What I’m doing in Spain: Life as a language assistant

It’s no secret I fell in love with Spain when I lived here as an au pair in the fall of 2014. I was heartbroken when I wasn’t able to obtain a visa to extend my stay. Before I even left, I knew I had to find a way to get back here.

My friend Ellie, who I met during my au pair days, turned me on to the North American Language and Culture Assistants program. The program is run by the Spanish Ministry of Education, and within Spain, it is referred to as Auxiliares de Conversación.

I am eternally indebted to Ellie for opening my eyes to this program. It was–and continues to be–the perfect fit for me.

The program was established to combat Spain’s poor English proficiency, which is one of the lowest in western Europe. Every year the Ministry brings in thousands of native English speakers (primarily from the U.S. but from other countries as well) and places them in schools around Spain to serve as language assistants.

What exactly do language assistants do?

Being a language assistant isn’t the same as being a full-fledged teacher. I work alongside native Spanish teachers in English-language classrooms.

Duties vary from community to community, school to school and classroom to classroom, but overall, a language assistant’s responsibilities are to correct pronunciation, play games, give cultural presentations and just assist the school’s foreign language program in any way possible. I once heard auxiliares described as “walking, talking dictionaries.” Honestly, that’s fairly accurate. I like to think of myself as a face for the language the students are learning. I consider myself an ambassador for the English language and American culture.

Halloween was a scream with these spooky first graders. I'm obsessed with the ghost in chains costume.
Halloween was a scream with these spooky first graders. I’m obsessed with the ghost in chains costume.

Where do language assistants work?

Upon being accepted into the program, language assistants are placed in a participating Spanish community. Spain has 17 autonomous communities, but not all the communities take part in the program. The communities which accept the most auxiliares are Madrid, Galicia and Andalusia. I think there’s something crazy like 1,000 language assistants in Madrid.

Most language assistants work in either a primary school or secondary school. Primary schools cover infant education (starting at three years old) through sixth grade. Secondary schools cover the American-equivalent of seventh through tenth grade.

I work in two primary schools in the Community of Madrid. Between the two, I work with four-year-olds, five-year-olds, first graders, second graders, third graders and sixth graders.

By the way, my situation is a bit of an oddity. It’s rare for a language assistant to be placed in two schools. Most auxiliares have just one school. I’m super lucky, I guess.

What’s the schedule like? How ’bout them benefits?

I work 16 hours per week. That’s eight hours in each school. The school year begins in October and ends in June. As compensation for my time and effort, I receive 1,000 euros a month and health insurance.

In every community other than Madrid, language assistants work 12 hours per week from October through May. Since they’re working fewer hours, those assistants receive 700 euros per month in addition to health insurance. The 1,000 euros per month in Madrid is to accommodate a higher cost of living

The pay is more than livable, and health insurance is swell, but the best part of the whole gig is I have three-day weekends. No Mondays for this girl. I work Tuesday through Friday, which leaves me plenty of time to travel on the weekends or just kick it in Madrid.

These little turkeys couldn't get enough of Thanksgiving.
These little turkeys couldn’t get enough of Thanksgiving.

What are the requirements to be a language assistant?

No experience with children or background in education is necessary to apply for the program. It’s different from a traditional English teaching job because there is always a head teacher in the classroom with you. As long as you’re a native English speaker and have a college degree in SOMETHING, you’re eligible.

So, there you have it.

That’s my “brief” overview of the program. Sounds pretty sweet, right? I sure thought so, and I haven’t been disappointed.

Finding this program has been the answer to my prayers in the sense that it allows me to legally live in Spain. If you’re looking for a way to live abroad, travel around Europe and learn Spanish, this program is the way (and the truth and the light).

BUT, moving abroad is not for the faint of heart. The Ministry isn’t obligated to help you find a place to live, open a bank account, navigate the residency process, etc. This program isn’t for someone who needs their hand held.

When you accept your placement in the program, you need to be prepared to leave behind the familiar. It can be scary and overwhelming. My first week in Spain and the struggle to find an apartment had me asking myself if I’d made the right decision in moving abroad. I’m not too proud to admit that I cried myself to sleep a night or two. So yeah, there are going to be tough days. As someone who made it through to the other side though, the risk is worth the reward. I’ve honestly never been happier. The good days, the bad days–that’s what make it an adventure. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

If you’re interested in learning more about the North American Language and Culture Assistants program, check out its website for more information. The application period for the 2016-2017 school year is open now!

Stretching Every Penny: How to be an Efficient Au Pair in London

Photo courtesy of Telegraph UK

The life of an au pair sees the extremes of both worlds. On one hand, you get to savor the million-and-one benefits of travelling to different countries, learning various cultures, and embracing the lifestyle all together. On the other, you’ll go through the lowest of the lows missing your family and friends, as well as stretching your resources. In terms of the limited financial opportunities that come from being an au pair, it’s of utmost importance to know how to use every penny wisely and come up with efficient ways to navigate a city from the airport.

For example, going through the motions of daily life in London seems exclusive for members of the high travelling society. However, contrary to what many believe, this European city isn’t all about iconic yet expensive black cab rides, as London has a bevy of convenient modes of transportation – starting from its busy airports.

A huge chunk of London’s tourism industry credibility stems from the efficiency of its public transportation system. At an airport like Gatwick, there are tons of ways travellers can feel total comfort when it comes to parking their vehicles or commuting. UK-based price comparison site, Parking4Less, lists the four parking options as long stay and summer special at the North Terminal, and long stay and long stay plus at the South Terminal. That way, people can secure a parking slot, maximize time, and more importantly, save money.

For the majority of commuters from London Gatwick, the cheapest way is to book a bus ticket in advance as it’ll only set you back £2 at the very least. Though you’ll have to sit through the congested streets for an hour to an hour and a half. If time is of the essence and you have a little more money to spare, it’s best to ride the Gatwick Express as it only takes – on average – a little over 30 minutes to reach your destination in the central part of the city. Once you’ve settled down in the heart of London, it’s easy to weave through your daily commute with reasonably priced public transportation methods highlighted by those renowned double deck bus.

If you’re wise enough to weigh the different options presented, not only will you fully relish the traveller’s dream lifestyle, you’ll also be one step closer to being a wise and resourceful au pair.

Disclaimer: This post was written for the Backpacking Brunette on behalf of an affiliate. However, I am a firm believer in services such as those mentioned to maximize your budget when traveling.

Travel Plans: Where I’m going in 2016

With the exception of a few trips around Spain, my backpack has mostly remained tucked away since moving to Madrid. Well, that’s certainly about to change.

That’s right. I’m preparing to hit the road again, and I’m excited to share my travel plans with you.

February: Porto, Portugal

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Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons

Oh yes, Spain’s next door neighbor. It was difficult to choose between Porto and Lisbon (Portugal’s capital), but I went with the coastal city renowned for its Port wine production. One of the friends I’m traveling with works in the wine industry, and I’m–let’s just say–a wine enthusiast. Thus, our decision was an easy one. Lisbon will just have to wait for another time.

February: Granada, Spain

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Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons

My boyfriend and I made a spontaneous day-trip to Granada when we were backpacking around Europe in 2014. Spontaneity, yay! Actually, not in this case. Due to the unexpectedness of our little venture, we missed out on Granada’s number one must-see: the Alhambra Palace. During peak season, tickets sell out months in advance, and we weren’t able to visit. Yes, it’s pretty embarrassing to tell people we’ve been to Granada and haven’t visited the Alhambra. This time around though, the trip has been thoroughly planned. Tickets? Check.

March: Dublin, Ireland

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Photo found via Pinterest

I’ll be missing St. Patty’s Day by a week. I’m not sure if that’s fortunate or unfortunate. Regardless, I’m pumped for some Guinness. This will be my first European destination where English is the primary language spoken. That should be an interesting experience in and of itself.

March: Barcelona, Spain

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Photo found via Pinterest

Yet another Spanish destination my 2014 backpacking trip didn’t do justice. I’m Barcelona-bound with an itinerary focused on Gaudi sightseeing. This trip, my plan is fewer clubs and more art.

March: Budapest, Hungary 

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Photo found via Pinterest

I have a long-standing fascination with Budapest. Actually Eastern Europe in general. This spring break my dreams will be realized. Bring on the palinka (which is apparently some kind of Hungarian fruit brandy). If you’ve tried it, tell me: should I be scared?

March: Vienna, Austria

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Photo found via Pinterest

I’ll only be spending one night in Vienna, which a few people have said is a crime, but I figure it’s better than spending zero nights in the Austrian capital.

March: Prague, Czech Republic

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Photo found via Pinterest

I can’t think of a better city with which to conclude my winter/spring travels than this historic destination. To be honest, I don’t know much about Prague, so please send any and all travel tips my way! I know there’s a lot to see, and as always, I want to make the most of my time.

There you have it, folks. My 2016 winter/spring travel plans! That backpack is about to get some serious use. Five new cities. Five new countries. Seven destinations total. Let’s do this.

What do you think of my 2016 plans? If you’ve visited any of these destinations, I’d love to hear about your experience!