Minor (And Some Not-So-Minor) Differences
 Part 2: Schools

Written by Karrie
April 2018

Now that my first year working in a public high school in Spain is nearing its end, I have been reflecting on the differences between high schools in Spain versus in the United States. 

*DISCLAIMER:  I have not worked in a high school in the United States, so many of my comparisons are to my own impressions and experiences of my time as a high school student in the U.S.  I do have experience working in public elementary schools in the U.S. and during that time spoke to many colleagues who worked at the secondary level, so hopefully many of my assumptions are correct about high schools in the U.S.

The Students

How Students Address Teachers
In Spain the overall atmosphere of the high school classroom seems more casual than in the U.S., and I think a big part of this is that students call all teachers by their first names.  This custom immediately changes the dynamic of the student-teacher relationship.  I can see pros and cons to this difference.  The pro being that it allows students to feel more like peers with their teachers, which for older students can be very positive because they almost see their teachers as a colleagues helping them in learning new subjects.  This was the philosophy of my professors in graduate school—we are colleagues and so we are equals.  The con is the flip side of the coin in that when students view their teachers as equals, they do not always treat the teachers with the level of respect that is expected in the U.S.  In Spain, students are consistently shouting out questions in class, interrupting the teacher, and barking commands in ways that would not be tolerated in many classrooms in the U.S.  None of the teachers appear to mind this behavior, so I am assuming it is typical and socially accepted since overall the Spanish society is more assertive than the society in the U.S. 

How Students Act
Students in Spain, in general, appear to me to be in less of a hurry to “grow up” compared to high school students in the U.S.  Fewer students are involved in romantic relationships and prefer to go out with just their friends.  Most of the girls do not wear makeup to school and dress more “age-appropriate” than girls in the U.S.  The students in the same graduating year have the people in their inner-friend group, but are also loyal to every student within their class.  For example, cheating on tests is more prolific, from what I’ve heard, in the high school than what I experienced in the U.S., but the “good” students have no interest in turning-in their peers over these infractions of the rules.  Overall the students in Spain are entrusted with more responsibility over themselves as compared to students in the U.S.  For example, students who are in the equivalent of 9th grade and higher are permitted to leave school whenever they want but are required to bring a written excuse as to why they left the following day.  This allows students to make their own decisions about attending class if they don’t feel well.  I have very rarely seen students abusing this policy.  Also I assist in teaching a P.E. class and for two of the units the class was held at the local community center in order to use the paddleball courts and swimming pool.  This recreation center is located about a 15-minute walk from the high school.  All of the students are entrusted to walk to and from the center independently.  This would never be permitted in the U.S., in my experience, for any students under the age of 18 due to major liability issues the school could face if something happened to the student while off-campus.

Cellphone Policy
At the high school where I am working, there is a strict policy prohibiting students from using, looking at, or exposing their cellphones in any way during the school day, other than the 30-minute midday break.  And guess what?  They ALL follow this policy without much complaint!  I cannot imagine this happening in this day and age in high schools in the U.S.  At the high school where I am teaching, if a student needs to use his or her cellphone at school for any sort of legit reason, he or she always asks a teacher for permission first. 

The Teachers

Quality of life
Teachers in Spain appear to me to have a better qualify of life compared to teachers in the U.S.  Firstly teachers at my high school are required to teach 20 hours/classes each week and then have an additional 8 hours each week reserved for meetings or “guardia,” the Spanish version of serving as a substitute teacher.  (See below)  That is a total of 28 working hours at the school each week for a full-time teacher.  When I was working in the public schools in the U.S. we were required to work 37.5 hours each week as mandated by our contract.  Another factor contributing to teachers in Spain having a higher qualify of life is that they are only required to be at school when they have class or guardia duties.  This means that if you do not teach a class until fourth period, you do not have to be at school until  one minute before fourth period begins.  Teachers are continually coming and going throughout the day, depending on their personal teaching schedule.  If there is a staff meeting (this school year there have been 2 or 3 staff meetings total), all of the teachers stay for the after-school meeting.

Resources for Teachers
Compared to the U.S. the teachers in Spain are given far fewer resources to use to aid them in doing their job.  At my school, there are a total of 12 desktop computers that all of the teachers must share for all of their computing needs.  Some teachers are issued a tablet, but this is not the norm (and I am not sure of the rhyme or reason as to who gets a tablet and who doesn’t).  The teachers who I work with are only provided with the books for each course they are teaching.  They are not given any other supplies.  They all bring their own markers for the dry erase boards.  Teachers do not have their own classrooms or desks, since the teachers move around the school, teaching in different rooms for each period.  They all do their work and planning in the staff room, teacher computer lab, or the (extremely small and limited) library.  This creates a very close and social staff because everyone is always hanging out in the staff room during their free periods and has been what has allowed me to build close relationships with some of the teachers at my school.   

Civil Servants
I will not go into a lot of detail about the requirements of degrees and certifications for teachers in Spain because honestly I do not know them.  But I do know that as a teacher in Spain, there is an insanely competitive and difficult test they take that is specific to the subject they teach in order to become a lifelong civil servant in the Spanish government.  This means that basically they have tenure forever and get to choose the region/school where they will work.  The test is not offered every year and it creates a LOT of stress for the teachers who are taking it.  Even if a teacher passes the test, he or she may not make the cutoff for the top percentile of teachers who are given the civil servant status.  So they don’t just have to pass the exam, they have to be the best of the best who pass the exam.  There are many teachers who have not made this cutoff, therefore they are not considered permanent teachers within the school and are on year-to-year contracts.  This creates a hierarchy within the staff of teachers who have passed the test and teachers who haven’t.  The stress and level of study and preparation that I’ve seen the teachers who I work with enduring is something that U.S. teachers have not experienced.  But all of the teachers assure me that the payoff is worth all of the stress and preparation….if they pass AND make the top percentile!  

The Classes

Grade Levels

In Spain there is infantile, primary school, and secondary school.  Infantile is equivalent to preschool in the U.S.  Primary school is equivalent to grades 1st through 6th in the United States.  After that a student goes directly to secondary school, which is equivalent to grades 7th through 12th.  After 10th grade in Spain, students have the choice to continue with two more years of traditional high school in order to prepare to go to university or to continue on a technical training track.  I teach students in the equivalent of 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, and 11th grades and older students (age 18-20) in a business training program.

The grading system in Spain is number based, rather than the traditional and somewhat antiquated letter grading system used in the U.S. (during my high school years).  Students receive marks 1-10 on exams and as an overall grade for the course at the end of each term.  Any grade above a 5 is considered passing.

When a teacher is absent long term (more than a week), then a substitute teacher is used to teach his or her classes.  But the teacher does not have to leave lesson plans.  The substitute teacher just teaches the lessons from the book and may collaborate with other teachers of the same subject to determine what to do with the classes.  But if a teacher is absent in the short term, no substitute teacher is used.  Instead another teacher from the high school is used to cover the class.  Every teacher has assigned “guardia” time in which they are required to be available if they are needed on a given day to cover a class.  And I literally mean “cover a class” because when a teacher is serving as a guardia, he or she does not have to teach the class but rather just supervise the students, who typically can chat or just do whatever they want.  But if a teacher is not needed to fill-in as a guardia, he or she has that hour free for planning or to leave early if s/he is finished for the day.

The Facilities

My high school has three different buildings and students move between the buildings for classes as needed.  The younger students (equivalent to 7th and 8th grade) remain in the same classroom for all of their classes and the older students move between rooms for each class.  The buildings are, in general, much smaller than traditional high schools in the U.S. and have fewer extra facilities other than the classrooms, a library, and a gym (a separate building one block away).  There is no cafeteria because students do not eat lunch at school but rather eat lunch at home after the school day has ended (since the eating schedule is different in Spain).

Courtyard and Breaks
My high school has a large courtyard in the middle of the three buildings that the younger students are allowed to use during the 30-minute midday break to hang out or play soccer or basketball.  During this break the older students are allowed to go off-campus to eat a snack or to smoke, which is a lot more common for students in Spain than for high school-aged students in the U.S.

Birthday Celebrations

The only pictures I have taken at my school are during the quarterly birthday celebrations for all of the staff members whose birthdays fall in the given period.  They go all-out for these celebrations and are permitted to have alcohol at them, which is strictly prohibited on school property (even in your car) in the U.S.  No teachers abuse this privilege and continue teaching their classes for the rest of the day without a problem after having a drink during the midday break!

Here is the summer/fall birthday feast:

And the winter/spring set-up:

I have really enjoyed my first year of working in a high school in Spain.  I like working with older students a lot more than I had anticipated and would consider working with this age group in the future, including middle school students!


  1. Karrie,
    Love your updates. Sounds like you are enjoying teaching, especially the 20 hours a week.
    Tell Mike hello and have a glass of wine for us.
    Love ya,
    Aunt Bonnie and Uncle Jim


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