While studying abroad, it is hard not to fall in love with the Spanish lifestyle, and to dream of returning to this enchanting country. Native English speakers have an excellent opportunity to return to Spain for a year or more through a program called Auxiliares de conversación. Through the Spanish Ministry of Education, auxiliares de conversación (native English language teaching assistants) are placed in Spanish schools all over the country. The program runs from October 1st to May 31st each academic year, and involves 12 hours of teaching per week with a monthly stipend of 700€ (or 16 hours and 1000€ stipend in Madrid). Those interested in the position have two options, either applying through the Ministry of Education or through a private program. It is free to apply through the Ministry, but your placement in a certain location is not guaranteed; conversely, private programs generally charge a substantial program fee upon application, but can generally guarantee your placement in the city of your choice. Ministry applicants select three choices out of 17 regions throughout the country, and may be placed in any city or village within those three choices on a first-come, first-served basis. Most of the sought-after locations and the schools within big cities go to those who are on private programs, because their placement is guaranteed. Those who applied through the ministry could find themselves in a teeming metropolis or a village with a population of 1,000.
Because of the differences between rural and city life in Spain, it is nearly impossible to generalize about the transition from student to auxiliar de conversación. Life as an auxiliar varies greatly from life as a student abroad, even if you happen to be living in the same city. Being a study abroad student is far simpler with regard to assimilating, because as a student, you are never truly forced to immerse yourself fully into the local Spanish culture. Study abroad students do not have to address difficult issues such as finding a place to live, setting up internet service, and paying bills, just to mention a few. Most obstacles are the responsibility of a student’s study abroad program or university, and there is a wide support system readily available in the event of any problems.
Although it would be nice to think that the Ministry and private programs are as supportive of auxiliares as a university program is to study abroad students, unfortunately auxiliares are very much on our own. All applicants to the program must be college graduates, and it becomes clear rather quickly that as an auxiliar, one is no longer a student but rather a member of the workforce. Upon arrival in Spain, auxiliares must find housing in their assigned city. Many auxiliares who work in small villages choose to live in larger towns or cities nearby, which is less convenient but may provide them with more opportunities for social activities when not at work. Finding housing is not an easy feat, and many auxiliares find that lowering their expectations with regard to housing is an absolute necessity. Online rental sources, real estate agencies, and rental advertisements posted at universities provide a good starting point. The monthly stipend, although certainly not luxurious, provides enough to find a decent room in almost any shared apartment; however, it is important to remember that Spanish apartments are very different from what American students may be accustomed to. Auxiliares generally live in shared apartments with other English teachers or with locals, but applicants can choose to live in a homestay if they prefer.
So, what’s it like working as an English teacher for the first time? That depends entirely upon your placement, as your school coordinator determines your schedule and the classes you will work with. Although the Ministry and private programs both guarantee that an auxiliar should always be an assistant teacher, accompanied at all times by a qualified and experienced classroom teacher, this is rarely the case. Often, auxiliares are thrown into classrooms on their first day and expected to teach on their own. Because there are no requirements for previous teaching experience or teaching qualifications, many auxiliares feel unprepared for the daunting task of teaching, especially due to the language barrier between themselves and their students. Although teaching assistants work just twelve hours a week, some coordinators try to take advantage of this schedule, asking auxiliares to teach in half-hour increments with breaks in between; this means many auxiliares spend far more than their allotted twelve hours at work. Generally, it is best to discuss any concerns with your coordinator as early as possible, to allow for potential schedule changes if possible. Being assertive and standing up for yourself is essential in this regard.
Many auxiliares are shocked by the differences in behavior expectations between Spanish and American schools. This can be especially daunting when an auxiliar is new to teaching and is placed in a classroom without a supervising teacher. Simply put, Spanish students are not expected to be as quiet or respectful as American students. Particularly in younger grades, auxiliares quickly get used to a higher noise level, less focus, and a more relaxed routine in the classroom. Spanish students love their native English teachers, but they will also test your patience, attempting to find out if you will reprimand them for acting out. As long as you demand respect and attention, and come to class armed with energy, determination, and a sense of humor, you will find success before long. It is incredibly rewarding to see progress in your students’ English, even just after a few short weeks. Fortunately, the auxiliares have access to a wide community of English teachers throughout Spain via social networking, and this provides the opportunity to connect with others and to give and receive advice about how to go about the sometimes exhausting task of imparting knowledge upon students. There are many invaluable online resources available for English language teachers, with videos, games, and classroom activities for a wide range of ages and language levels.
The social life in Spain is simultaneously one of the most difficult and most exciting aspects of being an auxiliar. As a student abroad in Spain, much like at your home university in the States, it is easy to meet new people and make friends through classes and in your program, since everyone is having similar experiences. Auxiliares can often be living and working in places where they are the only English speaker, and thus it is imperative to fully immerse yourself into the Spanish lifestyle and culture. Most auxiliares make many of their friends through their living situation. Roommates may become friends over time, but it is essential to step out of your comfort zone constantly in order to make friends as an auxiliar. More often than not, English-speaking foreigners in a given city tend to form their own social groups, and while it is nice to spend time with English speakers, making Spanish friends is the best way to practice your language skills and immerse yourself in local culture. Similarly, it’s more difficult to settle into a weekend routine when you have fewer readily-available friends. It is incredibly important to step out of your comfort zone and put yourself in new situations with new people. For many people, working as an auxiliar will be the first time you truly have to try to meet people, unlike college or high school. It isn’t easy, and sometimes it isn’t fun, but it is incredibly rewarding when you begin meeting new people from all over the world. Auxiliares are still young enough to continue to enjoy the many nightlife opportunities that Spain has to offer. After the initial hurdle of making friends in a new city, it’s fun to take advantage of the many bars and clubs your new home has to offer.
Although the monthly stipend may seem like quite a small amount when compared to fellow college graduates’ “real jobs” in America, it certainly allows for a comfortable standard of living if budgeted properly. Living in Spain is extremely affordable, with rent costing under 300€ per month and a normal grocery budget amounting to about 30€ per week. Food and drinks are much cheaper in Spain than in the U.S., so a night out won’t cost you an arm and a leg, but if traveling around Europe is a priority, it is essential to come with a bit of money saved up or to find private lessons once you settle in. Auxiliares only work four days per week, resulting in a flexible schedule and a lot of free time. Giving private lessons is a very popular way to earn a bit of extra cash in order to allow for a less restrictive budget. Native English speakers can easily find adults preparing for exams or families wanting extra practice for their children, and can earn between 10€ and 20€ per hour doing so, which makes a big difference in a monthly budget. A year living abroad in Europe is a priceless experience, and given the auxiliares’ flexible schedule and long weekends, it would be foolish not to take advantage of these opportunities because of financial constraints.
Although the idea of moving overseas and teaching English may seem daunting, it is incredibly rewarding. The transition is difficult at times, and of course there will be bad days along with the good ones. But when you graduate from college, before you jump into the workforce and settle into a routine, give yourself the opportunity to live abroad for a year, explore a truly incredible country, meet new people, and help people who are eager to learn a language. The benefits of the program far outweigh the disadvantages, and the opportunities to travel and learn more about yourself and the world are invaluable.