So the time of the year is upon us for either heading back to our schools, or finding our places in a new one. For those of us with several years experience it’s a familiar ritual of dos besos, filling people in on your summer holidays, comments about how tan you may be, and settling back into our schools and the routine. However, for some it may be the first time at a Spanish school with new customs, a new language, and an unfamiliar environment with new social norms and customs. In order to make your transition into your school a bit easier, from my six years of experience in a wide array of educational settings, I’ve compiled some advice about how to make the coming weeks more comfortable, friendly, and natural.
In most schools I have found that outside of the foreign language department, new assistants may be surprised by the lack of English spoken amongst staff. Keep in mind that your bilingual coordinator and English teachers have most likely had a great deal of contact with not only the English language, but probably Anglo Saxon culture. This can mean they offer you their hand instead of going for two kisses, they may be familiar with where you’re from, and they make take you under their wing to make your transition into the school as seamless as possible. However, the other staff may not speak English and over the past years I have seen my fair share of cultural misunderstandings that have in some cases led to uncomfortable tension.
Introductions, greetings, and what may seem at times like unnecessary formalities in the school are of the utmost importance if you care to maintain a pleasant relationship with your colleagues. Whether the coordinator has introduced you to someone or not, if you cross paths with someone you don’t know introduce yourself, or at least offer a kind “¡Hola!” or simply “buenas” with a smile. It’s not always the case, but sometimes staff at schools may find it difficult to approach the assistants, be it for the language barrier or uncertainty about how to relate with you. Keep this in mind and make the effort to speak with them and introduce yourself.
A great time to make a good impression and create rapport is during the coffee and lunch hour. Given the social nature of eating in Mediterranean cultures, be careful of the image it can give off if all of the assistants sit at the end of the table amongst themselves speaking in English and ignoring the others. When passing someone who is eating in Spain, it’s customary and polite to wish them an enjoyable meal either by saying “que aproveche” or less commonly “buen provecho.” Both mid morning coffee time and lunch are for many teachers a sacred time spend time amongst colleagues and relax. Use this to your advantage!
It goes without saying the importance of punctuality and involvement in the classroom. Each school operates uniquely, and in order to assimilate as quickly as possible and form part of the team it’s essential to come prepared, willing to work, and communicate openly with your colleagues. Assistants who show up and demonstrate a disinterest in communicating with others often times generate feelings of resentment given that for some teachers in Spain the English language can unfortunately be seen as threatening to those who don’t speak it well. Speaking from experience, I find it very important to keep in mind the way assistants can be seen through the eyes of a non-English speaking teacher when they don’t make an effort to integrate and establish rapport with the staff.
As far as the students are concerned, the first few days of class should follow a similar pattern. Work your hardest to connect with students so that they view you as not only a teacher, but a connection with a language and culture they can communicate with and benefit from. Utilize your status as a new, young teacher in order to connect with them, and keep in mind that in most cases they’re dying to meet you and know all about you. Prepare interesting and exciting introduction lessons and ice breakers about where you come from and why it’s unique in order to convince them that learning English and communicating with you is enriching for them. As you surely already know, if the students are not motivated by a genuine interest in the language, teaching English is an uphill battle.
Hopefully all that I have mentioned to you is common sense. The first few weeks of school can either be exciting and motivating or they can be a cumbersome and awkward. Use common sense, smile as much as possible, be approachable with both staff and students, and work your hardest to start the year off on the right foot and make your experience the former and not the latter!