“Name three Spanish 20th-century novelists, and who was Columbus?”

Almost 12,000 would-be teachers take pot luck in official exams for 350 jobs

Applicants for elementary school posts taking the exam in Madrid on Tuesday.
Applicants for elementary school posts taking the exam in Madrid on Tuesday. Samuel Sánchez

Yolanda Amigo tried her luck this week. At age 43, this educational studies graduate who has never worked as a teacher is out of a job after being fired from a car rental company. On Tuesday, Amigo joined 11,599 other candidates vying for one of 350 preschool and elementary substitute teacher positions at public centers in the Madrid region.

"I didn't prepare for it so I don't think I did well," said Amigo after completing the first part of the examination, the general knowledge test, which asked applicants about European capitals or the claim to fame of historical figures such as Christopher Columbus. "Name three Spanish 20th-century novelists who have died," came another. There were also basic math and language questions.

Apart from the trivial-pursuit style, there are a few peculiarities to the examinations that kicked off this week to find replacement teachers for the 2013-2014 school year. One of these is the fact that Amigo, who has no teaching experience, has almost as good a chance of landing a position as Mayka Aparicio, 41, who has worked at public schools for six years. "They're going after us; they want to eliminate a lot of people really fast," said Aparicio after part one of the exam. "A general culture examination proves nothing - it does not determine whether I am a good English instructor or not."

The Madrid education department claims that the new criteria to find substitute teachers, which favor test results over working experience, will help select "the best" candidates for the classrooms. But the teacher unions, which strongly oppose the new approach, hold that it will only serve to eliminate most applicants so that the department can then hire teachers arbitrarily.

A general culture examination does not determine whether I am a good English instructor"

Beginning this year, the examination makes up 80 percent of the candidate's total grade. Experience counts for 15 percent, while the remaining five percent represents other merits the applicant may bring to the position, such as completed courses or languages.

This is the second time this year that teacher applicants have undergone a general knowledge test marked by controversy. In March, there was a huge media flurry when it emerged that 86 percent of the 14,110 candidates for 489 positions had flunked a test with 6th-grade-level questions in grammar, math, natural sciences and geography. The Madrid education department leaked some of the results to the press, drawing the ire of unions who said educators were being held up for derision to serve political interests.

In the meantime, teacher representatives have called strikes, sit-ins and other protest actions against the change while simultaneously seeking help from the ombudsman and appealing to the courts. Several applicants who showed up for the test at one of 67 centers administering the exam complained about "lack of time" to complete the 30 questions. Applicants get 90 minutes.

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