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Irishwoman in Madrid: I just hope my loved ones remain safe and I get to see them


Leila Islam is originally from Burtonport, Co Donegal, who lives in Madrid where she is a humanities teacher in a second-level school

When did you leave Ireland and why?

I left Ireland back in 2011. I had just finished my Professional Diploma in Education (PDE) in Trinity College Dublin and at that time there was very little possibility of finding full-time work in teaching in Ireland. Our options were either to go abroad or spend years subbing and moving around different schools until a contract came up. I decided to go to Madrid. I had qualified as a history and Spanish teacher, but felt I could do with brushing up on my spoken Spanish. The plan was to stay for a year, but I’m still here!

Where and what did you study?

I studied history and Spanish in NUI Maynooth, where I also did a Master’s in Local History. After a year of travelling, I decided to do the PDE to become a qualified teacher.

How long is a school day in Madrid?

The school day lasts from 8.30 to 4 pm in most international schools, which is where I teach. However, lessons can go on to 5pm in public schools.

Has teaching in Madrid changed?

Well it has been a very busy start to the year with a lot of new rules and protocols to follow. The day now begins by taking student temperatures at the entrance of the school. They then proceed to follow the arrow system on the floor, which leads them throughout the school. Hands need to be sanitised when entering and leaving all classrooms and masks must be worn throughout the day. The same rules apply for the teachers of course!

Trying to keep students apart and following the new rules is a constant challenge

Each class is assigned their own classroom and they have all their lessons there. Lunchtime is split between different age groups to allow for social distancing when eating in the canteen and classes have their own assigned area of the school yard to prevent them from mixing with other groups. Trying to keep students apart and following the new rules is a constant challenge. The “new normal” means a lot of running around for teachers, much less time for planning and a busier work day overall.

Does class size matter?

As a private school, we are lucky that our small class sizes enable us to give lessons without too much disruption. I can only imagine how difficult that would be in larger or public schools where class sizes can be up to 35 students, which makes social distancing almost impossible. The fact that we are a small school also enabled all students to start the course together. In larger public schools, the return of students is staggered with some of the older groups not returning to lessons until October and many lessons will need to be given in exams halls and other public spaces.

What challenges are teachers facing?

Naturally teachers face new challenges now too. Much lesson time is lost due to the new protocols and we worry that we may not complete the course. Teaching methods also need to be adapted to adhere to the new protocols. Group work, Kinaesthetic activities, which require students to use touch and movement to learn, practicals and many other teaching methods which enable students to progress in their learning now need to be remodelled to avoid the spread of the virus. Some students have also lost loved ones, so we have to be conscious of their mental state. As the numbers of people testing positive for coronavirus continue to rise in Madrid, we are left wondering whether it is just a matter of time before we are back to online lessons.

Students and teachers alike need the stability of school life to bring some normality back after so many months at home

You are a history and geography teacher. What is on the syllabus in Madrid?

I now work in a British International School, so we follow the Cambridge curriculum, which is basically the same as the syllabus in the UK. It focuses on modern history and world geography. I initially worked in Spain’s public school system, which follows the ESO (Educación Secundaria) and Bachillerato, which is similar to the Leaving Cert. In Spain they created a bilingual system in 2008 after the economic crash with the aim of making Spaniards become English speakers. Most subjects are now taught in English except for mathematics and Spanish language. Most public schools are now bilingual in Madrid and teachers are generally supported by language assistants called Auxililares de Conversation, who tend to be American or other native English speakers.

How is teaching changing during the pandemic?

It is a lot more difficult to be creative in your lessons now. Social distancing rules make pair or group work impossible. Even handing out worksheets creates a health risk, so I need to find measures which allow students to work independently while keeping them engaged. Luckily our school is reasonably well-equipped in terms of technology and students having access to iPads can make a big difference.

Some of your pupils have lost loved ones due to the coronavirus. How do you respond to that?

Many students have had to learn how to deal with a whole host of emotions in the past few months. I try to promote strong relationship between students and their families. I keep in close contact with parents and send them weekly updates. It is important to show students that they have support if they need it. I think as teachers we need to be honest with students about the effects of the pandemic. We also need to support an environment where students feel safe to voice their worries and concerns. I just try to get on with things really. I think students and teachers alike need the stability of school life to bring some normality back after so many months at home.

What is like in Madrid at the moment?

Considering we have the highest numbers of infections in Europe, Madrid is surprisingly running business as usual. Some areas have been put into regional lockdowns, but they tend to be in areas outside the city centre. Everyone here wears masks when they are out and about, but they don’t tend to take social distancing measures as importantly as we do. Most bars and restaurants remain busy with terraces full throughout the week, but everything closes down at 1pm for the night. In Madrid it feels like we just have to get on with things and learn to live with the virus.

Are you frightened?

I wouldn’t say I’m frightened, but I am concerned. People here seem overly relaxed considering the high numbers of infections and seem to think that wearing a mask makes them invincible. My wedding already had to be cancelled back in April when we went into lockdown and although we have postponed it until next year, who knows what may happen between then and now. I just hope that my loved ones remain safe and well and that I can get home to see them when I ever need to.

How are you looking after yourself?

I try to avoid busy areas of the city, although this can be difficult when getting public transport to work every day. I try to mix with the same people and only go out when I have to. I always wear a mask when I’m out and at work.

Is there anything you miss about Ireland at the moment?

I obviously miss my family and friends the most. I was lucky enough to get home to Donegal to see them this summer, although I had to self-quarantine for two weeks. I hope travel restrictions won’t make it more difficult to see my family and friends at Christmas. I also miss long walks along the beach in Donegal. We had one of the strictest lockdowns in Europe here in Madrid and it has really taught me to appreciate the little things I took for granted before.

If you work overseas and would like to share your experience with Irish Times Abroad, email with a little information about you and what you do.

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