What It’s Like to Intern at a Private, Catholic School in Spain

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EMILY FRITZSON- My internship here in Spain has played an important role in my abroad experience. I’d actually never had a formal internship before coming to Spain, so my first ever internship experience has been abroad. My position is a teacher assistant at a private, Catholic school, and luckily I have experience working in schools and with kids.
In high school, I volunteered at the elementary school that I had attended in my school district. And the past two summers I have worked at a day camp for kids ages six to eleven. I also have a sister three and half years younger than me, so I’m not stranger to the struggles and rewards of working with kids. But this experience stands out for me.
The system works differently here. The layout of the school is different. The teacher-student relationship is different. The expectations are different. All in all, it’s a school and so it shares a lot of commonalities with the experience I had, both attending school and volunteering in one in the U.S. But I notice subtle differences. However, I only attended public schools before I went to Skidmore. So sometimes I’m not sure if the differences I see are because it’s a private, Catholic school or if it’s a broader cultural deviation or a combination of the two.
For example, the kids wear uniforms, like they would at many private schools in the U.S., but here, the teachers wear long white coats, as if they are scientists or doctors. I think it gives their profession an air of prestige and honor, especially because of the associations I inherently make when I see a person in a white lab coat. Also, the students wait for the teachers to come into the classroom and not the other way around like I am accustomed to. Moreover, students are often asked to clean the blackboards at the end of a lesson or go fill the teacher’s water bottle, tasks that my teachers always did for themselves.
The teacher seems to have more authority in Spain than in the U.S. They put individual kids on the spot to answer a difficult question or discipline them for not doing the homework. In English, they use harsh terms like “shut up” without (I think) truly understanding the negative connotation that a phrase like that holds. Sometimes the teachers are so blunt towards a child that I imagine that I might cry if I were that student. One day, during a single English class, the teacher kicked out five students, saying, “Get out, leave. I can’t take it anymore,” while holding the door open for them. She didn’t give them any instructions on where to go. She simply closed the door behind them and continued the class period as normal.
However, the kids are also informal with their teachers. Oftentimes the lesson plans are disorganized or unclear. The teachers often ask the class where they ended the previous class. The younger kids often touch and hug their teachers without warning. And the teachers often ask the students questions about their personal lives with genuine interest. I am often asked to share more personal details and opinions with my classes. I would guess that these aspects are more linked to the culture since Spaniards don’t have the same spacial boundaries as Americans and are more open in conversation. Interestingly, students often talk while the teacher is speaking (much more so than I see in the U.S., without the teacher getting upset as least), and it seems as though they don’t really have a sense that it is unusual or rude to do so.
I was most caught off-guard about how the teachers speak about students in front of them as if they aren’t there. On my first day at the school, one teacher, referring to a student sitting three feet away, “His English is very bad. He talks too much and doesn’t try very hard.” I was shocked. He could clearly hear her, and I wasn’t sure how to respond. Yet I encounter situations like this almost every time I visit the school.

Emily Fritzson, Skidmore in Madrid

Emily Fritzson, Skidmore in Madrid

But don’t think that I dislike the school or my internship. I really enjoy my internship and I’m glad I’m doing it! I love the teachers I work with, and their passion for teaching and dedication to the kids shines through. It’s also nice to converse with them on a personal level. I often talk to them about my weekend trips within Europe, our families, and our lives. I’ll admit, it’s hard getting out of bed early on Thursday mornings to take a 45 minute metro ride to get to the Colegio by 9am for my first class of the day. But walking through the halls being greeted with smiles and eager “hellos” reminds me that I get to hang out with kids that are interested in me, my life, and my country (for Skidmore credit!). Not bad, not bad at all…

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