perfect authority, and I only have these students once per week. They need to hear the native speaker. No matter what it is I have to say. But more importantly, the teachers? God do they need a break!!! We learned about multiculturalism in Britain after a brief lecture by me (while the teacher ran an errand) about the letters being the same in the words SILENT and LISTEN… high schoolers… ugh…
Moving on to the next class, I appeared on time, before the teacher, of course. She came in and saw the math scribbles on the board and asked me if I needed chalk, holding up the two tiny stubs of chalk that remained below the chalkboard. (Might I remind everyone that there are no overhead projectors, not even the transparency type??) Sure… I replied… what might we be doing today? (She hadn’t filled my beautiful little box, so I hadn’t the slightest idea, though I was immediately relieved to see a group of middle-school-aged kids, my home). All About Britain, she replied, and when I asked if they’d already started to read the book, she didn’t understand me. We switched to Spanish, but let me tell you. I may have trouble understanding Spanish, but at least I don’t claim to be a Spanish teacher, God forbid!
Luckily for me, this appeared the be the same lesson that was minutes-before thrust on me on Monday with a different teacher, so I perfected it quite nicely today, thank you very much! (I decided to omit his absurd terminating requirement of having one student at a time read aloud a sentence in English and translate, for the whole class, the Spanish equivalent… translation truly just doesn’t work most of the time). The teacher today? She sat in the back of the room fanning herself and not saying a word. Total trust after less than a week? I’ll take it.
On to lesson three, where I received the most beautiful gift of all time. First, there’s a fifteen-minute break for everyone in the school before the last period of the day! Second, I’d made questions for this particular text one day while sitting on the beach, and had printed them for the teacher, who, surprise surprise, never had time to make copies. I guess you will have to write them on the board then she told me… I stared at my palms, whose chalk dust I had just washed off in the bathroom. I suppose so… I admitted, crestfallen. But when we walked down to her room, voila! Smartboard, projector, computer. Do you have this room every week, for this class? I asked, more excited than a kid just arriving at Disney World. It was about the best gift I could imagine receiving. I pulled out my flash drive, asked the tallest boy in the class (high schoolers again??) to reach up to the ceiling and turn on the projector, and I felt like a real teacher again! I could type! Change fonts! Add colors!! Use a pointer, highlight, underline, everything I feel like every student needs, but ESPECIALLY second language students. How lucky the teacher is, in a room that has such a beautiful gift, one whose description would never fit into a beautiful little box, because words could never fit the gratitude that filled every moment of that oh-so-perfect American lesson.
Before I left for the day, I checked my schedule again. Someone had scribbled in, All About Britain, in the box for today (a little after the fact, I think). I also had a note on my desk from a teacher saying he wouldn’t be in the class I share with him tomorrow, but could I do the same lesson as Monday? (Well, the cultural liaison explained, Since everyone realized right away that you are an actual teacher, not like these teacher assistants we’ve had in the past, we have great trust in you…It’s up to you, though, if you want to do that…)
I couldn’t explain to her, in English or Spanish, what I do, what I have done, for the past seven years. I couldn’t explain it this morning in the meeting when the history teacher asked me if I knew anything about American history and I tried to say, in front of all, in my broken Spanish, that I co-taught that subject for seven years. I couldn’t explain to my colleagues back home what it is like to be a teacher in Spain. All I can do is be the best teacher I know how to be, to fit myself into a beautiful little box, and hope that when the box is opened, the students on the other side will see the world in a different way.