Why is it that my top 3 most popular posts on this blog are the ones that are the most controversial? Are you guys trying to tell me that you like my biting sarcasm and wit and when I get sassy and borderline inappropriate? Or maybe is it because you like reading something painfully honest, wait…..EVERYBODY HALT! OMG a blog being CANDID AND NEGATIVE?!?! Shocking.
ALL of us bloggers (with the exception of Will Peach) are guilty of creating a fantasy travel bubble filled with rainbows and unicorns, where our lives are literally picture perfect; where we journey around the world without a care in the world and if anything does go wrong, it ends up as a cutesy-comical-learned-my-lesson anecdote on our blog, if mentioned at all. Hey, I’m equally guilty of this. I want my blog to be a happy place, where I share the best experiences I’ve had traveling and show others how to achieve the same.
But there are three things I can’t tolerate in life: unfairness, bullshit, and mayonnaise (nothing ruins a burger or sandwich like that nasty white stuff in a jar). And if something has been nagging me for years, I’ve gotta stand up and say something! Maybe I am just on a high from the success of a recent article I wrote about how Kaplan Killed the Hopes and Dreams of 42 Bloggers. Maybe I’m just bitter and hormonal from my breakup with Spain. Either way I am about to break it down for you.
I have been living in Spain for the past two years with the English teaching assistant program through the Spanish Ministry of Education (auxiliares de conversación), and you know what? IT EFFING SUCKED! Not the living in Spain bit, that was awesome, rather the program itself.
I literally have hundreds of emails, messages, tweets and comments asking me questions about working in Spain as an auxiliar, whether about visas, apartments, taxes, money or even if they should apply or not, I hear it all. And I almost always give the same answer, “yeah this program is great. I love living in Spain. Bulls. Flamenco. Paella. Sangria. Yada yada yada.” But here it is, my REAL, uncensored, unedited thoughts about coming to Spain with the auxiliar program.
AND I am going to break the cardinal blogging rule here and put HATE in the title of this post. I’ll put in all-caps for good measure. Maybe I’ll lose a few readers. I’ll probably get enough hate mail to make me want to off myself by tomorrow (seriously, you anon readers can be wicked harsh!) but I feel honor bound to share how I really feel about this program on my blog, especially since such a large part of my audience are past-present-future auxiliars. Someone needs to say it. Might as well be me. And according to my stats, this is the kind of stuff you like to read. Don’t shoot the messenger!
Just remember guys, I’m not a hater, really I’m not! If you’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting me, I am bubbly, blonde and happy. Just indulge me this one time on my tirade.
Here are My Top 5 Reasons Why I HATE the Auxiliar Program in Spain (you know, top 5, because I can think of more than 5)
1. It’s a disorganized clusterfuck
To put it mildly. In fact all the things I hate about this program are so disorganized in my head from all my problems dealing with the disorganization with the Ministry, I don’t even know where to begin. I’ll elaborate in bullet points:
- The application process. Who actually understands it? 3 years down the road and I don’t! Don’t even get me started about renewing. What if you’re switching regions? What if you are renewing for a third year and switching regions? Where do we send the documents? Wouldn’t it be nice if we had all of these answers available to us on the application page? The only information we get from the Ministry are monthly newsletters in comic sans font sent every three months to half of the mailing list that don’t say anything valuable and look like they were designed by my 11 year old sister. Why are all the regions in Spain listed on the application when the program has been cut from several of them? Oh that FBI report you had to get for your application? Yeah, you have to get a whole new one for your visa because they expire and we didn’t tell you! Do we have orientation? Who gets to go? Where is it? When is it? Also, everyone is assigned a number upon submitting an application, first time renewals get placed first, then first year applications and third year renewals. Except the Ministry doesn’t always follow those rules and places people willy nilly. I can go on and on
- Hey remember that one time thousands of people didn’t get paid for 3 months? Oh wait, that’s every year!
- It is not unusual for ministry officials to give out conflicting information about everything, if you can get a hold of them at all. In fact, many of the schools aren’t informed about what your role as an assistant is, leaving you open to all mannars of interpretation. You could spend your year sitting at a desk in the back playing solitaire or you could be left alone in the room with 25 screaming 3 year olds. Hopefully you end up somewhere in the middle.
- Pretty much the people who run this program don’t know what they are doing, so don’t expect clear answers. Inconsistent information is the name of the game with the auxiliar program in Spain. Get used to it.
- Have you read my post about how I spent over 4 months being jerked around by the guys who run this program in Madrid and why I ultimately left Spain?
The upside? You get a visa to live in Spain, which is nigh on impossible to get any other way as an American.
2. A total hit or miss
Your experience as an auxiliar can be a total hit-or-miss and you might not have any control over it. From my own observations, it seems applicant’s names, regional preferences, city and school type are all thrown in a giant jar, swirled around and plucked right back out. i.e., it makes no sense.
You could end up working at an amazing concertada (semi-private) modern school right in the city center with amazing goal-oriented teachers and well-behaved students. Or you might end up in a village of 5,000 people, in rural back country Spain where your students don’t know the difference between England and America, the English teacher doesn’t speak any English and you have to commute an hour to work every day. The range of possible situations you could end up with is HUGE and they will either positively or negatively impact your year, depending on how flexible and open minded you are.
For example, this year I had an amazing schedule. I worked Monday through Thursday, 9am to noon at 2 schools in the center of Logroño. I had to take a 10 minute bus ride to get to work every day. Totally feasible. I had other friends who were placed at schools in villages over an hour away, that they not only had to commute to, they had to pay the teachers to let them ride with them to and from work, over 100 euros extra a month, and they were given schedules with huge breaks in them so they were stuck in their villages for hours without classes.
I think my year would have gone a bit differently under those circumstances. My schools were generally flexible with my schedule if I wanted to travel, I could make up hours. Other schools don’t let the auxiliars miss any days or hours and some even give them schedules where you would have to work Mon, Tue, Wed, Fri. Complete hit or miss, you have no control over.
I’ve worked with 2 teachers who really wanted to take advantage of having a native speaker in the classroom to help the kids. They understood what a unique opportunity it was to have an American there helping the kids learn English. The other 10 teachers I’ve worked with ranged from they really didn’t give a damn to they wanted to use me so they could get out of doing their job.
Be warned, some teachers will take advantage of you in the classroom. Know your role. We are assistants, not the teachers. We provide supporting material and help, but we don’t plan the lessons. We’re not supposed to be alone with students. I’ve had friends who were forced to do everything, spend hours at home planning lessons and even forced to work more hours or face having a “horrible” schedule or be complained about. I had huge problems with this my first year and getting taken advantage of in the schools. Don’t let it happen to you.
You could get paid on time every month since you start. You could go months without being paid. Unless you are a trust fund baby, I expect that would make a BIG difference in how your year goes.
The upside? You could have the best year of your life! I am a true believer that experiences are what you make of them, so even if things don’t go exactly how you’d for them to, try to focus on the positive! You get to live in Spain!
3. The funcionarios who work for the Ministry
Is it just me or is everyone who works for this program (from the Spanish consulates in the US to the regional coordinators to the directors in Madrid) a certified straight up d-bag?
Of all the people I’ve dealt with over the years with this program, I’ve known one, ONE nice, helpful person! And they fired her after a year!
In case you didn’t know, funcionarios are government employees in Spain, and they basically make a lot of money and can never be fired, simply put. Here is a video that explains them to a T. Ok, sweeping generalization but that’s how I feel about these guys, along with many Spaniards.
Not only do they generally have no idea what’s going on, they are also rude and unhelpful in general. I can talk to them for hours on the phone or in person and leave the conversation not knowing anything more than I did when I started! And on top of that they make you feel bad about it! I have even had them intentionally hang up on me when I was demanding to know when we would get paid in La Rioja last year, sparking my most popular post. I would go into a meeting with the program director’s to ask when we would get paid, and I would leave feeling like everything was my fault for not being ok with not being paid! WTF?!
“Normally we use Christians but in times of crisis, substituting funcionarios has been very successful.” Source
They are probably so unhelpful because they aren’t informed themselves. But last time I checked in the real world in a professional job, when you don’t know something, you say, “you know what? I am not sure. Let me check and get back to you” instead of “this is so-and-so’s responsibility, go ask them” that is, if you can get a hold of anyone at all.
I have scheduled meetings with coordinators and they have shown up an hour late, most of the time they don’t answer my emails or phone calls. In fact, the only time they call me back is when I threaten to go to the US embassy or I call them directly out on not doing their job. Then I get a phone call from some official all fussy and upset by my insinuations.
For example, my first year in Córdoba, we weren’t even provided with the contact information for the regional or city coordinator. If we had a problem, we didn’t have anyone to talk to except with our schools.
If I had a euro for every time I got a runaround answer from a ministry official in Spain, I would be as rich as Iker Casillas.
The upside? You learn to take things into your own hands, I guess. Honestly, I can’t really think of an upside to this unless you miraculously end up working with amazing coordinators and directors. We’ll go back to the you get to live in Spain thing. Big upside.
4. The Visa Nightmare
I call it a nightmare because every time I had to think about my experiences with the visa and NIE, I want to die. The entire paperwork process from applying for the visa, applying for a NIE, renewing your NIE, and the details of living in Spain with a student NIE could not be more stressful and complicated!
I understand that this process is not really within control of the Ministry of Education, but at the same time, it is a government sponsored program, and one of the guarantees is a NIE. I think the Ministry needs to do two things:
- Provide a better guideline for auxiliars about how and when to apply for the visa and the NIE and how to renew it. Really, it cannot be that hard to put something together. In fact, it would be great if that was what they talked about at orientation instead of 2 hours of how the Spanish education system works in rapid-fire Spanish that I am sure half of the first years do not understand. Shouldn’t the English bilingual coordinators speak English?
- Coordinate with the local extranjerías about the auxiliar program. They need to understand this program, what dates should be given on the NIE’s, renewals, ect. It is not that hard to go meet with them and explain so that everyone is on the same page. This would avoid so many nightmares
This all goes back to the disorganization and hit or miss. For example, some people are given papers that expire exactly one year after they submit the paperwork, so September or October of the following year. Some people are given cards that expire exactly on May 31. The rest, somewhere in the middle. It makes absolutely no sense. You could end up completely screwed like with what happened to me. If I was given the correct papers with the correct dates, I could still be in Spain right now.
It gets even more complicated when you try to renew your papers, and if you try to switch regions. Some regions will let you renew no problem. Others make you go back to America and get a whole new visa. Hit or miss. Some regions even let you submit the paperwork in the fall to renew and then told you a month later you needed to buy a last minute flight to America and get a whole other visa. It’s actually ridiculous. Try buying a $1000 flight home when you haven’t even been paid!
Sometimes it takes so long for the offices to process your paperwork you can go the whole year without getting a NIE! Or they give you appointments after your visa has expired.
The upside? You (hopefully) get papers to live in Spain! It’s almost impossible to get a visa otherwise as an American. That is if you can survive the deathly obstacles thrown at you
5. Kept blind and in the dark
I think singlehandledly the thing I hated most about the program besides the disorganization is the fact that the Ministry did a terrible job of informing us of ANYTHING!
It’s one thing to be disorganized but at least tell us what’s going on. Here are the 3 main things the Ministry should keep in contact with the auxiliars about
- If there are going to be delays with payments, tell us! It’s not that hard. We shouldn’t have to complain and whine about it to the newspapers and American embassies into shaming the Ministry into paying us, or at least saying when we’ll be paid. Last year they weren’t planning to even tell us in La Rioja about the delays until dozens of us called and emailed and demanded to know what was going on.
- When the government cuts hundreds of auxiliar positions and even whole regions, it is their duty to tell us! You shouldn’t have to find out everything on facebook or through me. In fact, I think the government should be contracting me since I have been doing half of their work for them for YEARS!
- They should explain clearly what our job is, what it entails, our benefits, our rights, ect.
This lack of Ministry information directly leads to mass hysteria on the dozens of facebook groups and expat forums about this program. When I mentioned that to a director in Madrid he yelled (literally yelled) at me about how we shouldn’t listen to these things on Facebook. I kindly replied that it’s the only way we learn anything or know what’s going on, which led to awkward silence…
The upside? You learn to be patient or you just lose your marbles
The point of this post is not to whine and moan about the auxiliar program in Spain. It is to share an actual and honest opinion of a program that has been glamorized far too often. People have been asking me for years about what I really think about it, and I feel it’s high time for an honest answer. Negative hate and all.
Are you an auxiliar in Spain? What was your experience like with the program? Have or heard any horror stories? What did you hate the most about it?
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