I went to school in the US and in Spain. My learning felt stagnant in the US, but my social life was fun.

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The author lived in Spain and went to school there before moving back to the US for high school.Courtesy of the author
  • I lived in Madrid from age 6 to age 14.

  • I went to an international school that had a total of 300 students.

  • After moving back to the US for high school, I felt like my classes were a joke.

My family lived in Spain from the time I was 6 years old until I was 14. My brothers and I went to an international school in Madrid that followed a British curriculum. The K-12 school had a total of 300 students, which meant my entire grade comprised 22 people.

When my family moved back to the US, I started my freshman year of high school. My school outside Atlanta had about 2,000 students at the time, and I had almost 600 in my graduating class.

There were many differences between the two school systems, and I have always wondered how my life might be different if my family had stayed in Spain and I'd received my full education there. And while that learning stagnated a bit in the US, high school was great social fun.

I had more subjects in Spain

In Spain, from the age of 11, I took 13 subjects, which included three foreign languages, world history, the history of Spain, and three sciences. Some classes were only once a week, such as music and PE, and others I had every day, like math and languages. In a rapidly globalizing world, the importance of understanding history and knowing multiple languages was clear to me.

In my high school in Georgia, I took six subjects with the same schedule each day. The sports coaches taught all my history, economics, and some math classes. In my world-history class, my teacher regularly put on movies such as "Gladiator" and "Braveheart" instead of teaching. On Fridays, my economics teacher fed us "Saturday Night Live" reruns in class. What teenager doesn't love a movie day in class? Those classes were easy to coast through. But I also didn't learn anything from them.

There's a lot of emphasis in the US on extracurricular activities

When I began high school, besides the new-kid nervousness and a lot of reverse culture shock, I was surprised by the importance of extracurricular activities — especially athletics.

The school had huge, well-funded sports teams, and tons of after-school clubs, and every Wednesday, classes ended at 12 p.m. so we could have the rest of the afternoon to focus on our club or sport of choice. There was a lot of pressure to take part in extracurricular clubs and sports because it would look good on a college application and could get you a college scholarship.

In Madrid, school sports were more for fun and staying healthy.

I felt like I was falling behind in my school in the US

In Spain, I had foreign-language classes every day with the same teachers for years. French and Spanish were very immersive. My high school required students to take at least two years of a foreign language. Most kids took the bare minimum and then opted out.

While I didn't relish the homework I got as a middle schooler in Spain, I at least felt mentally stimulated and challenged. The school gave me a more well-rounded, strong foundation in core subjects and sparked my love of languages.

High school felt like a joke by comparison. In 7th and 8th grades, I had already studied "Macbeth" and Franz Kafka's works, only to study the same things again as a senior in AP English. Much of what I learned in my chemistry and algebra classes in high school was a repeat of 8th grade. My senior-year math teacher didn't check our homework to see if the answers were correct. She just glanced over each person's page to see if you'd filled out numbers, which resulted in a lot of students — including me — making up answers.

Overall, in Spain, my classes from an early age felt higher quality, more challenging, and I was more engaged in learning from the same teachers repeatedly. I felt dumbed down at my high school by comparison, like I graduated with huge gaps in my learning especially related to history and current events.

In Spain, it felt like schools emphasized academics for the sake of making well-rounded humans, rather than getting the best test scores to get you into the best colleges.

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