Me and my sister in our new country

The similarities and differences between high school in Spain versus California…

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to go to school in a foreign country?  After my family moved from California to Spain, I got the chance to experience this firsthand.

Here is some background…

I was born and raised in California where I attended my elementary school for six years and then made the switch to a new middle school right before we moved.  Both schools were on the smaller side and set within the community where I lived.

I had largely positive experiences at both schools.  Except for the inevitable cranky teacher or occasionally overwhelming school project, I mostly enjoyed school and learning.  Socially things always get tricky in middle school for girls, but it wasn’t anything unmanageable and I had a core group of friends since first grade that helped limit a lot of the drama.   

But at the end of my seventh grade year my family made the decision to leave our hometown of Santa Barbara and travel the world while using Spain as our home base.  While I was sad to leave my community and friends, I was really excited about the adventure.

Santa Barbara is beautiful, but it also felt small and limiting and I was eager to see the world.  Most teenagers would not dream of leaving their friends during middle school or high school, and even though I cried when I left them, I knew intuitively that I was ready to meet new people and experience different cultures.  

We moved to Mallorca: a beautiful island off the coast of Spain, floating in the Mediterranean.  I had about six weeks to get acquainted with my new community before school started.  The school I was going to be enrolled in was going to be taught half in Spanish and half in English…and I didn’t speak much Spanish! 

Also, due to the Spanish school system I was going to be skipping a grade and would be placed in an entire grade ahead of where I left off in California.  

I was excited to start school in Spain, but also a bit terrified. I knew the experience was going to be interesting, to say the least!

I am currently halfway through my first year in an international high school in Spain and here are some of the biggest observations, challenges, and interesting experiences I have had so far…

Me and my brother on our first day in our new school in Spain…

Academics…

The school I am attending is an international school with 70% of the students being from Spain and the remaining 30% from abroad. Four of my classes are taught in English with the rest taught in Spanish.  I have 12 classes total… twelve different subjects! This is very common in Spanish schools to have a lot of different subjects.

Not being able to speak the language and having SO many subjects has made for a very challenging academic experience.

I was used to having about six classes at my school in California.  The regular classes you might expect like math, English, social studies, science, language, and then one or two additional electives.  

In Spain, I have math, physics, geography, biology, chemistry, technology, English, French, Spanish, PE, music, drama and debate! You also have to take an additional language class in Catalan which is the language they speak in addition to Spanish on the island of Mallorca.

Having to wrap your mind around so many different topics has been very tough because there is so much material to try and process.  Add the fact that I am learning subjects like math and geography in a language I don’t understand fluently means I am being tested in a way scholastically and mentally that I was not in California.  

Another big difference is the amount and volume of learning that is memorization. We are required to learn a lot of material at a much faster pace here in Spain. I definitely had more hands-on learning and group projects in California. But the Spanish school system is rooted in more traditional learning models which has been an adjustment. I have never made so many flashcards in my life and I ended up getting a tutor on-line to help with some of my subjects. This did help me a lot with test preparation as I was just not used to this kind of intense memorization.

There is also a lot more testing here in Spain!  In part because I have so many classes, but also because they just believe in exams more at the school I am enrolled in.  I have a big test every couple of days, along with an entire week of midterms and finals each semester.

By the end of the week, my brain is exhausted.    

The relationships between teachers and students are also different here.  The schools I grew up going to in California seemed to emphasize a more casual and personal relationship between kids and teachers and there was a more collaborative approach.  In Spain, the teachers have more of an authoritative relationship with their students and there is less interaction and casual conversation. This has taken some getting used to as my teachers used to know me better, which made me feel more comfortable and relaxed. It has been a bit challenging to not feel like my teachers know me as I have always really enjoyed getting to know my teachers.

Friends…

Coming in at 14 to a new school on the other side of the world and trying to make friends was indeed scary.   I wondered if I would be sitting alone every day for lunch or would classmates try to connect and talk to me.

I was surprised to find that the girls in my class were very outgoing and engaging.  One of the reasons for this is because my school is international and everyone seems to be used to new people coming and going and the kids are interested in new people.  The social cliques and divisions just don’t seem as pronounced here. 

Many of the kids are in the same boat as me and almost everyone is struggling to keep up with a language they don’t know fluently.  One of my favorite parts of the school is how there are people and cultures represented from all over the world. I have made friends with people from almost a dozen countries in just a few short months. This is a real contrast to the communities I grew up in where almost everyone was from the same small town .  I now have friends from France, Russia, Germany, Morocco, Spain and Switzerland which I love!

Students here have such unique and interesting backgrounds.  My new friends and classmates are from every corner of the world and I hear at least seven different languages being spoken each day.  There is also a lot of commiserating over the work load, which makes me feel less alone in my struggle.  No matter where you are from, everyone feels overwhelmed by the amount of learning and testing!

I have really enjoyed meeting so many new and different friends and have learned so much as a result.  This global environment is one of the biggest differences to the schools I went to in California where there is very little exposure to other cultures and countries.

My uniform at my new school in Spain…

School Culture and Environment…

The school culture here in Spain is more traditional than California.  There is not as much parent engagement or interaction with the staff or administration. There is no “hand holding” or sensitivity from staff and teachers in a way that was familiar in California.  They expect a lot out of the students and the dynamic is much more formal.

The school days are nine hours and very intense.  We don’t have a siesta like all of Spain, but they do take meal time very seriously and schedule long lunches.  The cafeteria is almost like a restaurant with linens and traditional Spanish customs around food. The school insists that all the students sit down and eat multiple courses at lunch time and you can’t get up until the meal is over.  It is in stark contrast to the very informal lunchtime in my other schools where you would walk around with very little focus on the food and were lucky if you got to finish a bag of chips!

Many schools in Spain require uniforms.  I have an itchy blue plaid skirt, sweater, and knee socks that I am required to wear, along with a different exercise uniform two days a week and a lab coat for science class.   You also have to do swimming where everyone is required to wear a swim cap and white bathrobe over their swimsuit. While it takes some getting used to, I have appreciated not having to think about clothes every day and because everyone is wearing the same thing it does not feel awkward.  

Field trips here are amazing.  We drive to the other side of the island and see ruins that are over a thousand years old.  The history and architecture are amazing here and it feels very different than the United States. 

Also, the school’s clubs and sports teams play other schools in Switzerland, France and Portugal and take plane rides for tournaments and games.

In many ways, the teenagers here behave and feel the same as they did back home. They spend a lot of time on their phones and have social media.  There are lectures on bullying and drama with friends and they complain about their parents and homework. 

But in other ways, the teenagers seem very different.  I notice that family and community are very important here and there is a lot more time spent with family on the weekends in a way you don’t see as much with teenagers back in California. Students here are more worldly and wise about certain things. I imagine growing up in a part of the world with such a rich history and culture shapes you in such a different way.  Also because there are so many countries very close to Spain, there is much more experience that comes with international living and travel.

This experience has challenged me more than I thought.  But it has also changed me profoundly, opened my mind and broadened my perspective. I am changed forever and so grateful for the experience. And the truth is I would not trade this experience for anything in the world and I am so glad to have moved abroad.

I am just scratching the surface with all that I am learning and experiencing and can’t wait to share more of my journey along the way.

If you want to learn more about the different schooling options around the world check out this article.

 

Here are a few of the items that helped me get through my first year in my new high-school in Spain…

Spiral Notebook with (faux) leather cover and gold corners for extra protection. I have never taken so many notes in my life and having these notebooks was great because of how sturdy and well made they were. I would always have several with me for different classes and they held up well in my backpack. They come in a lot of really cute colors like pink and teal.

Penny Loafers with platform sole. When I first arrived at school this was the shoe that we were required to wear and I wasn’t a fan. But after living in Europe for a while you realize that girls wear these loafers with everything and they are super cute. Not one would I wear them to school but I also would wear them with jeans and a blazer or dresses on the weekend. They look super cute with socks and dresses as well.

Laptop Backpack with charging port. The amount of stuff you have to carry to school in Spain is pretty crazy. In addition to notebooks for so many classes you would also need a laptop, snacks, supplies and a water bottle. I needed a serious backpack and this one is amazing and has held up great.

Noise Canceling Headphones are a life saver while studying and even walking through the streets of Spain. Not only can you listen to music, but I often listen to podcasts and language apps to learn more Spanish.

Spanish language Apps are a MUST when learning to speak Spanish. I really pushed myself to listen to this app as much as I could and it made a big difference. I also listened to music, would do workbooks and watched a lot of Netflix shows in Spanish. It all helps so much and after about six months I had come a long way and was able to understand and speak so much more.

 

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