I learned a lot on my first day as a Language Assistant. Actually, just in one day at school, I realized that:
- Spanish people love their coffee and snack breaks, and that coffee is really just hot milk with lots of sugar, and a quick splash of coffee-lunch (at my school) was free and filling.
- Children get to play outside (patio= break time) seemingly more than they have to sit in class.
- Walking in single-file lines and being silent in the hallway are non-existent objectives.
- Teachers in Spain are allowed to hug, kiss, and love their students.
Experiences of my First Day as a Language Assistant
“For the first two days, don’t worry about your schedule, just use the time to walk around the school, introduce yourself to teachers and classes and get a feel of the layout” was the instruction that my tutor gave me for my first day as a Language Assistant.
My tutor showed me the small “English Conversation Room” where we were going to be teaching English and that was to be our home for the next nine months. About the size of the room, it had a big window, an obsessive number of small chairs and desks, a random collection of battered children’s books and classroom materials, the remains of some projects from the previous Language Assistants, a large chalkboard, and no chalk.
“¿Cómo te llamas?” Came flying from all directions at all intonations as children ran, skipped, rolled and danced by in a seemingly never-ending parade. The majority eyed me up with wonder, nearly cross-eyed as they sized me up like an alien.
Many gathered the courage to say a quick and oddly emphasized “Hello!” and then giggle. The bravest of them ventured to give me a tight hug or grab my hand and lead me to their circle where they would then delight in trying to communicate with me, laughing and speaking a little English as they struggled to remember the few English words they knew.
Also, I discover that it was customary to touch or hug anyone you walked past, let alone talked to. I learned that the kids will love you simply because you are a foreign object and that they will compliment every last part of you and what you wear. And as time wore on, I learned that I was at a huge disadvantage when it came to learning names: I had to know 20 teachers and hundreds of students, and them? They just had to know one.
My Two Best Teacher Friends!
I was excited to see what the lunchroom had in store for me. I entered and was immediately swarmed by two loud, funny kindergarten teachers who began with “Is this her? Oh perfect, she’ll be perfect”, as one eyed me while the other thrust her arm around me and pulled me in for a selfie. I didn’t know this at the time, but these two would quickly become my two best teacher friends, my Spanish moms, my adopted families, and the two who unknowingly got me through my toughest days.
One of them said I looked energetic, enthusiastic, had a pretty smile and said hello, and this apparently made me an acceptable addition to their family. Honesty, another thing I learned very quickly.
The Spanish are honest to a point of brutal, but it’s all with good intention, and although it took a while to get used to it, I’ve come to quite enjoy it with its sobering ability to put me in my place. The teacher took my WhatsApp number and created a new contact for me. The name? Yesica.
I had a chance to size up the food. There were no fiesta sticks, chicken rings or circular microwaved pizza lunch like one expects from a school in the US. There was a massive supply of French bread, at least three warm dishes (the first day it was chickpea stew, mixed steamed vegetables, and fish), salad, yogurts, puddings, and fruit.
There were four large round tables in the teacher room, each outfitted with two kinds of olive oil, a basket of ketchup and mayonnaise packets, pitchers of water and salt. No pepper. I learned many more things from the lunchroom.
I learned that salad dressing here is olive oil and salt. I also found that, despite being delicious and homecooked, the food received some criticism from students and teachers alike, none of whom have experienced the somewhat horrifying and occasionally freezer-burned nature of an American school lunch. Yogurt is dessert.
I learned that lunch lasts for a long time. It is customary to take a small and delicious coffee after lunch, and conversation during the meal consists of all seven people seated around the table speaking simultaneously, rapidly and not very quietly.
I’m still not entirely sure how they carry on six different conversations at once, how they hear each other at all, or how they can both talk and listen simultaneously, but I do know that even with a relatively high level of Spanish, it is nearly impossible to understand what’s going on if you’re not right in there throwing it down as they are.
As I headed home on the regional Cercanías train that would quickly become a 37-minutes of relaxation and reading, I reflected on the slow blur the day had been. It was a juxtaposition of confusing chaos and uneventful meandering. It was exhausting. Moving to Spain had not given me any kind of culture shock but my first day at school nearly drowned me in it: drowned me with hugs, enthusiastic children, delicious food, lots of coffee, a beautiful school, an intimate way of life, and a school culture so free and unrestricted that I was both scared and impressed.
My school was a jumble of students who were excited to learn and love, and, despite the many challenges I knew laid ahead, my first day as a Language Assistant brought an excitement I had rarely felt before. I was nervous, intimidated, overwhelmed, excited, emotional, and absolutely in love with the culture that hundreds of “Hellos!” and tiny hands had dragged me into.
The two most important lessons I learned on my first day? Let go of structure and accept any spelling of your name that may occur, however wild.
By Jessica P., 2019/20