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!

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