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Genevieve Smyth B.Ed 2002
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Teaching Abroad: An insight into primary school teaching in Catalonia

Comparing systems serves no purpose, rather combining and learning to improve systems is useful. This very personal article merely gives an insight into my teaching life in Catalonia, Spain over the last nine years.

Reasons for teaching abroad

In search of a culture shock and, indeed after learning Irish, I was sure I could learn any language! I decided to teach abroad after completing my teaching diploma in Cork city.

Spain was chosen because of my interest in languages, music and culture. I was also keen on teaching children from a different part of the world. Above all, it was a personal test on whether I could survive and adapt to another culture. Indeed, my education in Mary Immaculate prepared me for being a well-rounded and flexible teacher giving me the confidence to go and achieve my goals in the big world.

Initial Experience

I began teaching in a private school in Barcelona and I am presently in a public school in the Costa Brava. To this day I am delighted that I can combine work with being on holidays all year round! Although I feel very much at home here, I am still a ‘tourist' and that feeling of holiday excitement when you look out to a blue sky never fades to energise and excite.

Catalan School system

There are three types of primary schools over here, private, semi and public. Native English speakers can find work easily and immediately in the many private and international schools without doing any exams. I thoroughly enjoyed my first six years working in British International schools. Soon I became quite fluent in Spanish. After a year and an half, I realised that I had found the love of my life and that was when I decided to stay and apply to get into the public school system whereby I would then become a civil servant. I was now also fluent in Catalan, this area's language. Undoubtedly, civil servants have seen much better days in Spain, but at least you have better work and healthcare conditions in general. The entry process was not easy but I was determined to become a civil servant. I convalidated my BEd from Mary Immaculate and had to study one more subject to get my Spanish BEd. Now with the Bologna Agreement I believe that this is much easier process.

The next step was securing a job that meant passing the State school exams. As teachers are specialists out here so too are these exams. In 2009 there was a high demand for English teachers, I therefore sat the exams and passed. There were two parts, an essay and an oral presentation of a lesson plan. However, you also need the advanced level certificates in both Catalan and Spanish languages. As you can imagine very few Native English speakers work in the public system as there are a few exams to pass. Simultaneously, I was also studying a Masters of Education with the Open University in England. As this degree was online it suited me perfectly, but I couldn't wait until all the studying ended to enjoy life again.

The system of teacher selection is fairer than in Ireland as it is based on your results and experience represented in the form of points. Teachers are not interviewed. Once in the system you will always have a job, most teachers are temporary indefinitely and others are permanent. Permanency depends on where the permanent jobs are and those teachers with most points, that is with the most training and years of experience, get these jobs before younger teachers. In my case, I am temporary indefinitely and I have decided to stay on in the same school for the past four years. I do wish to be permanent but in a school nearer to me, when the opportunity arises I will go for it while it doesn't I continue where I am.

A typical day at school

A typical day involves starting class at 9am and having a half an hour break at 11am. Then we teach till 12.30pm whereby thereafter there are two options - pupils who need to catch-up stay on for one hour's individual attention and others are free to go home or to the school's canteen run by the Parent's Association. Meanwhile, teachers meet twice a week for an hour or do their preparatory work. Afterwards, I enjoy having a picnic on the beach and a swim when it's warm! Our lunch break is about an hour and half long. This long lunch break not only enables teachers to coordinate, plan and correct work but you can also fully recharge your batteries for the afternoon classes. We have class again at 3 pm till 4.30 pm. At the moment, there is a pilot project in progress whereby the working day is shorter from 9 am till 2 pm, this is already the case in all secondary schools. If the results of this prove positive, then it will be applied to primary schools as well.

Innovation is highly valued

Recently, there are many interesting European projects such as PELE and Comenius. I have undertaken a European Project in teaching English as a Foreign Language(PELE), this project has given the school a financial boost and we have an English language programme for Infants now in place whereby junior infants have an hour of English a week, seniors two hours and primary three. It is also recently popular to teach Science or Maths or Art and Crafts or PE through English as well.

The positives

To sum up the positive points about teaching in Spain is that social skill development is more present in the curriculum whereby pupils learn to communicate and work with each other more so than individually, emphasis is on teachers working as a team and creating whole-school projects. We are well-paid compared to other jobs, with good breaks during the day, we eat well well-balanced meals living in the Mediterranean region, teachers participate in a lot of training and innovation courses and being a civil servant enables you to have free private healthcare.

The negatives

On the downside, the timetable takes getting used to, teachers can't do ‘their own thing' you must work in a team and follow certain methodologies and overall, there is more paperwork with regards to planning and evaluating.

I don't favour one system nor the other, rather I would like to combine the best of both. Everyone's got to the make the best of what they have and if you enjoy personal challenges then you'll have plenty to go on.

The key to teaching is to move with the times to learn and practice new strategies and teach good moral principles.

Nonetheless, I miss the Gaeilge but Internet has made the impossible possible! I have even taught Irish in a bar in Barcelona. Most importantly ‘ná scaoil na gadanna' with the homeland meaning to always remember and celebrate your roots, being a member of the Barcelona Gaels(GAA) and participating in St. Patrick's Day celebrations are just some of ways I achieve this.

At the end of the day, is it worth it?

In order to survive abroad one must be curious, open-minded, a risk-taker and to be up for challenges.

Mary Immaculate does prepare us for being responsible and hardworking, innovational and independent teachers. I found that the two week alternative educational project I did in a bilingual school in Paris was particularly beneficial and insightful. One also begins to appreciate the things once taken for granted back in Ireland. One thing is certain is that in Ireland teachers have it extremely good and I have worked with teachers from all over the world. Teaching outside of Ireland is a rollercoaster. If you are in teaching for the money then obviously stay in Ireland, but if you are in teaching for the sake of it and enjoy challenges and travelling then feel free to teach abroad.

Genieve with a group of former classmates and staff at Mary I reunion, Sept 2012

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