Culture Shock in a Spanish Elementary School

Continuing my series about culture shock in Spain (I’ve talked about supermarkets and Spanish homes so far), I’d like to talk about things that have surprised me or that are quite different from American elementary schools. I’ve worked at a big school down south and a tiny rural one up north now, so I hope that my observations are more than just one place’s idiosyncrasies.


  • When I first started working as a language assistant in Andalucía, I was shocked when the teachers would show up five minutes before school started and then leave as soon as the last class of the day was over. My mom teaches kindergarten and always arrives an hour early in the morning and leaves an hour after the day is over to lesson plan, make copies, grade papers, attend meetings, etc.—and she still has schoolwork to do at home! However, teachers at my schools do stay late for several hours one day of the week for meetings yet somehow manage to do all their planning and grading during off hours.
  • Unless somebody has to take an extended leave of absence (e.g., recovery from surgery, honeymoon, maternity, etc.), there aren’t any substitute teachers. Instead, other teachers fill in for their colleagues as needed during their off periods. The jefe (or jefa) de estudios is continually scribbling in substitute duties on a dry-erase board in the teachers’ lounge: a sixth-grade teacher might substitute for a preschool one, the secretary might cover a third-grade class, and so on.
  • Teachers wear literally whatever they want because there’s no set dress code. While tracksuits are usually restricted to P.E. teachers, it’s nothing out of the ordinary for people to show up in jeans and a t-shirt. Nevertheless, most teachers come to work in professional clothes, be it sharp button-down shirts and dark, slim jeans or leggings, a skirt, and a nice blouse.

Culture shock at Spanish school
My school in Andalucía

  • The process for becoming a teacher is quite different from that in the U.S. Of course, you need an education degree, but because teachers are technically government officialsfuncionarios—they have to sit for oposiciones, an intense public service exam that all “functionaries” are required to take. Assuming they pass this test, they can then apply through each autonomous community’s regional department of education, which then assigns them to one of thousands of schools in said region.
  • This means teachers don’t apply to teach directly with one school or another; the regional government places them as positions open up. This can be frustrating, because even as you build up “points,” if you will, over your career, you can still get placed in a school in the middle of nowhere or in a province halfway across the region, forcing you to pack everything up and move.
  • I’m not sure how the following process works, but after you serving a certain amount of time in the same school you can become tenuredfijo—until you retire, as is often the case in Spain’s highly coveted funcionario jobs.

Subjects and schedules

Culture shock at Spanish school
Me and the third graders at my school in Galicia

  • At least in my experience growing up, the schoolday began at 8:30am and ended at 3:30pm, with maybe half an hour for lunch and another half hour for recess. Six to seven 45-minute periods broke up Math, Language Arts, and Geography into manageable chunks. Spanish elementary schools, however, usually run from 9am to 2pm with only five 45-to-60-minute periods per day. The middle-of-the-day recreo (recess) is holy, and the entire school empties into the soccer fields, patios, or grassy yards to play ball and gossip—while teachers who aren’t supervising recess congregate together outside or refresh over coffee and cookies in the teachers’ lounge.
  • Religion classes are A Thing here, something that would never fly in the U.S., which was set up on the separation of church and state (the Founders were well aware of their European history and didn’t want to repeat the religious wars of the 1600s). While the Kingdom of Spain no longer has an official state religion, Roman Catholicism has been an integral part of Spanish culture for centuries—everything from history to art to local patron-saint fiestas—and the government still funds a quarter of the Spanish church’s budget.

Culture shock at Spanish school
Foxgloves outside of my school in Galicia

  • Perhaps I’m biased because of my experience as a language assistant in bilingual schools, but it seems to me that Spanish schools emphasize foreign languages much more than American ones. I remember going to Spanish class once, maybe twice a week—but kids who attend the bilingual schools here get immersed in several English classes per week in addition to classes like science that are taught in English. And regions where they speak a minority language like Galician or Basque also make sure to have teaching hours in those languages, too.
  • There’s no middle school or junior high in Spain; primary school encompasses infantil (3-5 years old) and primaria (1st through 6th grades), while secondary school covers four years of ESO and an optional two years of bachillerato for university-bound students.

In general

Culture shock at Spanish school
My school in Galicia

  • All Spanish children are required by law (I believe) to own an estuche or pencil case in which they keep their pencils, markers, scissors, and gluesticks. The kids take great pride in getting the coolest ones, and I’ve seen everything from simple black zipper pouches to a case in the shape of a miniature Real Madrid soccer cleat. ¡Hala Madrid!
  • There are no bright orange school buses to be found in Spain—if parents can’t bring their kids to school, private charter bus companies with yellow transporte escolar signs in the window will pick up and drop them off.
  • Classrooms have large sliding windows that you can open when things get too hot (read: when the kids come in all hot and sweaty after recess and you need some fresh air). And, because this is Spain, the windows have persianas or slatted plastic blinds you can raise and lower with a crank or belt that will block out the sun. Even second-floor classrooms often have these huge windows that would be a lawsuit waiting to happen in America.
  • Although most families in Spain do own a car or two, sprawling suburban-style carlines for dropoff and pickup don’t really happen as many kids walk with their parents to school (or on their own) or a bus picks them up.

Culture shock at Spanish school
English classrom

  • While American kids break for lunch between 11am and 1pm and go back for classwork until 3:30 or so, Spanish kids never really get the experience of eating lunch in a huge cafeteria. They do, however, bring snacks like fruit, yogurt, or a foil-wrapped bocadillo (sandwich) to eat during recess before going home for lunch around 1 or 2pm. Because the elementary school I work at in Galicia runs on a split schedule (where everyone goes home for two hours during siesta and then comes back for an hour and a half), the school actually has a small cafeteria that serves catered hot lunches every day for the students who can’t go home.
  • Us Americans might associate wide-ruled or college-ruled notebook paper as staple school supplies, but all of the notebooks I’ve ever seen students use here in Spain have had graph paper. You can’t even find traditional lined notebooks in the office supply stores!
  • In infantil (preschool), both the little ones and the teachers wear checkered aprons or smocks in primary colors: the mandilón. Things can get messy—from painting to boogers to spilled yogurt—so these aprons keep everyone neat and tidy. They also make the already-cute preschoolers even cuter, all of them walking in a line in purple, blue, pink, and green smocks two sizes too big for them.

If you’ve ever taught at a Spanish elementary/primary school, what differences did you observe between it and your home country’s school? Share your stories in the comments below!

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