Thursday, December 19, 2013

Q&A: Teaching English in Spain as a North American Language and Culture Assistant


A few weeks ago I got an email with questions from someone interested in working as an auxiliar de conversación (North American Language and Culture Assistant) in Spain next year.  In case others have similar questions, I thought it might be useful to post the questions and my responses here.
-----

1. Looking back on your overall experience, are you glad you decided to spend 8-9 months in Spain? Was the decision worth it? 

Without a doubt, yes.  I am so glad I went back to Spain for another year.  Some of the people I met during my year as an auxiliar became my best friends --and are still to this day.

2. What was your biggest reason for participating in the Auxiliares program? 

 a. A desire to teach English abroad.
 b. A desire to improve your Spanish language fluency by living abroad.
 c. A general desire to travel and live abroad.
 d. Or some other reason.

I had studied abroad in Madrid my junior year of college and loved it. I actually thought I would be serving in Peace Corps (PC) after I graduated college, but when I randomly got accepted late into auxiliares (and my PC health exam didn't pass) I decided to go to Spain.  Reasons being: To live in Madrid for the Spanish language, the sunshine, the relaxed lifestyle, to make new friends, and to have new experiences. I was also really excited to be teaching instead of studying like last time, so I would have more free time instead of needing to study and write papers.

3. What was the best part of your English teaching experience in your school? 

The best part for me was getting to know the students. I was at two public vocational schools, so my students were ages 16 - 40.  Many were around my age in their early 20s. Sometimes that felt strange, but they were all really nice and I learned more about Spanish culture through conversation with them. I actually became friends with some, and hung out outside of class a couple of times.

4. What was the worst part of your English teaching experience in your school?

I didn't feel I was utilized as much as I could have been by my schools. As an assistant, I had little control over the format of class, and thought the way my students were taught English by their teachers was not the best way to learn a foreign language. But please see #5: 


5. What advice can you give to a future Auxiliar about having a positive teaching experience?

Please keep in mind that your teaching experience completely depends on the school(s) you're placed in and the English teachers. Unfortunately you won't know until you get there how it will be -- but don't let that stop you! I was placed in two (poorer) vocational schools, and it was the first year that both of them had an auxiliar. So they didn't really know how to best use me. It's not like it was a bad experience - I didn't dread going to work or anything, I just uh, felt useless/powerless most of the time, which is a shame because I thought I had a lot to offer with my experience/knowledge of learning/teaching foreign languages. 

Other auxiliares were a lot busier than me, and a lot more involved in their classes/school. Some schools are wealthier and have more materials than others.  One of my auxiliar friends got to go on a school trip to the UK with her students during the year!

Again, you won't know until you get there, but either way you can make the best of your situation and have a great year. Since my work as an auxiliar wasn't very fulfilling to me, I made sure that the rest of my time was. Work is only 16 hours a week, so I put my energy and dedication into my private English classes - where I did have control over the format of class. I felt useful there! I also joined an ultimate frisbee team and spent multiple nights each week and nearly all weekends with them at practices and away at tournaments. That's where I made my best friends and have the best memories.

Juanito's Open (ultimate frisbee hat tournament) , March 2012 Madrid

6. Whom did you end up living with? Americans? Spaniards? People of other nationalities? And was it a good experience?

I lived with a young Venezuelan couple (28 and 30), and yes it was great (they cooked a lot - and would often make me a plate of whatever they'd made!). I'm a quieter type, so I didn't mind living with people a bit older than me who were going to have quiet nights in most of the time. I highly recommend living with Spaniards to improve your Spanish. Other people have gotten shared flats with international students, which sounds like an incredible experience as well, actually. But you won't have the language practice at home -- so it depends on what you're looking for. But also it depends on what's available in your budget when you're apartment hunting... 


7. Did you teach private English lessons or have any other side jobs?

Yes, I taught private English classes and I really enjoyed them. I charged 16/hr for all of my classes but one (15/hr for a student I had taught when I studied abroad -- we left it at the same price as before. I adore this kid and his family, so I didn't care). And what I made in private classes actually covered my rent each month, since my rent was cheap and I taught four classes a week. (If you're looking to do so, here's how I found my private classes). 

I love these girls, two of my private English students!


8. Was the Auxiliar stipend livable? Plenty? Too little?

Yes, the auxiliar stipend is definitely livable. I found a place with significantly lower rent than most in Madrid, but even paying a higher rent price, there's still plenty to spend each month, and room to save for travel/loans/etc. This obviously depends on your lifestyle - if you eat out every day and blow a lot of money going out every weekend, you're not going to have as much. (Here's a rough breakdown of where I think my money went). 


9. How fluent were you in Spanish upon arrival in Spain and how fluent were you when you left? (1=beginning level fluency, 10=near-native fluency)

I know you wanted numbers, but I'm going to give you words instead! I think my level of Spanish may have actually been the highest at the end of my study abroad year, and that's because my classes every day were taught in Spanish, and I read and wrote in Spanish when doing homework/classwork. When I worked as an auxiliar, I was speaking in English most of the time because that was my job! So keep in mind that since you'll be speaking and thinking in English during your auxiliar classes & preparations and private lessons & planning.   Thus, in order to improve your Spanish, every moment outside of class you should be speaking and thinking in Spanish (theoretically)! 

Watch Spanish TV.  Read Spanish news.  Speak in Spanish at home and with your friends.  Here are some more tips to get better at Spanish.  Just by living in Spain, your Spanish will improve.  But the amount you improve obviously depends on the situations you create for yourself.  Back before the internet when my study abroad advisor studied abroad herself as a student, she became completely fluent during the year -- such a high level of Spanish.  And that's because she was speaking and thinking in Spanish all the time. She wasn't reading English websites or Facebook or writing English emails, or skyping with friends in English. So obviously the more immersed you are, the more you'll learn and improve. 


10. Were you able to travel while you were in Spain? What was your favorite destination?

Yes - there is time to travel! Since you only work four days a week, every weekend is a long weekend.  There are lots of other random national holidays too, plus winter break. I think my favorite place in Spain (outside of Madrid) is Granada.  For a beach weekend, I loved going to Málaga or Alicante.  Barcelona was also a wonderful trip.  I have been to many places in Spain, but still have never made it to Galicia or Asturias (or many other places!).  There is so much to see within Spain.

Alicante, Spain

11. Were you able to sufficiently experience Spanish culture?

Yes - I had some Spanish friends from my previous year, but you can definitely meet Spaniards at intercambios, meetups, couchsurfers, a sports team, out at night, etc. If you live with Spaniards, you will learn lots more about the Spanish culture! There are so many events in Madrid all the time, many of them cultural. Eat the food, visit the parks, go to the museums, travel the country, speak Spanish! (This is a big one, because if you're constantly hanging out with other Americans speaking English, then you're way less likely to meet Spaniards. You can still have American/foreign friends, I just highly recommend speaking in Spanish when you hang out!) 


12. What was the most frustrating aspect of the Auxiliares de conversacion program and/or the Spanish government?

One part I didn't like is that all of the communication was through email. The first orientation really didn't orient us into the program (I felt), so had I needed to get in contact with someone for any reason, I didn't know who to contact or the best way to do so. (Most of the emails we got say "do not reply to this email address") at the bottom. 


13. What advice do you have to make these frustrations go more smoothly?

Just knowing to expect some frustrations should help. Be flexible, and realize that this is how the Spanish government/offices are for Spaniards, too. Take it as a cultural lesson, and a great lesson in patience! The other part to remember is that it's only for 8-9 months. If I were going to live in Spain forever, I'd have to do some thinking, but it's not too much to put up with for the things you'll need to do during those 9 months. Remember that tons of other native English speakers have all gone through the same program and they get their NIEs and they get paid. Now that it's been some time since I worked as an auxiliar, I only really remember the good parts. Whatever frustrations I may have felt were all temporary and resolved. 


14. Considering your entire experience in Spain overall, would you recommend that an interested person participate in the Auxiliares de Conversacion program? Basically, was it worth it?

Definitely! You will have experiences that will last you a lifetime. The Spanish culture/lifestyle is so great! The country is diverse and exciting to discover. Speaking Spanish is fun, and you will gain a great language skill.  Worth it 100%!


15. What final advice would you give to a future Auxiliar? And what is the best way to prepare for the program and 8-9 months in Spain?

Advice -- It sounds like you've already been reading blogs, which can give you a good idea of what to expect. But don't treat these as word of law, because your experience will be what you make of it.  I've tried to leave advice here and there in the above questions.  Work is only 16 hours a week, so make sure you get involved in something during the other hours.  Whether it be teaching private lessons, joining a sports team, volunteering, going to intercambios, etc. - just don't sit at home!  Whatever your interests/hobbies are, I'm sure you can find a way to get involved in Spain.  Lots of people go off to different European countries every weekend, but don't forget about where you're living!  Seeing and experiencing the local events and visiting other parts of Spain will better integrate you with Spanish culture.  Lastly, apply!  You can always decline when you get accepted, but I would just go ahead and apply so that you have the option.

-----
Have any more questions?  Please leave a comment!

16 comments:

  1. Glad I stumbled onto your website--so informative!!

    ReplyDelete
  2. love this site! thanks for the info :)

    ReplyDelete
  3. Super helpful! I'm excited to have come across your site with so much info! I'm planning to apply for the Oct 2015 session in January but have so many unanswered questions. Do you have any info on how the selection process goes? What is it based on? And how many get accepted? Any additional info you can share would be much appreciated!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Hananne!
      The selection processed is based on the quality of your application, but remember it's a rolling application (so it's great you're applying in January!). Basically if you meet all of their requirements and follow the directions correctly (submit all documents you're supposed to for the application), you should get in. A strong application—good letter of recommendation, well-written letter of intent (I wrote mine in Spanish), work/volunteer experience tutoring/teaching—will help make it an easy choice for them. Just take the application seriously and do your absolute best to ensure admission.

      Read all of their PDFs about applying very carefully, as failure to submit a certain document or follow their directions could result in not being accepted. Feel free to email if you have additional questions along the way! ¡Buena suerte!

      Delete
  4. Hola Rebecca! Great site. Can you tell me anything about whether or not the programme would consider a person aged 57 with 2 university degrees? Muchas Gracias! Renee

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi there! The age limit for the program is 60 (but 35 in the region of Madrid), so you're good to go! Buena suerte!

      Delete
  5. Thanks for this post! It was definitely helpful.

    How did you find your roommates from Venezuela? Do most people find roommates after they have started the program? I would like to live with someone who speaks Spanish instead of English but I'm not sure how I could find someone. How far in advance did you arrive in Spain before the program started?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Christine!
      Here's how I found my apartment both years.
      Most people come a bit early to apartment hunt, so that you're not dealing with that at the same time as starting a new job. It's awesome that you're already planning to live with Spanish speakers—good choice! I found my apartment within the first week (6th day) both times, but think 2 weeks is a good buffer zone. (You'll be jet-lagged for several days at the start, too.)

      Check out that apartment hunting post, and feel free to email if you have more questions!

      Delete
  6. This is really informative! I'm planning to do the same thing next year. What was the visa process like? I'm imagining that it wasn't too difficult since you're actually living there on a student visa, right? Is it easy to renew your contract/ visa? Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
  7. Hey Christopher!

    Yes, it was a student visa—here's what the process was like for me (US citizen, Chicago consulate in 2011).

    I didn't renew my contract or visa, but it is doable (I know many others who have; you can renew twice max for the auxiliares program). "Easy" is perhaps relative when it comes to these types of processes (especially in Spain...), you might run into a few headaches, but it's definitely doable! :)

    ReplyDelete
  8. Hi Rebecca!

    Thanks! You can only renew twice for the programs? That might be a problem. I'd like to stay there, and I could establish residency after 5 years. But maybe I could do the last two years through another program?
    Thanks again!

    Christopher

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, that's what many people do! There are other English teaching programs you could switch to after three years as an auxiliar. You also never know what will happen in that time—other opportunities will surely arise!

      Delete
  9. Great blog!

    I am thinking about applying for the coming year. I am a native Spanish speaker, do you think that will affect my experience? Also, you mentioned that as part of the program there are breaks such as winter break. How long is that?

    Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi there! Actually, English (or French) has to be your first language in order to participate. You also need to have either a U.S. or Canadian passport. (Check out the websites linked to from this page)

      Winter break was a little over 2 weeks long at my schools that year! :)

      Delete