What I Know Now About Teaching Primary School

What I Know Now About Teaching Primary School

Serenity on top of a mountain during her off time when not teaching primary school.

What I Know Now About Teaching Primary School in Madrid

So, do you think teaching primary school abroad is easy? Think again. Between the constant questions of “teacher, teacher, do you speak Spanish?” and the requests for a last-minute change to your lesson plan, being a foreign language assistant and teaching primary school can be exhausting. 

I spent two years working in a concertado school in Alcalá de Henares. Concertados are basically the same thing as charter schools. They are partially funded by the Spanish government and partially funded by parents’ payments. 

These schools require much more from the average language assistant, as your function in the school is essentially that of a teacher. They pay a higher stipend per month, but the hours are longer. If you are looking to have a professional position within a school, however, this is definitely the way to go. 

My experience in my concertado was difficult but rewarding. Here are some lessons that I learned teaching primary school in Madrid.

1) Always Expect the Unexpected

Here in Spain, everything is done last minute. From the granting of your visa to the server giving you that ketchup you asked for when your burger was still on your plate, the country consistently runs on a timer set 10 minutes slow. School is no exception. 

When I first began teaching primary school, I had absolutely no teaching experience. I was thrown in front of a class of wide-eyed Spanish children screaming my name with no classroom management skills. Boy, did I learn quickly. 

Not only did I learn how to be a teacher in a week, but I also quickly learned that teachers have a tendency to request the moon when you’ve prepared the sun. What I mean is that I would, at times, prepare an entire lesson on the opposite topic of what the teacher wanted that day. 

What I learned was to always be prepared with simple games that could be easily adapted to any topic. One of my favorites was a game where I would have the kids make paper planes. We would have a competition where the students would say a grammatical structure. If they were correct, they could throw the plane to attempt to get a point for their team. 

Kids never behave like you think they will. Sometimes, a class will be so quiet and perfect that you have 10 extra minutes at the end of your lesson, and other times you won’t even get halfway through by the time the bell rings. It’s important to always roll with the punches, and keep your cool. 

2) Teaching Primary School Can Be Fun!

Teaching primary school, despite how taxing it can be at times, is an absolute delight. Younger primary kids love to sing, whilst older primary students love a good old-fashioned competition. Basically, your multiple personalities get to shine depending on what class you’re teaching. 

With the little ones, I used to love to find songs related to our lesson plans and do a live performance. I would force all my students to stand up, sing, and dance with me. I also used the program GoNoodle, which is a fantastic educational website that offers various activities like dances and brain breaks. 

It is important with younger kids to provide a daily routine. Mine always began with a song or dance in English. For them, it subconsciously signified that it was time to start English class and that we would not be conversing in Spanish. I also learned that younger kids don’t have an attention span of more than 15 minutes. Activities that are longer than 15-20 minutes will inevitably cause classroom disturbances.  

The older kids don’t need as much structure, as your presence in the classroom will be enough to get them in the mood for English. Upper primary students love games and competition, although rules of respect must be set far in advance. Sometimes, they are a little too competitive. 

Teaching will be as fun as you make it, so it’s important to get your creative thinking cap on when you’re lesson planning. If you do it right, the kids will literally chant your name when you come into class. That’s because they know that you are a break from the monotony of other teachers. 

3) Your Kiddos Will Need Lots of Love

If you are from the United States like me, the physicality of countries like Spain will shock you. Pre-COVID, I would have at least five children come up to me and hug me before the class started, and normally at least two after class had ended. Here in Spain, teachers believe that children need a lot of love. It is okay to show them appropriate affection like hugs, or kisses for the babies. 

It is important to remember that children are often products of their environment. Unfortunately, this means that many kids who act out or are disrespectful, are often taught to do so at home. No child is actually “bad,” rather they are modeling behaviors that they have learned at home or from something they’ve been exposed to on TV.

One of the most important lessons that I took away from teaching primary school in Madrid is to always try and meet kids where they’re at. That doesn’t mean that you have to cave for them if they are being disrespectful, but you should always try and see the child as a person. 

No child is stupid, annoying, or hard to work with when you are in the classroom. Save your complaints for closed doors. You just might be the reason that a child, who all of the other teachers openly hate on, believes in themself and tries to be better. 

4) The Power of the Justificante

After moving to Spain, I discovered that this country is a mix of two really frustrating things; disorganization and bureaucracy. Justificantes are a Spain-specific type of paperwork. Essentially, a justificante is a piece of paper stating that you were at a doctor’s appointment, visa appointment, etc. They are the only way that you can be excused from school if you have either a medical problem or some sort of issue with paperwork. 

Without a justificante, a school can deduct your pay for a day that you skipped, even if you actually were at a doctor’s appointment. They are incredibly important to the school system. However, there are some ways around the justificante if your school coordinator (aka your boss) is nice enough to offer. At my school, if we ever had to miss a day without a justified reason, such as cheaper flights a day after the school holiday ended, we were allowed to stay an extra day at the end of the year to make up for our lost time. 

When working and traveling in a new country, it is incredibly important to be aware of the specific guidelines of that country, particularly when it comes to paperwork. The justificante was a concept that I was unaware of until I got to Spain. However, it is incredibly important to your job when you fall ill or need to get some paperwork sorted. Always do your research when you travel, particularly when it comes to paperwork or visa guidelines. You never want to get caught on the wrong side of bureaucracy. 

5) Don’t Forget to Explore a Little

If you go to another country to teach, it is super important to explore. Ask your colleagues about interesting places to go in the area. Do some research. 

While I was in Madrid for two years, I made it a point to get out every weekend, even if it was just for a simple walk or a tapa. I researched the best places to go in the community and asked around. I learned a great deal more about exploring my city and the community of Madrid by simply reaching out to people and asking. 

Even though I was a teacher, I learned a lot by forcing myself to meet people and experience things that I was not necessarily comfortable with. I never thought that I would eat an octopus, but now I can say I have tried it (although I was not the biggest fan). By learning about the area that you are living in, you will have the most authentic experience possible abroad. You will find the places that people actually go to eat, rather than the tourist hotspots. You will find a quiet corner that you never knew existed, and now feel that belongs to you. 

Teaching primary school in Madrid has been one of the most rewarding and interesting experiences that I can boast of in my professional career. Teaching abroad and working with children is rewarding, and one of the easiest ways to have an authentic cultural experience. You will be exposed to a country in a way that only comes from living there.

by Serenity Dzubay

39 thoughts on “What I Know Now About Teaching Primary School

  1. Congrats on going to another country to teach the little ones. I can’t imagine another countries paperwork. But the wonderful things you are getting to learn.

    1. Hi Tammy, it has been a rewarding experience despite the paperwork process. I’m in love with Spain. Thanks for your reply!

  2. This would be such a neat experience. I would love to get to know another area. I am glad you had a fun time.

    1. Hi Amber, thanks for your comment. I believe that everyone should try to know another area once in their lives. You don’t have to live somewhere, but try to spend a month in a different country. There are internships and other programs worldwide that are tailored to many people’s interests, all you have to do is make sure you research before going. Good luck!

  3. I bet spending time in another country teaching is just an incredible experience. I can definitely see why making time to explore is a must as well.

  4. I had a career in being an assistant teacher for my daughter’s elementary school when they were younger. It takes lots of effort, but the learning experience is worth it. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Hi Lavanda, I’m glad to hear that you were a teaching assistant. Teachers really appreciate having an extra pair of eyes in the classroom. I hope you enjoyed your experience and thanks for your comment

  5. I love that the children would come and hug you before class. It’s unfortunate in some cases that some children’s best role models are teachers and not their own parents.

    1. Hi Melanie, yes, unfortunately this is the case in schools. I would say the majority of children have good parents who try their best, but it’s always the kids who need a bit of extra help that stand out. Like I said in the article, educators must remember that behavior is almost never a child’s fault. Being flexible is key. Thanks for your comment!

    1. Hi Terri! It’s never too late to follow your dreams! You can even do short-term teaching abroad programs for a month in the summer to get your fix. I hope you consider it, I have loved every teaching job I’ve worked abroad. Good luck!

  6. It sounds like that was an amazing experience. As a mom of five, I applaud you for being a teacher in that age range and learning how to do it successfully for both yourself and your students.

    1. Hi Audrey, thank you for your kind words. I think only those who work with/parent this age group truly understand the struggle. I also applaud you for being a mom of five! I get to escape my students at the end of the day! :)

      1. Hi Janeane, thank you for your kind words. If my experiences help anyone I would be more than pleased. I believe that many new teachers are trying to change the education system and also the power of progress. If anything, I hope that teachers try to understand their students more as living and emoting beings rather than the “good kid bad kid” mentality.

  7. You sound really have a lot of fun and wonderful experience teaching kids. Teaching is not easy, but I would love to congratulate you because you made it successfully.

  8. This resonated with me. Although I didn’t start my career in teaching in a foreign country, it might as well have been since I was so unprepared for it and felt like a fish out of the water. I had zero class management skills and no experience, and I barely survived the first year. Ten years later I now feel confident and capable when teaching. Although there are still challenges every day, I love my job and can’t imagine doing anything else!

    1. Hi Danni, thanks for your comment. I like to think that despite all our cultural differences, language barriers, and land borders that humans are all the same. Children prove my theory the best. Though my students speak Spanish and yours may not, teaching is tough and you will never be prepared until you’ve worked in a classroom. Congrats on 10 years of teaching!

  9. My first choice of a course in college is being a Primary Teacher. I ended up in Engineering but I would always love to teach little children.

    1. Hi Bethel, I think that it’s never too late for a change of scenery. Perhaps you will be ready for a career change in the future and teaching will be available. Good luck!

  10. I know what you mean about doing the things last minute, bureaucracy, and touchy-feely people. It’s my 11th year in Spain and there are still things I’m not used to. Sounds that your experience was a happy and fun one.

    1. Hi Ave, thanks for your comment. This is my third year and I feel like I’m slowly peeling back the layers of the onion, but if you’re on year 11 and still haven’t figured it out I may never! Haha. Congrats for spending so much time here, I find the rewards outweigh the difficulties

  11. Teaching in primary schools abroad is never easy. Think about the culture differences and language barrier. But its definitely a rewarding experience

  12. Thanks for sharing your story. Its truly inspiring. learning about the place you live in and forcing yourself to meet people is a great lesson for all of us.

  13. Sound like a great experience, going out and learning about the city is good. Get familiar with the people as well.

  14. I lived in Madrid for a spell in 2004. The lax nature concerning timeliness was a point of contention for me. Once you get by that, it’s an excellent place.

    1. Hi Juan, I like to say that Spain runs on its own watch. I love the culture, but the supermarket being closed on Sundays and siesta time can be infuriating after living in a place where time is king. I hope you fondly remember that time despite the frustration of everyone consistently being 15 minutes late!

  15. Teaching in primary school abroad must be very challenging but I imagine it must also be very rewarding and interesting experience.
    I love the fact that kids hug their teachers – so sweet and cute. It looks like you had a great time not only teaching but also exploring the city.

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