*Where cultures meet – (left) Lola’s pride is her son, kilted and thoroughly integrated in Scottish life.
Imagine yourself, aged 12, sitting in a class full of children and not being able to understand a word of what the teacher is saying.
You look around and see that you’re not alone. Although most of the other children are paying close attention, a good few of them, maybe up to a half, are staring vacantly out of the window, fiddling with their school books, or even nodding off.
Like children the world over, when you’re bored, you start mucking about.
Now look at it the other way. You’re sitting in class and following every word the teacher is saying with close attention.
But it’s hard, because those other kids, the ones who don’t understand, are playing up and disrupting the lesson.
It is a problem that schools in the Canaries, particularly in tourist areas like the south of Tenerife, have been facing for years and one that María Dolores Ruiz Virumbrales spent a large part of her 35-year-long career addressing.
With a rapidly growing foreign population, teachers have long been placed in the front line of the battle to ensure that at least the children of these newcomers fit in with Canarian life, learn the language and absorb the culture.
It is a battle that has been fought with a surprising degree of success, with remedial classes for foreign children to learn the language before being integrated into regular classwork.
But the strain, especially in the tourist south of Tenerife, has been enormous. And teachers have been absorbing that strain, detecting worrying signs of racism and xenophobia among their pupils on both sides of the language gulf.
Groups of friends form according to language and background. Gangs start to form. And gangs lead to trouble that can spill over into adult life.
In 2005 the Canarian government decided to take the remedial language teaching a step further, trying to create an environment in schools where real integration could flourish.
As well as financial support from the government, the scheme had the full approval and support of various organisations including parent teacher associations, Caritas, a church-supported charity, and the Red Cross.
But nobody tried harder to see that the plan succeeded than Maria Dolores Ruiz Virumbrales, who volunteered to co-ordinate the scheme at Tamaimo senior school.
She was a good choice for the job. With two sons of her own who went abroad for their education, this energetic woman knows something of the problems faced by youngsters struggling with a foreign language and customs to receive an education.
But she knows even more of the nitty-gritty from having been head teacher at the Tamaimo lower school before volunteering to take on remedial language classes for the older children.
Maria is a popular figure, known to her many friends in the British community as Lola.
But, beyond knowing that she was a teacher, few of them know anything of the important role she played in the lives of generations of students.
Lola comes from Palencia, in northern Spain and started her teaching career in Madrid where she worked for five years.
She and her husband, Joaquin, first came to the Los Gigantes area of Tenerife on a working holiday and liked it so much they decided to stay.
That was some 35 years ago and Lola has spent the intervening years as a teacher in various roles in Tamaimo.
From the mid-1970s to the early ’90s Lola was head teacher of the lower school but the education system changed when the school was expanded to include children up to 16 years old and so Lola stood down as head teacher though remained as a teacher.
“Some people even now still think I was the head,” she says. “But I didn’t want the responsibility of an administrative position I was happier teaching.”
Lola is also qualified to teach music and French, but the latter part of her career was taken up with teaching remedial Spanish for up to four hours a week to foreign students at the senior school in Tamaimo who had little or no grasp of the language.
It brought her to a profound awareness of the growing problems facing the education system.
“My own sons had faced the same problems in reverse when they went to study abroad, in the UK and in Germany,” she says. “But they were fortunate; in both places people were very kind and helpful towards them.”
Lola and Joaquin’s eldest son, Ioseba, studied at Edinburgh University where he got his PHD.
He stayed on in Scotland and married a Scottish girl and is now part of a British government-funded deep-sea research project.
Tamaimo is the only senior school in Santiago del Teide so all the children who live in the municipality come to the school at the age of 12.
“The remedial sessions were taking place during normal school hours so they weren’t following the same lesson plan as the Spanish-speaking children,” Lola says.
“It wasn’t seen as a problem because, due to their lack of Spanish, they couldn’t follow the normal lessons anyway. But naturally they became inattentive and frustrated as anybody would.
“As the children’s Spanish improved, the time spent in remedial lessons was cut down and they were integrated back into the normal curriculum.
“It was a start,” she says, “and certainly better than the previous situation, but as I worked with these children I began to realise that teaching them to speak the language was not enough if they were to truly integrate into their adopted country.”
It is easy to see how the problem came about. Until the 1970s and ’80s few foreign nationals came to live permanently anywhere in Spain. There were so few foreign students that teachers were able to devote much more time to teaching them the language.
“Since then, of course, things have changed and there has been a huge increase in the number of foreign residents,” says Lola.
“In fact, even back as far as 1998, over 40 per cent of people on the electoral register in our municipality were foreigners.
“Nowadays there are far more young people of working age so of course they have children of all ages and many nationalities.”
Lola wasn’t alone in thinking that teaching pupils to speak the language was not enough and, in response to pressure from grass roots level in the education system, in 2005 the Canary Islands government asked for proposals on how to implement an ‘intercultural education scheme’.
Lola responded by talking it over with colleagues before submitting a draft proposal for the government which was accepted in September 2005.
“It had the approval and support of all the staff,” she says, “but in particular Pilar Flores Henera, the careers adviser, Lilian Hari Santa Ortega, who runs a similar project, Luis S Gonzalez Lorenzo, in charge of out-of-school activities, and the head teacher at that time, Don Esteban Vera Garcia.”
The idea of the programme was to be part of every aspect of the curriculum.
“It is about more than teaching Spanish to foreign nationals,” she said.
“For example Spanish is the native tongue of most of the South American children but they are still foreigners and, like the rest, lack the common references which go to make up the cultural experience.”
Lola believes that an understanding of the culture, traditions and history of their adopted country will go a long way towards helping the children integrate with their native-born classmates.
Lola, who retired from school life this year, was recently given a lifetime achievement award by the Mayor of Santiago del Teide and the local council also has plans to make her an honorary daughter of Santiago del Teide.