Sunday, June 8, 2014

How much Spanish do I need to know to teach English in Spain?

Here are some questions from an email I received last month:
I have read many blogs discussing how the Assistants sometimes you ran their own classes. Did you have to converse frequently in Spanish with your students - Was it essential to converse in Spanish to teach classes? Or was it primarily English in the classroom?


So I guess my question is, while I do have a “decent grasp” on understanding the language but some difficulty communicating back in Spanish, would I essentially be “ineffective” teaching classes? Or is English the primary language in the classroom during your sessions. Is it possible to always have the main teacher by my side?

And my response, in post form:

How Much Spanish do I Need to Know to Teach English in Spain as an Auxiliar?

Speak in English to the students

Most schools will ask that you only speak in English to the students. A friend of mine had to pretend that she didn't speak Spanish at her school, even though she was fluent. It benefits the students to hear your native English and to be forced to communicate with you in English. If you can understand some of their side chat or confusions when they speak in Spanish, added bonus for you - but try not to let on that you understand them.

My auxiliares teaching experience in Madrid

Now I'll tell share my personal experiences about what level of Spanish was needed, and then tell you that situations vary greatly by school/level.  So my teaching experience was a bit unique, I think. I was split between two public vocational schools (post high school) with students who were studying things like secretary/electronics/pharmacy assistant, but needed 1 or 2 years of English to graduate. The English teacher at one school was older and had studied to be a Spanish literature teacher. Her English level was low, pronunciation being the biggest trouble. She ran the class in Spanish, as did some teachers at my other school. In my case having a high level of Spanish was really great for communicating with the teachers (since their English level was so low).

At one school (where the teacher had a low level of English), she started having me teach class by myself at some point during the year, while she stayed downstairs in her office. This meant using lots of Spanish to teach, as she had done, explaining grammatical concepts to them because the English level of these students (ages 16-24, with a few adults) was so low. I was fine doing it because I was more comfortable when she wasn't there - I could run class a bit differently (how I wanted to), and didn't have to worry about discipline much because of the students' age. Had I not been comfortable at that point, it would have been totally okay to say so, and show that the contract states we will always be with a teacher. (Yup, technically language assistants should always be with a teacher when working as an auxiliar de conversación). I think she knew I'd be all right on my own, which is why she suggested it in the first place.

At my other school, occasionally I'd be sent to another room with half of the class to work on certain speaking activities from the book while the regular teacher worked on something else with the other half. Sometimes in the other room I'd have conversation time with half of the group about a topic previously assigned for me to prepare and run. Again, this is technically against the contract, but I was more than okay with the arrangement. I liked running the class alone, not being watched by the teacher, and being able to do things my way. Again, discipline was not an issue due to the students' ages. My situation came about because of the higher age and lower level of students. Also, it was the first year that both of these schools had an auxiliar, so they weren't sure how best to use me.

Experiences depend on placement

So that was one specific situation. At primary and secondary schools I've heard of much different situations. The teachers know how to use you, you're expected to only communicate in English with the students, and you're not left alone with students. Some placements require much more prep work than others. But I'll just say again that it varies greatly depending on location, school, teachers, etc. My best friend - also an auxiliar the year I was - had multiple auxiliares working at her school, whereas I was the only one at mine.

Contact past auxiliares

When you do get your school placement (which wasn't until much later in the summer for me, if I'm remembering correctly), you could try to find a previous auxiliar at that same school - through the Madrid auxiliar facebook group. That could help you get an idea of age/level of the students, and what the teaching environment looks like. I went into it blind, since no one had taught there before and I didn't know what level the students would be. But it all worked out -- and it'll work out for you!

Don't worry

The first couple of weeks could be uncomfortable depending on communication with the teachers and culture shock (but they could also be amazing and wonderful!), so once you learn what's expected of you and how the school wants to use you, you'll fall into a routine and feel comfortable in your role. You could work with teachers that have amazing levels of English, such that they always communicate with you in English!

Should something be terribly amiss (I wasn't satisfied with how I was used in the classroom and how classes were run) keep in mind that it's only 16 hours a week, so make the most of your remaining time. (I enjoyed getting to know the students when I was alone with them, and being able to help them. Outside of those hours I was highly involved with an ultimate frisbee team and taught private English lessons to stay satisfied and feel like I was making a difference).

Your Spanish will improve while living in Spain

You will be great! There's still plenty of time this summer to work on Spanish, and keep in mind that you will be living in Spain for at least 9 months. While there: watch TV, read the news, go to intercambios to make Spanish friends, live with Spaniards, etc. Your Spanish will improve so much while you're living in Spain! So whatever your level is today, it will only get better from this point forward. And that can help with teaching.

Also, keep in mind that the auxiliares program doesn't help you get settled when you come to Spain. You'll have to find an apartment, open a bank account, get a metro pass (abono), and all that jazz on your own. You'll need to speak in Spanish to do so, which is one reason why this teaching program requires that you have "basic communicative skills in Spanish".

With a grain of salt

And to go against everything I've just said, take everything with a grain of salt. It's easier said than done, but from my experiences so far (including a move to Korea) - you can't really know what to expect until you get there. Especially with a move and new job in a foreign country. The mind likes to wonder about every situation, but after a certain point you'll really just have to see what it's like once you get there. There's no way of knowing exactly what it'll be like ahead of time - even if you can get someone else's take on the exact same experience. I've interpreted my surroundings/situations based on my thoughts/past, but anyone else in my same place might have had a completely different opinion/experience.

So put on some confidence and know that you can be a successful English teacher in Spain! You shouldn't be expected to teach in Spanish, so your developing Spanish language skills will only embarrass you out at the grocery store or at your neighborhood's chino shop for the first few months, not in the classroom in front of your students.
: )

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