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After being in Spain for nearly a month and a half now, it seems like I’m finally starting to get a feel for my English classes. It’s been slightly difficult to find a routine between all the cancelled classes, student strikes, and Spanish holidays. But now that things have finally settled down a little, I think I can give a few opinions on Spanish education thus far.

In Spain, Amanda and I are working at what are called institutos (high schools). Institutos, however, have students from the American equivalent of 7th grade all the way through 12th grade. The age difference in the students has been amazing. I have had some classes where it feels like an elementary school circus, with kids screaming, yelling, and even dancing. At the other extreme, many of the older high school students are quite reserved and totally uninterested in learning or being in school.

Additionally, I feel it is fair to say there is much more order in American rather than Spanish schools. That shouldn’t be surprising since America at large is much more orderly than Spain. Of course along with the disorder in Spanish schools comes a bit more freedom. I was surprised at how students can come and go from the building as they please, and even go and smoke on the sidewalk outside during breaks. There’s no checking in, signing out, policemen, drug dogs, dress code, metal detectors, etc. that have become common in U.S. public schools (Even ol’ McMinn County High School had become fairly prison-like when I was there). On the other hand, it is highly frustrating as a rule-respecting American when there are students in class who refuse to listen, raise their hands, and be generally engaged.

To be fair, not all classes have been disruptive and unproductive. Many have been very successful and rewarding. It’s just that some classes have a lot of kids that really try to speak and communicate, and others are full of students that act like they have never heard an English word. It really just depends on the group of individuals…

Which has led me closer to the belief that most of the problems that I have seen with students in the schools have to do with some kind of failure on the part of the parents and the family. I think that would be true both in the United States and in Spain. Much of this is due to the breakdown of the family in both countries. When kids are major behavior problems in school, I would reason it’s because there is a lack of parental support and discipline in the home. Likewise, I would argue that the students who do really well in class and who are motivated (and yet are surrounded by class clowns) do so because of support and structure provided by their family.

As one of my college professors always said, most real learning happens outside of the classroom. In my own experience that has been true. Most of my early education happened at home from my parents. Later, most of it came from books I read on my own time, travel to new places, church leaders and from friends. That’s not to say that school does not have its role, it’s just that one-size-fits-all public education models don’t really meet the needs of individuals.

As we continue to teach English here in Laredo, I think one of the best things we can do is encourage and inspire students to really want to learn a foreign language. Yes, our silly conversation activities are useful and serve a purpose. But hopefully some of the students will walk away with a desire to actually know another country and communicate with other people.

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