The teachers who don't exist

Despite their on-the-ground experience, Madrid premier says cutbacks do not mean non-specialists taking different subjects

O n the first day she walked into the classroom, Sonia Ures was sincere with her new students: "This term I will be learning biology with you." The students already know her. She is the physical education teacher at the Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer school in Algete, outside Madrid, although this year she will have to spend three hours a week among test tubes teaching a subject she knows little about. She is a physical education graduate and a qualified primary school teacher. At the beginning of the course she prepared a crib sheet for her first lesson that she has not yet had to use - her class was put back a week. The teachers who are qualified in natural sciences are teaching her the basics. "They thought I needed a bit more preparation," the 39-year-old says.

Aguirre said it was a "lie" that teachers do subjects which they are not specialized in
Sonia was sincere with her students: "This term I'll be learning biology with you"

Ures, like many other high school teachers working in public schools in Madrid, has had to take on other subjects this year. The increase in the number of contact hours, from 18 to 20, and cutbacks in the number of substitute teachers has wrought havoc with the syllabi in schools, which are assigning their staff to subjects they are unfamiliar with to try to balance the timetable.

The regional premier of Madrid, Esperanza Aguirre, stated publicly that it is a "lie and a falsehood" that there are teachers imparting subjects in which they are not specialized and threatened those that are: "If anyone is giving classes that are not related to their specialty, the inspectors will be called in and we'll come down like a ton of bricks on that school and that teacher." Ures smiles sardonically: "That's all I needed."

Like Ures, the other four teachers featured in this article have been racing against the clock to familiarize themselves with new subjects. Javier Rodrigo is a specialized English tutor but has been converted into a makeshift teacher of social sciences and language; Juan José Fernández is having to teach arts on top of his usual math lessons; María Jesús Sánchez divides her time between music, geography and history; and Juan José Talavera, who is also a music teacher, is giving language classes this year.

Their situation, along with that of so many others, is circulating the internet on lists created by drawn up by the teachers. This is one of the many reactions of the educational community in Madrid to the Popular Party regional government's cutbacks in the sector, which has also seen schools closed down, strikes and mass protests since the beginning of September.

"Teacher, teacher! Do we really have to start the book from the beginning? I was at a bilingual school before and I know all this stuff." Javier Rodrigo, a teacher at a school in Alcalá de Henares that he prefers not to name, was taken aback by the impudence of his young student on the first day of term. "Yes," he replied. "We have to start from the beginning." There is no other book, he explained later.

Up to the end of last year Rodrigo could carry out flexible classes, separating his students into two groups to practice English conversation in pairs. The cutbacks have put a stop to that option. "You can't teach a language well with 30 kids in the class. The ideal number is 10 or 15," says Rodrigo, who now teaches five groups. In the class with the smart-aleck girl are 10 students who came from a bilingual elementary school, seven from a conventional one, five with special learning needs and three remedial students. The class of 25 is together all the time during their 12 weekly hours of English. Furthermore, Rodrigo is teaching two completely new subjects: social sciences and Spanish language for students on a special needs curriculum, during which he teaches the basic subject to those that are furthest behind. His degree in English philology aids Rodrigo in his language classes but the closest thing he remembers to social sciences from his own schooling is "history from the university access course. I can give it a go but this isn't my specialty, and that will end up having repercussions on the class."

These impossible mixtures of subjects have become known among teachers as "unsimilar similars." The concept of similar subjects is not new. There have always been teachers imparting subjects that are not their core specialty, although Esperanza Aguirre does not want to see them this year. A similar subject is a theme that is considerably vague in the regulations, and which this year has been generalized even further. A 2008 Education Ministry decree establishes the "specialties of the teaching body" - families of subjects with similarities, such as technology and computing, science and physics, or civic education and the history of cultures, among others. None of the extra subjects being taught by the people in this report fall into this category. The regional educational department in Madrid referred this newspaper to the Education Ministry when asked about how similar subjects are regulated. The ministry responded that it is the regions themselves that lay down their own criteria. In the end, it is schools themselves that decide where to draw the line.

At Las Canteras school in Collado Villalba there are 10 fewer teachers this year. Six of the 74 teachers at the school are giving classes that are not their area of expertise. The principal, Ana González Prado, says that "without doubt" a specialized teacher is the person best equipped to convey knowledge to students. But, such is the current panorama, the theme of specialized subjects is not the one that concerns Prado most.

"What is really terrible is to lose 300 hours a week through the 10 teachers we have lost," Prado says, pointing out that the computing of timetables only allows for the "purely academic" activities to be covered. Her school has programmed 73 hugely varying projects in the past three years - theater contests, research work, film festivals, Latin and Greek courses, student exchanges with the USA and France, among others. Such extracurricular activities will all now be lost to schoolchildren, say representatives of the public education sector. The regional education department denies the claim and alludes to what it sees as the "political" nature of the ongoing protest, while making assurances that its new instructions should guarantee the normal functioning of schools. González hopes to maintain her extracurricular program with the additional effort of her staff because "They are not a luxury but a fundamental part of education and teaching."

Early on a Thursday morning, Juan José Fernández opens the door to the closed library at his school, the Vallecas Magerit. It makes him sad to see it so empty, with the lights off and the 4,500 books gathering dust. His school, like many others according to the complaint lodged by parents and teachers, no longer has the resources to guarantee monitors in the library. "I will try to take advantage of this space for my art classes," he says. Fernández is specialized in math but makes up his timetable with visual plastic arts. He says he was assigned this class because one of his hobbies is photography. "I don't have the same knowledge that a specialist would have, but I am fascinated by visual languages. Maybe I'll be good at it." Seated on a work surface in a classroom, he displays a photocopy of his timetable, which fits in the palm of his hand. There are days with six consecutive hours of classes. "I was lost for words. We won't be able to keep up this pace."

"Quality is what a teacher who is genuinely qualified gives you," says Juan José Talavera. He has just completed his first class as a novice teacher of Spanish language at the Francisco Ayala high school in Carabanchel. He is a music teacher and holds a degree in journalism. This year, for the first time, he will be teaching five hours of language to a first-year high school class. "I don't have the experience or the didactic resources that provide the knowledge for this subject," he says.

María Jesús Sánchez has a profile that makes it easy to find similar subjects for her. She is a mathematics graduate and, after years teaching the subject, her specialty is music. But Sánchez says she was given little choice. "I asked to be given math as my extra class, but they took no notice." She now spends her free time at the weekends preparing for a new challenge as the geography and history teacher for a class of third-year students at her school in Fuenlabrada, a task she will be required to spend nine hours a week performing. She was also sincere with her class: "I explained to them that I was going to join the strike for the dignity of my profession and for them, because it is not the same thing to have a specialist as it is to have me."

Sánchez joined the three strikes held during the first week of work stoppages in Madrid and she intended to observe those taking place this week. Protests by teachers, parents and students have multiplied to all of the schools in the region. When there are no strikes, as was the case last week, teachers in around 20 high schools hold a vigil for public education by remaining in their schools during the night.

At the Professor Julio Pérez school in Rivas Vaciamadrid, around 100 people are staging such a protest. They eat food prepared for them during the day by their families and read the statement written by the school's board of directors, which denounces the "ungovernability" of the region's schools and calls for the resignation of the regional education chief, Lucía Figar. Later, they light candles and go out on to the patio.

On the fences of the school they put up posters with six silhouettes, like those that appear at a crime scene in old films. They represent the six teachers that the school has lost this year.

Left to right: Javier Rodrigo, Juan José Fernández, Sonia Ures,  María Jesús Sánchez. and Juan José Talavera.
Left to right: Javier Rodrigo, Juan José Fernández, Sonia Ures, María Jesús Sánchez. and Juan José Talavera.

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