Since teaching in Madrid, Spain, as a conversation assistant (aka auxiliar de conversación) in 2013-2014, I’ve gotten many questions about the experience from others who’d like to give it a go. If you’re considering the option, just got accepted, or applied and are still waiting, I’m sure you have tons of thoughts and worries running through your head – as I did. Even though I am a fan of also just winging it, you probably want to do a little more prep before moving to a foreign country. Below are some of the frequently asked questions I get from prospective, future, and newbie auxiliars about teaching English in Spain as a conversation assistant.
When/where/how do I apply?
Head on over to the website of the Ministerio de Educacion, Cultura y Deporte, which is the branch of the Spanish government that runs the auxiliar program. You’ll be able to get more information and apply once the link is live, or receive updates once they have started to award placements. The program usually opens around January 1st, so make sure to have all your documents ready (letter of recommendation, statement of purpose, college transcript) so you can apply right away. Some people get upset when I say this, but the program is run on a first come, first serve basis. Applying as soon as you can gives you a better chance of not only getting in, but getting into the region you want. You will receive a number when you apply online, and that number will determine your fate, though it seems to vary per year. In 2013, I applied in mid-February, and my number was about 2800. I received my acceptance into the program the last week of June, though I didn’t get into the region I selected as my preference (which was a good thing – I was happy I ended up in Madrid). The application period ends in early April (though if you wait to apply until then, you probably won’t get a spot), and the program usually starts letting people know in late April/early May.
Note: after you receive your acceptance email, you only have three days to accept, so make sure to accept right away before you forget. If something else comes up before you go to Spain, you can renounce your spot, no problem, and they will give it to someone else. There is no penalty for doing this.
How much does it pay?
This is one of the first questions I get. If you’re placed in Madrid, you’ll work 16 hours for a monthly scholarship of 1000 euros a month. Anywhere else in Spain it’ll be 12 hours for 700 euros a month. These numbers don’t seem like a lot, especially if you’re coming from an expensive city like NYC, like I was. 1000 euros? That’d barely cover the rent in New York for your basement room in a shared apartment. In Spain, it’s much different. Rent and the cost of living in Spain are much cheaper. Provided you don’t eat every meal out and don’t travel every weekend, yes, you’ll have more than enough to live and enjoy yourself. Also, you’re not taxed because the program is considered a scholarship. Quick aside: you’ll have to get a Spanish bank account to get paid via direct deposit. I had BBVA and recommend them. I had a no fee account and there are locations everywhere throughout Spain.
Still, most people supplement their auxiliar income with private lessons, or clases particulares. This could be anything from playing with toddlers (while speaking only English) to having conversations in English with adults. I taught a range of classes because I didn’t go searching for classes and simply took whatever fell into my lap through fellow teachers or friends. I’d recommend against doing this. You’ll probably like teaching one age group over others, and probably already know what group this is. There will be demand for any group that you’re looking to teach, so seek that out and only take jobs teaching that age range. You’ll be so much happier and avoid awkwardness of having to back out of a job if you really hate it later.
It’s definitely helpful for extra spending money, so if you do private lessons, don’t go for anything less than 15 – 20 euros an hour, depending on the prep you do, how far you have to travel, how often they want lessons, etc. There will be tons of people willing to pay, they’ll tell their friends, and then you’ll have more lessons than you know what to do with, if that’s what you want. You can also look for classes on LingoBongo.com. I used the money from private lessons as spending money and just paid for large expenses like rent and traveling with my paycheck from the government, while saving up enough to travel for four months afterwards!
I’ve never taught English/anything/I don’t have a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certificate. Should I get a TEFL, or will the orientation be enough?
No and no. The program doesn’t go out of their way to help you at all, but you also don’t need a TEFL certificate to do the job. Expect an email with a contact person at your school, and then no more contact until the orientation. The orientation was mostly useless, the mid-year evaluation even more so. If the idea of a program like this scares you, then you can teach in Spain with CIEE, which costs $2,000 to become an auxiliar. I didn’t do the program, so I can’t comment on it, but that seems like an exorbitant price just for some hand-holding in the form of accommodations when you first get there, and some activities and orientation. My advice would be to save that money for when you get to Spain, as you’ll need to have enough saved for the first month or so before you get paid (you’re supposed to be paid November 1st, but timeliness of paychecks varies greatly depending on region).
Luckily, the Internet exists to help you fumble your way through teaching. Lauren of Spanish Sabores has a great post listing English teaching resources. I also used busyteacher.org. One of my co-teachers used lyricstraining.com as a fun activity for those times when a long holiday break is coming up soon and students can’t concentrate on anything.
For private classes, I used www.esl-lab.com for listening activities at a variety of different learning levels. In the beginning of the lessons I asked them what their interests were and then tried to find listening or news (Breaking News English is great for that because they have articles in different levels), that way they learn vocabulary they’re interested in. Just ask them what they really want (listening, help preparing for an exam, etc) and then you can make sure to help with that.
What will my time in the classroom be like?
This is a hard question to answer because it varies so much based on the teacher that you’re assisting. Some really know what they’re doing, and will give you smaller groups of more advanced students to chat and do more advanced activities with. This is where I think having a native speaker does matter. In reality though, most of what you’ll be doing will be helping kids fill out worksheets. Or grade tests (though technically you’re not “supposed” to be doing this). Or watch a movie with students. Around American holidays, you’ll definitely be sharing those traditions with classes, probably in PowerPoints with photos of you in embarrassing Halloween costumes. Bring in and show pictures of your family, friends, celebrating holidays or American events like prom – they’ll love it.
Teaching as an auxiliar is unpredictable. It’s a good idea to have to go-to, quick activities for all levels in your back pocket, as you never know when the main teacher won’t be there and you need to teach something. For an idea of what your first couple days might be like, head over to my old blog, The Road Goes Forever On, which I started when I first moved to Spain two years ago.
Also, negotiate your schedule. You’ll definitely need to be there four days a week, but how those hours are scheduled those hours is up to your supervisor at the school (usually the head of the English department). I was lucky with my schools (I was one of the rare people who commuted to two different schools), and got schedules where my classes were blocked back to back. Each day, Monday-Thursday, I’d teach four classes, either from 10 am to 2 pm or 8 am to 12 pm. This way, unless a class was cancelled, I wasn’t twiddling my thumbs in the teacher’s room, trapped. Some people I knew had their classes scheduled that way, so they had to be there the entire eight hour school day, even if they were only teaching half the time. Don’t let this happen to you!
How am I supposed to find an apartment in Spain before I get there?
Two words: you don’t. PLEASE do not agree to an apartment before you have seen it in person. Even worse, do not send money. You’d think this would be common sense, but apparently not. People still do this. An apartment might sound amazing on paper when in reality it’s a shithole. And while it might seem terrifying to move to a foreign country without a permanent place to live, it’d be way worse to arrive at your new apartment and realize it’s awful, and then have to find a new place.
I couchsurfed for a bit and looked for rooms, but I had no idea what I wanted or where I wanted to live. I ended up living in a room in one of my co-teachers apartments as she had a language assistant living there the year before. So there might be a possibility through your school, you’d just have to ask. In March, I ended up moving to be in a cooler neighborhood with Spanish roommates my age. The first neighborhood I lived in was nice but it was all families and older people, further from the center than I wanted to be, and while the teacher I lived with was incredibly nice and lovely, it didn’t feel like my space at all. Most people I knew moved a few months in, as they got to know the city and what they wanted. I knew I wanted to move after about a couple months, but delayed it because I was intimidated by looking for an apartment again. But once I did, I was so glad I did it. Just go for it if you’re unhappy in a place, it’ll work out and you’ll be so glad you did.
For finding my second piso (apartment), I used Idealista, but other people had luck with Easypiso. I got really lucky because the apartment I ended up with was one of the first apartments I looked at. I clicked well with the other girls and it was in a great neighborhood, right on a plaza. And all for 270 euros a month!
When looking for apartments, make sure to ask about gastos (expenses: gas, electricity, heat, etc) and what is included and what isn’t. Also, don’t waste your time looking at rooms that aren’t ambuelado (furnished). You really don’t want to deal with buying furniture and then selling it all when you leave. It seemed way more common to me that rooms in Spain were furnished though, so it shouldn’t be a problem.
How do I make friends?
Yep, it can be pretty damn scary to move to a completely foreign country where you know not a single soul. Making new friends is terrifying for us introverts of the world even in our home countries.
If you’re looking to improve your Spanish and make new friends, definitely attend language exchanges (intercambios). It’s a great and informal way to meet and befriend Spaniards who want to practice their English, while getting to practice your Spanish. Intercambios can be held in bars, or you can meet someone one-on-one for more dedicated conversation practice. Sadly, the bar hosting my favorite language exchange/pub quiz, Pequeños Placeres, closed last December! I had some great times and met fantastic people there with whom I remain friends to this day, despite the fact that none of us even live in Madrid anymore. To find other language exchanges check out LingoBongo.com, meetup.com or even couchsurfing.com.
I wish I had done more of the hobbies I do at home, as I think I’d have met more cool people that way. I was still too nervous of my Spanish abilities when I first got there. Learn from mistakes and find the thing you love in your new Spanish city.
How can I travel around or outside of Spain?
As an auxiliar, you get three day weekends every weekend (whatt???) longer weekends when there are bank holidays, and week+ long breaks for winter and Semana Santa. You’ll probably end up traveling with other auxiliars, as they have the same schedules (just make sure you all want the same things out of your trip)! Transportation options depend the availability of the city you’re placed in. If you’re in Madrid, you’re pretty much in the center of everything, so you can weigh your different transportation options. Most of these will be available in larger cities (except flying):
- Train – Renfe; AVE is the high speed
- Bus – Alsa is a big one
- Plane – Ryanair is the go-to budget airline for auxiliars
- Car – Rideshare with BlaBlaCar or rent
Where do I find other information and ask questions?
Again, the program is very hands off. Expect aloof responses to emails if you get them, and forget about going somewhere in person to get your questions answered.
That being said, current and previous auxiliars have rallied on Facebook, creating immensely helpful groups for other expats in the program. While some people treat the groups as Google and will ask anything, start trolling, etc, there is a lot of gold on there if you wade through the muck and know what you’re looking for (use the search function, chances are someone else has asked the same question, do everyone a favor and look before asking again).
I’ve stored bags for cheap at people’s houses (while traveling), found private lessons, bought things, learned about the visa/residency card process, and found out about lots of events through the Facebook groups. If you’re in Madrid, definitely join Auxiliares de Conversacion en MADRID, which is massive (11,000 members currently). There are also year specific groups that pop up every year, as well as region-specific groups, so just search Facebook for those. But please, for your own sanity, turn off notifications. You don’t want to be hearing that ding every time someone is trying to exchange dollars for euros.
No matter where you’re placed you’ll probably pass through Madrid at one point or another, so for more info on exploring Madrid’s main sights on a budget, head to this round-up post. this round-up post.