Like many aspects of culture that vary from country-to-country, I’ve definitely found that student-teacher relationships can be different here in Spain than what I was used to in the US. Shortly, Claudia will be providing some perspective from the side of a student, but today I’ll be speaking from the side of an English teacher which, for me, has involved working with children and adults in both classroom and private lesson settings.
The biggest difference when it comes to these relationships is that, even in the public schools where I worked as an auxiliar, the interactions you have with students are much more informal than those we have in the United States. From the fact that children call their teachers by first name to the fact that ‘teacher clothes’ aren’t really a thing in most cases, you’ll notice the more casual vibe instantly. At first, this shocked me and I felt a little uncomfortable about being “Teacher Danielle” or simply “Danielle” instead of “Ms J” as students would have been expected to address me back home. However, this intimacy that you develop from the very start is something I have come to love about student-teacher relationships here, despite it leading to some difficulties for me. Of course, this lends itself a bit differently depending on the age of the students you are working with.
WORKING WITH CHILDREN
Being hands-on is totally acceptable: Trust me, you have never been touched by more people at once than you will be when you enter a Spanish elementary school classroom. My very first day as a teacher’s assistant involved more hugs and kisses from children I didn’t know than I could have ever imagined! Children here throw themselves at you, expecting a hug, at every opportunity and it will probably make you worry a bit if you come from a culture like mine. In the US, we’re so obsessed with boundaries and completely avoid touching students for fear of it seeming inappropriate.
While, of course, we need to have healthy boundaries and still avoid anything that could truly be inappropriate, here in Spain that line is drawn very differently than in the US. It’s totally normal for teachers to hold a young student’s hand as they are walking them somewhere, to give a student a hug or an encouraging squeeze of the shoulders when they do something well, or even to allow a student to sit on their lap as they’re reviewing an assignment.
Note: Perhaps my experience in a pueblo was a bit extreme and familiar and you will not find all of these examples to be normal where you work. Still, I’m sharing them in hopes that you will be less mortified than I was if it happens, worrying that the other teachers and I would become the center of some lawsuit.
Closed doors and free reign are normal: While all families are different, my experience has been that families who invite you into their home to give private lessons to their children will trust you to conduct the lesson in whatever way you want, typically behind a closed door. I’ve had one family suggest I give the lesson in the living room, but they changed their mind by week 3 (pointing out the boy would be more likely to focus if he were sat at his desk, away from his little sisters) and another family that doesn’t close the door to the girl’s room but they’re still off in a completely different part of the house while I work with her.
I also get very few guidelines or requests for what I teach their children and parents often simply want their children to spend time ‘in English’—regardless of what that looks like. I’ve literally spent classes cooking pizza with kids and have had parents drop their tween daughters off with me in the city center with money so that we could grab breakfast and go shopping!
Note: Again, my experiences may be a bit unique but I point out these ‘extreme’ examples to prove the point that anything goes and you shouldn’t be too surprised if parents say ‘vale’ to whatever you offer to do with their kids. I recommend taking this as an invitation to mix things up and plan activities you might not be able to do with students whose parents who are less open-minded.
WORKING WITH ADULTS
The friend vibes may get to you: I LOVE the university students I have worked with over the years and, had we met under other circumstances, I would probably be hanging out with them all of the time. However, since I grew up in a culture in which it would not be appropriate to have personal contact with students, I often find myself in awkward situations when a group of students (who are not that different in age from me) decide to make a class Whatsapp group and ask if I want to be in it.
I know plenty of teachers (especially those who work at language academies) who say yes without qualms, or even who, themselves, suggest having a Whatsapp group in order to stay in touch about any schedule or homework updates. Still, I can’t bring myself to do it until we have finished our course together and so I try to keep any contact ‘professional’ by using email.
Note: Of course, when teaching private lessons to adults, it’s pretty much impossible to avoid what feels like ‘personal contact’ over the phone. You simply need to find whatever boundaries feel right for you (perhaps responding to homework questions at 11pm doesn’t bother you, perhaps it does). For me, grabbing a beer and tapas with my students while we are working together doesn’t feel right but it’s not necessarily frowned upon in Spain. Use your own judgement!
Informal can easily turn into unreliable: While I like the fact that Spaniards tend to be more laid-back and casual in their approach to student-teacher relationships (at least in the English classes realm), this can sometimes backfire. Remember how I mentioned some students might Whatsapp you at 11pm? Well, sometimes that’s a message to cancel your 9am classes. I’ve found that it can be difficult to maneuver friendly, informal contact while also exuding professionalism and an expectation of commitment.
As experienced teachers everywhere would tell you, it can often be helpful to start out strict and work your way into more ‘friendly’ territory. Informing students of your expectations—especially in terms of advanced notice for schedule changes/cancellations—upfront can save you a lot of frustration down the road.
Note: For me, there is a huge difference between giving English classes, facilitating English conversation, and doing an intercambio (in which case there is typically no payment, you simply exchange opportunities to practice your language skills). Make sure that you and your student have a clear understanding of what kind of arrangement you’re agreeing to. Again, it can be awkward if a student suggests “just grabbing tapas instead of class today” and you assume that means making the class less formal (but you’ll still be paid for a lesson) but they meant it as social outing.
As with everything, your experiences may be different from the situations I’ve described above (even some of my own experiences don’t fall into these categories!). However, I believe these four points will help you go into your English teaching experience with a better idea of what may be normal in a student-teacher relationship here in Spain.
Have you had similar shocks or frustrations in your experience as an English teacher? Are there any other differences you think we should share?