Ten Weird Things to Know About Teaching in Spain

As the school year winds down, I often think about how I ended up here. Not physically in Spain – after a summer drinking more Kalimocho than water, it was a given I’d be back – but how I turned down a radio news job in Chicago to come to Spain and be a slave to Cambridge exams, student reports and surly teenagers.

Must Know About Teaching in Spain

For someone who was set on being a journalist since age 11, it shocked everyone to hear me utter, “I actually like teaching.”

Having not gotten an education degree, I was thrown to wolves that looked an awful lot like bored fourteen-year-olds and told to teach past simple irregular verbs during my first week as a maestra. After eight years, I’ve taught a range of levels, from three-year-olds who refuse to take a pacifier out of their mouths to oncologists whose questions had me stumped. I’ve run daycamps and language schools. I’ve handed out detentions and failing grades. And I’ve survived working in the Spanish public and private school system.

If I say one thing, let it be that teaching in Spain is a lesson in hilarity and it’s a lesson in learning to just let it go.

Cursive Numbers and Letters

“My name is Miss Cat” I stated to the 27 kiddos sitting in front of me, turning from writing in colored chalk on the blackboard. Most were picking their nose, leaning into the kid next to them or fiddling with something. “Can you read that?”

During my trial lesson at a school I’d later be employed at, I was not having much luck rousing up the kids, who were just back from recess on a hot September day. They were sluggish and not impressed, and I was beginning to panic that I wouldn’t be offered a job. Try planning a lesson for five-year-olds when you have no idea if they can even put on their jackets, let alone follow a lesson entirely in English.

I switched gears, and they seemed to liven up, and after a three-hour interview and another class, I was hired as the bilingual preschool teacher.


And before I learned the names of my 150 new alumnos, I was introduced to the characters of Letrilandia and given feedback from my class: Your penmanship is terrible.

I’d never claimed to have perfect handwriting, but it’s legible (and by that time, I had three years of being a language assistant and had directed a summer camp). As it turned out, Spanish children learn to write cursive before they learn to print, and that not writing according to their system had my students confused my lowercase letters – the Bs became Fs, the Ss were Rs.

Additionally, my task of teaching numbers to 100 meant I had to start crossing my 7s and giving my 1s a bit of flair. Calling on the age-old “If you can’t beat them, join them,” I found it was easier to change my old habits than try to change theirs.

There are five continents, not seven, and Columbus is the President of America

Yes, what you just read. The entirety of the Americas are considered one continent, and Antarctic is just one big lump of wasted space.

As for the Columbus thing, there’s an entire day dedicated to the Spanish race on October 12th, the day the Italian-born explorer reputedly landed in the Bahamas. Working in a preschool for a very Spanish family, I was asked to dress up as a Native American (I opted for a sailor instead) and remind my students how Spain had done the world a service by “liberating” the natives during their numerous expeditions to the New World – all as the Spanish national hymn rung out for the whole morning. 

Spanish holidays are varied – from Peace Day in elementary school to Day Against Domestic Violence for the older lot, so embrace them. But please teach them that there are seven continents.

Lockers and Book bags

I came to teach in Spain right in the middle of the High School Musical craze. Apart from the folders emblazoned with Troy Bolton and endless questions about whether or not American high schools had glee clubs and pep rallies, I had students involve me in another plot: to convince the school’s director to install lockers.

Really, they had a point: high schoolers have a dozen subjects, some of which they have just once or twice a week. Backpacks sagged and kids would often turn up without materials. Lockers would have absorbed some of the noise in passing periods and helped correct premature stooping.

I got the last laugh when I played an April Fool’s joke on them, proclaiming there would be lockers for all.

As for school supplies: pencils come without eraser (evoking the endlessly hilarious, “Can I borrow a rubber?” request), kids like to doodle on themselves with sharpies and white out, and paper has a size. 

Lunchtime and Snack Time

When I taught preschool, my favorite time of the day was recreo, or recess. My zany babies could run and play while I sat on a bench getting Vitamin D, and they’d hand me their half eaten sandwiches, bananas and cookies. 

Midmorning snacks are far more common than eating lunch at public schools – in fact, my students were shocked when I told them that a part of my daily chores was making a brown bag lunch. Instead, students have a 30-minute recess that happens midmorning. Expect common areas of the school to be littered with wrappers and juice boxes. 


Teaching as a conversation assistant meant that I could break out of school and have a coffee down the street with other teachers, and now that I work in the evenings, I avoid shopping between 11 and noon, lest I have to claw my way to the Polvillo for bread when teens from the school next door are ordering bocadillos.

If you’re placed in a private or concertado school, your students will sometimes stay for lunch in the mess hall, called a comedor. Run from the puré de garbanzos and the palitos de merluza!


Walking into a newly assigned baccalaureate class after a schedule switch, I quickly introduced myself and began a lesson. I could hear the students snickering and immediately felt my butt to see if I’d sat in a batido or something at recess.

One girl, probably named Mari Algo, raised her hand but blurted something out in Spanish before I could even call on her. I gave her my best side eye for interrupting and told her that if she needed something, it would have to come in English.

“Yes, erm, who is [Novio’s name]? Valle say us you are a boyfriend.”

Valle, my effervescent coworker and part-time spirit animal, just smiled and shrugged. On one morning commute, I’d confided in her that I’d met a guy I was interested in, and she mentioned it to her students. I took it in stride (hola, my name is Cat, and I have a blog!).

You know how lice is a thing in elementary schools? Liken that to gossip in Spanish schools – once it starts, it’s hard to stop. If you want something to be private, it’s best not to mention it around the brasero on a cold day. 

On a First Name Basis and You May Touch the Children

Speaking of Valle, I was also shocked to find that teacher-student relationships are a lot more relaxed than they are back in the US. I was called by my first name and asked personal questions about my age/sex/location. Students wanted to know if I’d buy them beer. I once ran into one partying who was hysterical, and I took her back to my house to settle down and dry out for a few hours.

Oh, and then there’s the end-of-year dinners where students drink the Spanish equivalent of Boone’s Farm, all under the watchful eye of their teachers from senior year. I had to embrace it and have a drink with my graduating seniors at a disco because, hey, drinking age is 18. Never mind that I was only a few years older than them!


Working in an elementary school, I was once told the children found me to be cold and uncaring. I was wiping their boogers and reminding kids that the Reyes Magos were watching their bad behavior (which included hiding my winter jacket in a toy box overnight) – I was certainly caring.

In Spain, it’s totally fine for teachers to hug and touch students, and many are close with older students outside of school. Some have followed me on twitter and like to message me about what last week’s homework was. My response is always the same: get off of twitter and do your homework, lazy!

On Wednesdays, We Wear Track Suits

I was appalled to learn that my high schoolers only got two hours of gym class a week. They seemed to have more pep in their step when those special days rolled around (though I could usually smell them before they entered class. Teens and PE and Spring in Southern Spain is a torture worse than my allergy to olive blossoms). Plus, they came to school with a special uniform.


Gone were the sheer shirts and the booty shorts – it was chandal day, a public service announcement that my teens who had been chowing down on Doritos at recess were going to be running a few laps around the playground.

Working in a private elementary school, my kids called it Tracksuit Day, or ¡toca chandal! I loved chandal day because they admittedly smelled better (their parents gave them tiny packs of cologne for their school bags because, pijos) and I didn’t have to re-tie 25 ties and dust off 25 tiny blazers.

ABCs and B1-B2-C1 (and Trinity-Cambridge-TOEFL)

Spain has what’s called ‘titulitis’, or a problem with requiring documents to prove anything. Can you drive a car? PROVE IT. Can you pick up a letter at the post office from your grandma? PROVE IT. And when it comes to speaking English, only a stamped letter from an official language assessment will suffice.


Recently, the European government required all university students to present a minimum B1 level of English to even get the paper copy of their degree (ach-titulitis!). If you’re totally new to teaching, the system of level assessments and certificates is confusing, especially one against another. What does a Trinity Level 7 correspond to in Cambridge? What does CPE stand for? Try being in charge of academic development at a school and explaining that to parents whose first defense will be, “I don’t know, I studied French.”


The Takeaway – School’s Out for Summer

I often think back to my first days of teaching. I had a newly minted TEFL degree, teaching genes apparently in my blood and no idea what to do in front of 30 teenagers who’d rather copy Justin Bieber lyrics off of the blackboard (yeah, that’s how long I’ve been at it!).

I always swore I’d never be a teacher after watching my mom scramble on Sunday nights or having to manually put in all of her grades into a gradebook. The boss I had when I was an auxiliar once told me that I had vocación: I had what it takes to be a teacher. After eight school years, probably 2500 students and a million eye rolls later, I think she’s right. 

Teaching in Spain is rewarding, frustrating and hilarious all rolled into one job with pretty amazing vacation time.

Want the skinny on teaching in Iberia and tips on how to land and get situated in Spain? I co-penned a comprehensive e-book last summer on how to move to Spain and set up as a teaching assistant.

book pages preview

Read more about it here or purchase it for 10€ through eJunkie! We’re currently re-vamping the book and adding even more to it, so join COMO‘s FREE newsletter for more information on its release date! I’m also happy to recommend TEFL programs and teaching opportunities.

More on teaching in Spain: How to Apply to the Language Assistant Program | Paying Teaching Programs in Spain | What it’s Like to be a Language Assistant

Why do Spaniards call us ‘Guiris’?

Hay alguién aquí de fuera? called the drag queen from the stage. A hoarse shout came from right behind me: “Mi guiri, mi guiri!”

My friend S had sold me out to a total stranger and a bar full of side-eyeing pijas, and she’d done so be calling me a guiri. This was before any of us turned 30 but after an entire afternoon of beers, so I skipped to the stage and joined the drag queen, dancing all of my shame out. She later apologized for screaming HERE’S A FOREIGNER a few days later, though I’d already consented to another drink after my show as a way to shrug it off.

the word guiri

Guiri is a catch-all phrase for both foreign tourists and Northern Europeans, used more often than not in a joking, affable way. I’d never really taken any interest in knowing where the word come from until an early morning wake up call on a Sunday morning had me watching Canal Sur’s program about the origins of common practices and traditions in Andalucía. If you are into etymology like me, your ears would have perked up when you heard “Where does the word guiri come from?’ I nearly spilled my coffee on our new coach.

The most common explanation is literally a page out of a Spanish history book: The word guiri has existed for some 130 years since the time of the Guerras Carlistas during the first half of the 19th Century, a series of skirmishes that followed the death of King Fernando and that pitted the royal’s only a heir, Isabel, against his brother, Carlos María Isidoro de Borbón (it is, therefore, not a phrase derived from a way to call out the socks with sandals thing).

According to the Royal Decree of 1713, all ascendents to the throne were required to be male, so Carlos V made a play for Isabel’s blue-blood given right. This sparked the first of the Carlist Wars, with Isabel’s mother, María Cristina de Borbón Dos-Sicilias fighting for her daughter.


photo credit

Those who supported Isabel and her mother became known as cristinos, and fighting was especially fierce in the northern regions of Navarra and País Vasco. Cristinos from this region saw their leader as radical liberals who hoped to  make sweeping reforms in the whole country, beginning with the right to the throne. What’s more, the this band received support from other countries like France and Great Britain, causing alarm with the northerns who were, characteristically, more traditional and supporters of Carlos V.

The name for the northern became known as guiristinos to the carlistas, an ambiguation of cristinos in the Basque language. Because the majority of María Cristina’s supporters were Basque and Navarrese, the name stuck and was even used as a way to call Guardia Civil officers during Franco’s regime. At its most basic, it also served as a moniker for outsiders and people with radical new ideas, shortened to simply guiri.

Guiris dressed up as flamencas

However, the word guiri didn’t become popular in Spain until the 1960s when tourism began to bring thousands of travelers – namely the British and the Dutch – to coastal resorts. Post-war Spain and Francoist mentality were not ready for the influx of foreigners in the wake of two decades of self-sustainability, so guiri became the popular way to call light-skinned tourists, usually from Northern Europe, the US and Canada. (Another beloved Spanish tradition to surge during this decade? The menú del día. Bendito manjar, clearly).

Some decry the word as a direct attack on those who fall into the category, but most Spaniards will insist that it’s a term of endearment. As most groups of friends have the token ‘El Cabesa’ and ‘El Tonto,’ being ‘La Guiri’ is kind of like my calling card, a simple way to distinguish myself and make me feel like I’ve squeezed my way into tight sevillano social circles.

Have you ever been called a guiri? How do you feel about it?

Seville Snapshots: The Sights of Alcalá de Henares

The Spain of my pre-Sevilla had one leading protagonist (perhaps loverboy?) : Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. Spain’s most famous author is best known for his chronicle of Spanish knighthood, Don Quijote, Man of La Mancha, and he penned the book while living in Valladolid.

It seemed only fitting to make a day trip from Madrid to Alcalá de Henares, the city in which Cervantes was born and to which his name is commonly associated to pay an early homage to Día del Libro, a celebration of his death and contributions to the Spanish Language and its literature. My sister-in-law Nathàlia just finished up her degree at the famous Universidad de Alcalá, so I took the train early one Friday morning to Madrid and spent an afternoon wandering the old city.

The Universidad de Alcalá is considered to be one of the oldest universities in the world (and several of my blogging friends like Cassandra and James have earned masters degrees from the formerly named Complutense!). Taking a tour with a guide was the best way to learn about the long and interesting history of the campus.

Nath and I walked arm-in-arm through the winding streets of the city, gossiping while huddling together from a biting April day before dipping into a bar near the law faculty for a few tapas. Bars clustered around the university buildings typically serves free tapas with drinks, so we toasted to Nathàlia’s big move to Dublin and one more city to cross off of my list.

If you go: Alcalá de Henares is a quick cercanías trip from Madrid – it will take you 40 minutes on the C2 line from Atocha. Be sure to visit the Plaza de Cervantes, the Casa Natal de Cervantes (free, like tapas in many bars, too), and the university tour cost less than 5€ with a student card. 

How Much Spanish Should I Speak to Travel or Live in Spain?

One of the most common questions I’m asked about moving to Spain is the level necessary to be able to understand and be understood while traveling and working. This is a loaded question, as Spain is a place where English is both commonplace and rarely spoken. 

When I came to live in Seville, I had years of study and a few months in Valladolid as backing. Little did I know that Spanish was such a complex language, or that doing adult things like opening a bank account and settling claims would turn into such a frustrating task. After all of this time and the pummeling of different accents, my own manner of speaking is laughable.

Still, the importance of learning languages has hit Andalusia full-force, and English is much more widely spoken than five years ago. Here, your questions answered:

What Level of Spanish Do You Need for a Trip to Spain?

Spain is rightly regarded as one of the most exciting travel destinations in the world, but regardless of whether you decide to soak up the sunshine on a long, sandy beach or enjoy the food and exciting culture of cities likes Barcelona and Madrid it is a good idea to learn some of the Spanish language before you go. Of course, how much you need to learn depends upon what you intend to do with it and here are a few examples of to get you thinking.

I recommend having a working knowledge of transportation vocabulary and basic phrases, and the same goes for food and lodging. While many people in the travel industry will have some English, a little legwork goes a long way, especially if there’s a problem.

To Make Friends

The Spanish people are famously friendly and outgoing, making Spain a wonderful destination for anyone who is interested in becoming friends with people from a different culture. In this case, you will want a fairly wide vocabulary and to be able to speak in as relaxed a manner as possible. You probably won’t be overly worried about some grammatical faults, as you will iron these out once you start talking to your new Spanish friends.

Intercambios, or language exchanges, are becoming ever more popular with Spaniards and foreign residents alike. These weekly meetings are often held at bars or public spaces, and encourage language participation on both ends. In Seville, couchsurfing usually meets for an exchange on Thursdays, and there are several in the Alameda. You can also use University message boards to look for a one-on-one.

To Sample the Food

Spain is also famous for its magnificent cuisine. If you love food then you will want to try the likes of paella, tortilla de patata and other local treats. In order to get the most out of your culinary experience you might like to learn a good variety of food related words. This is going to be especially relevant if you plan to head off the beaten track and eat in small restaurants where English might not necessarily be spoken. If you are able to say, the best of my Spanish lessons in Miami is the bit where we talk about food for hours then you will be on your way to learning what you need.

Knowing regional dishes will not only enhance your visit, but also help you guarantee that you’re getting great service. I tend to shy away from places where English, French, German and a handful of other languages are present on menus, though I still have to learn parts of the pig in English!

To Look for a Job

Perhaps you are planning a dramatic change in your life and want to look to further your career in Spain. This is becoming an increasingly popular option in these days of the globally mobile workforce. There are some parts of the country with a high population of English-speaking expats and it is possible that you could land a job there with little knowledge of the Spanish tongue. Still, you’ll want to have a decent grasp of some formal Spanish phrases in order to make a good impression on the person interviewing you.

Yeah, Guiri Puss, aprende español!

Interested in studying for an exam to prove that you’re a Spanish crack? The DELE diploma is valid in nearly every country in the world, and I passed the C1 in November 2011. Check out my Do’s and Don’t post and what to expect on the exam.

This post was made possible by an outside source. As always, I reserve all rights of submission.

Do you learn any language bits before you travel? Looking to learn Spanish in Spain? Contact me for the inside scoop on the best language schools!

The Rain in Spain

“I knew the weather was changing during my morning cigarette yesterday,” the Novio mentioned as he smoked his [fifth] evening piti.

That’s the problem with being a pilot, he confessed. You start to understand the weather patterns. His friends nodded, confident that we were about to enter the Veranillo de San Miguel. Like most moments in my life in Seville, I shrugged and gave them a puzzled look.

Alas, not three weeks after returning to Spain, I’m putting away my summer clothes and actually sleeping under sheets. We welcomed Autumn this week with spouts of drizzle, chillier temperatures and the need for a jacket in the evening. Now is the time people start chiding you for not wearing a scarf (reason for getting a cold), for sleeping with your window open (reason for getting a cold) and walk in stocking feet in your house (reason for getting a cold).

Spanish idioms about the weather are some of the silliest I know, and I’ve made a point to put them into my speech for a dramatic effect when talking about Seville’s 300 days of sunshine, and 65 days of cold, damp grossness (for the record, the only think I like about Fall is anything pumpkin-flavored).

Veranillo de Membrillo/de San Miguel – Indian Summer

The little summer of quince or Saint Micheal is what we Americans call Indian Summer – a deceptive window of time where summer returns for just a few short days, complete with high temps and sunshine. Currently, it’s been in the low 70s, and sevillanos are hoping to squeeze out one more beach weekend.

Hasta el 40 de Mayo, no te quites el sayo – Bring your jacket

Like the Veranillo de Membrillo, the above refrán refers to just the opposite: to not be deceived by warm weather, as there will always be a burst of cold. It literally means, until June 10th, don’t take off your light jacket. This old idiom begs you to consider covering up so as not to catch a cold.

Tiempo de perros – Foul weather

The weather of dogs means nothing more than bad weather – storms, blustery winds and the like. Use this idiom with the verb hacer to talk about the weird weather that descends on the land of sunshine and siestas to impress your Spanish friends.

Tener más frío que robando pingüinos – To be very cold

There exist dozens of ways to talk about cold, including the “cold that peels” or the cold that likens you to playing with seals. My favorite is to be colder than robbing penguins, conjuring up a winter wonderland at the North Pole. In Seville, it hasn’t snowed and stuck for over 50 years, so the blue skies that are ever-present in winter trick you into thinking it’s warming up. Nope. Get your penguin-catching nets ready.

Tener carne de gallina – To have goosebumps

Goosebumps are weird sounding, but the Spaniards go ahead and make it goose skin. Even weirder.

Estar calado/a hasta los huesos – To feel damp

I didn’t realize just how cold Seville gets in winter until the Christmastime rains came. All of the sudden, my clothes wouldn’t dry and I found myself shivering under the covers with the heat on, nothing more than my eyes peeking out over the top. Because the city sits in a river valley surrounded by mountain ranges, Seville weather is damp and humid at any time of the year, prompting old ladies to admit to being damp in their bones as the walk their carritos to the supermarket.

Similarly, Spanish employs weather terms to describe people and situations.

Darse ni frío ni calor – to not matter

Spend the last weekend of Indian Summer in la playa or the mountains? No me da ni frío ni calor, really – I’ll take a weekend outside of Seville and away from my computer anytime. Anyone who is wishy washy uses this expression with a shrug to reaaaally let you know that they don’t care, and it’s translated literally as not giving you neither hot nor cold. Cue Katy Perry music.

Cambiar más que una veleta – to be fickle

Speaking of which, you probably have a friend who tells you it doesn’t give him hot or cold, but then changes his mind. Someone who changes more than a weather vane is said to be fickle, and I could easily blanket stereotype with this one, but I won’t. Hey, we’ve all got friends like this.

Llover sobre mojado – When it rains, it pours

As I listen to the rain finally pounding down on a very dry Seville, it’s easy to envision this idioms: When one bad thing happens on top of another, it’s raining over what’s already wet. I made friends with another auxiliar when she was living in Huelva five years ago. As much as she loved Spain, she got dealt one bad hand after another, finally leading her to leave spain after one year. Her reason? It didn’t just pour, it poured over what was already wet.

Pasar como un nube de verano – to be short-lived

You know what passed by like a summer cloud? Summer itself! I have to admit, I’ve never planned my outfits around shoes, but when you haven’t got many options for Fall shoes on a sudden rainy day, it happens. Anything short-lived is remembered nostalgically as a summer cloud. The only problem is, in Andalucía we’ve got either zero clouds or sun protection, or the icky grey skies known as borchorno.

Que te parta un rayo – to go to hell

Straight out of Greek mythology? Damning someone means wishing they get halved by a lightning bolt. I like it.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. Got any other to share? Leave them for me in the comments – I love learning Spanish idioms almost as much as teaching them in English!

How to Learn English

9:15 am and my students are as listless as ever. Javi grumbles under his breath as he surrenders his iPod to me. I fiddle with the thing, feeling much, much older than my 24 years and trying to hide my utter terror as the screen flashed. David Guetta’s heart-pumping rhythms get some of their ears perked up, a few smiles spreading peeking out in the corners of their mouths. Silvia taps her pencil nervously to the beat, head no doubt tangled up in a tricky conjugation.

Their daily writing assignment was on the board. While my 15 students scribble in their construction-paper notebooks, I review my grammar assignment for the morning, sighing: reported speech. Between the time clauses and the backshift, our first attempt the day before had been a disaster. One of those throw-your-arms-up. pull-you-hair-out, where’s-my-end-of-the-day-beer kind of days. I close my eyes and remember it’s just summer camp, and that the kids were really there for the activities and their parents had actually paid for the native speakers.

One by one, the students close their notebooks and trudge to the front of the classroom to give it to me. As I am about to plunge in with a hastily prepared board game for reviewing, Javi jumps across his table as if it were a vaulting horse and runs to his iPod. Puzzled, I gave him my never-fail “sit down nooooow” eyes before he starts thumping his foot and head to the beat.

“Cat, I can have this very, very, VERY loud, yes?” he inquires, matching my stare with a big grin. Lara snickers, and I can’t resist.

“Sure, Javi, crank it up.”

I immediately know which song it is, and so do my students. Before the first chorus even starts, I’m scribbling down ideas for how to use it in my lessons. With two years of teaching high schoolers, I’ve learned that music is a surefire way to get students engaged and talking, and U2 and Pearl Jam and even Weird Al Yankovich have made their way onto my lesson plans. Billie Jean is going to help me teach reported speech this morning.

I text my boss, asking her to copy the lyrics as soon as possible and make a few copies. My students have fun decoding the reported speech back into direct and their sudden enthusiasm makes me think outside the four-skills box for the rest of the week’s lessons. As a class, we take Billie Jean’s claims to the tabloids and the case to court, write newspaper articles on the pending paternity test with other teachers and monitors as witnesses. They begin to use reported speech correctly in their journal entries, in their worksheets and exams, and more importantly, in their speech.

a tabloid report on the court case

When it comes time to do a creative project, the students set up a mock trial with audience members of the jury. Javi has no match as Michael Jackson and his howling “But the kiiiiiid is not my son!”

Silvia as Bille Jean and Javi as Michael Jackson in the talent show

Attention, fellow English teachers: Have you ever had a lesson be wildly successful? I wanna hear about it! Tell me the lesson,the age group and any materials you needed to make it happen. Or, tell me how you motivate your students to learn English? What interests them the most? 

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