Number one for English language teachers

Spain: A learning curve

After an initial culture-clash, Clare Sheppard finds her work in Barcelona to be enriching rather than an endurance test.

It was September 2009 and I was about to set off for Barcelona. The bargain I had arranged didn’t seem so bad: I could start a new life in the Catalan capital if I took on the linguistic instruction of its progeny. Novice musings as to how I could change these kids’ lives, Dead Poets-style, allowed me to ignore my first-hand experience of Spanish kids during summers in Dublin: packs jostling onto trains, the inevitable rise in decibels and their obliviousness to the indignant natives surrounding them. Barcelona beckoned and I was happy to court anything that seemed to promote my prospects of getting there.

Two years, two months, three hundred adult learners and over one hundred young learners later, and I am still here. The kids may have made my getting here easy but at times they made my staying hard. In the beginning, they presented an enormous challenge, caused mainly by cultural differences which I had failed to foresee. 

Coming from an Irish-Catholic education system in which disciplinary methods were traditional and students (to a large extent) toed the line, the Catalan kids’ facility to challenge both the teacher and the regulatory code, was difficult to get used to. On the one hand, they are suspicious of the teacher as an authority figure, while on the other, their cavalier attitude towards the teacher-student demarcation insists on an informal and almost friendly rapport. In my first year, this tendency towards over-familiarity, coupled with a brash outspokenness was unsettling. My discomfort led me to mistakenly equate being outspoken with being naughty, to take their jibes personally and so to see YL classes as endurance tests.

Now, I teach only young learners and with their help I am acquiring methods to rectify these hasty assumptions. I have learned to view boisterous vitality and uninhibited speech often seen in Anglo-Saxon culture as a negative attribute in children as an asset in an ESL classroom. It displays, after all, a willingness to communicate and can be exploited through an array of activities, including debates and drama.

The kids here want to be listened to and, whereas in other countries children from an early age learn to turn the volume down, here they’re just warming up the vocal chords. Sometimes exuberance turns to displays of affection, especially on the part of the little ones. Such gestures have been banished (with good reason, but perhaps exaggeratedly) from British and Irish schools and, as a foreign teacher, it is difficult to get used to them; and so, the seeming coldness of Anglo-Saxon teachers can create barriers and negative sentiment.

I have learned that the combination of cultural characteristics and their mutual understanding can lead to a positive learning environment for both teachers and children. It is up to the teacher, in the first place, to accommodate and then be enriched by this cultural diversity. After all, it is not the classical reserve that most excites us about Gaudi’s work, but its exuberance.

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