If you are a new reader, you might not have known that I got my start in the big bad world of blogging over three years ago when I embarked on an adventure to Spain teaching English for two years. The program I went through is funded by the Spanish Ministry of Education (whom I detest, but that’s a different story) and it’s called auxiliares de conversación. While this is the biggest, and most well-known program to get a visa to come to Spain and work (especially for Americans), there are two other options you can go with: BEDA and UCETAM. If you need help with your visa there are a number of companies out there that can help, checking out IXPvisas.com is a good place to start.
For me, UCETAM has always been the route I’ve known least about, and I always felt guilty when I couldn’t offer proper answers to questions about that option. Luckily, I’ve discovered Amelie’s blog, Lost in Traducción, where she chronicled her time working in Spain with this program. She has kindly offered to break it down for you all here on my blog as well, so you have all your options covered if you decided to make the move on over to Spain!
What is UCETAM?
UCETAM stands for Unión Cooperativa de Enseñanza de Trabajo Asociado de Madrid—quite the mouthful! In essence, it is an initiative that was designed to create a bilingual/bicultural program in Spanish schools by increasing the hours of English language classes and having native English speakers lead these classes. In theory, the students who benefit from this kind of language instruction will come out with a better level of English at the end of their schooling. If you would like more information about UCETAM’s philosophy and mission statement, you can click here for a more thorough explanation.
Auxiliares are only placed in colegios concertados, schools that are similar to US charter schools. These schools are based on a cooperative model—meaning that the schools are self-managed by teachers who are members of the cooperative (not all of them are). As it was explained to me by UCETAM, the teachers who are cooperative members act as part-owners of the school. I don’t grasp the concept very well, but Wikipedia does a pretty good job of summing up what a worker cooperative is which is what these schools are. Therefore, the parents who send their children to these schools do not pay tuition (just like public school), but the students all wear uniforms (just like in private schools). Unlike BEDA, the schools that have partnered up with UCETAM do not have any religious affiliation.
Where were you placed?
UCETAM is based in Madrid, Spain and only places auxiliares within Madrid and the Comunidad de Madrid. This program is definitely fantastic for those of you who only want to live in Madrid, which is why I applied to the program. I had come to love the city during my Master’s and I was not interested in living anywhere else. I knew I was not guaranteed a spot with Auxiliares since they choose your placement for you and I did not fancy being sent out to a random pueblo in the middle of nowhere.
However, there is also a catch with UCETAM—you cannot choose where in Madrid you will be placed. You may be placed at a school as far as one hour outside of Madrid in the Comunidad and depending on where you decide to live, it may be quite the commute. I got really lucky—I was initially placed at a school in the suburb of Majadahonda, about a twenty five minute bus ride from the Moncloa bus station which was close to my apartment. I ended up switching to a school within the Madrid city limits but again I was lucky—it was about a half hour metro ride.
What do you do in UCETAM?
In theory, you are an English language assistant, so you are supposed to help lead the lessons planned by the English teacher. In reality, it is up to the school to decide how they want to implement the bicultural UCETAM project and how they will use their auxiliares. Some do it more successfully than others. In some schools, you may be expected to plan lessons on your own and lead them. You may or may not be given a textbook which you are expected to follow. You may have to do some research into lesson planning. You may be given total freedom to do what you want in your classes or you may have to follow a set lesson plan established by the teachers. All schools are different, so it is impossible to predict what exactly your role will be.
Just to demonstrate how wildly different two schools can be, I am going to rely on my own personal experience. I am going to be very honest—I had a tough time acclimating the first couple of months. However, I must stress that my experience is not representative of all auxiliares in the program. Feel free to skip ahead to the next question if the following is too long!
In the first school I was placed in, I was expected to lead classes and teach materials to primary and preschool, following the English curriculum set up by the school’s English department. My contract explicitly stated I was not to be left alone in the classroom. However, the school completely ignored this. I knew I was being taken advantage of so I did what I thought was right at the time: I reported to the UCETAM coordinators about the breach of contract. The situation deteriorated very quickly from there so it wasn’t long before I switched schools.
Instead of following a set English curriculum like in my first school, I found myself in the role of the English science teacher at my second school (and English theater play director but that’s a story for another day). I was told to “do whatever I wanted” in the classroom so I was responsible for planning my own lessons which was definitely a challenge since I had classes ranging from primero (first grade) to sexto (sixth grade).
What is the application process like?
The application process was fairly straightforward but according to UCETAM’s new website, it looks like things may have changed since I applied. It seems now you can directly apply through their website when previously this was not the case. The application period for the 2013-2014 is now closed, but if you go to this link, it will explain the steps you need to take in order to apply for next year.
The way it worked for me:
After learning about UCETAM through NYU, I e-mailed the coordinators a cover letter, my résumé, and a letter from NYU vouching for my character and my high level of Spanish (which was essentially a reference). I was then sent a questionnaire asking what age group I preferred working with and how many hours I wanted to work. The questionnaire also covers other aspects such as your experience with the Spanish language, any previous experience working with children, possible classroom scenarios and how you might deal with them.
Next I was given an appointment time to show up at the UCETAM office in person (I was already living in Madrid at the time, if you apply online, I’m assuming you will receive your placement by e-mail or by Skype) to receive my placement. Once you accept your placement, you will be sent a contract you will have to sign and return and you will also receive a program handbook, detailing your responsibilities as an auxiliar, the rules of the program, how to apply for a visa, and other vital information about life in Madrid (housing, public transportation, health and safety etc.). You will be expected to work September through June, including an orientation week at your assigned school preparing for classes a week before students are set to arrive.
Pros and Cons of the UCETAM program:
I am going to start with the cons of the program.
The lines of communication between UCETAM, the schools, and the auxiliares. It may sound cliché, but open lines of communication are very important. The schools have expectations, the auxiliares have expectations, and UCETAM has expectations—but nobody is clear on what those expectations are because the communication is so murky.
UCETAM auxiliares tend to work five days a week, unlike the Ministry program. It is impossible to know what your schedule will be like ahead of time because all schools have their own way of doing things. In my first school, there were a few days I got off as early as 3 PM. At my second school, I worked four days a week from 9 AM to 5 PM and one day from 9 AM to 1 PM. However fear not—this is still Spain. You will get plenty of random holidays and puentes to travel!
UCETAM coordinators can’t do all that much if you are having serious issues at your school. UCETAM is actually a really small organization, even though it may seem bigger because of the number of schools participating in its “bilingual/bicultural project.” If the school decides they don’t want you working there anymore, you’re out and that’s that. The UCETAM staff can’t do much about it except offer to switch you to a different school.
This is more of a personal pet peeve: The misnomer of the program being a “bilingual/bicultural project.” It’s a great idea—introducing Spanish children to the English language by having native speakers in the classroom. However, the execution leaves a lot to be desired since every school implements the auxiliar program differently, leading to incredibly erratic results. I attended a French-American bilingual school for 9 years in the States and came out of it completely fluent, so I was know what a successful bilingual education program looks like firsthand. From personal experience, I can assert this is not a bilingual program.
The concept of having to get a doctor’s note each time I was sick and needed to miss a day of school. You do not need a doctor’s note in the US to excuse your absence at work due to illness. You simply call in sick and say you won’t be coming in. It reminded me of being in elementary school and having to get a doctor’s note to hand in to my teacher—it was so bizarre!
Now for some pros!
If you want to live in Madrid, this is the program for you. UCETAM only places its auxiliares in Madrid and the surrounding suburbs, so you are guaranteed a placement in Madrid if you are accepted. If you aren’t interested in living in Madrid, then it’s pretty simple—don’t apply!
Out of all the auxiliares programs that I know of in Spain, UCETAM pays the best. You have a choice of working 17 hours or 25 hours a week. I worked 25 hours and was paid just a little under 1500 euros a month. For 17 hours, the pay is around 800-1000 euros a month. You also get paid on time every month so you never have to worry if your paycheck will be arriving months late like with the Ministry program.
For first-timers to the program, UCETAM will supply documents you can use to apply for your visa before leaving Spain. Once in Spain, UCETAM will help you apply for the NIE, the residency card, a process that can be very lengthy and time-consuming.
This job is going to look fantastic on a résumé. I didn’t initially think about this when I applied to UCETAM, but living and working abroad in another country will definitely make your application pop out amongst other job candidates. My experiences living abroad in a foreign country strengthened my language skills which in turn helped land me my current job (which has nothing to do with teaching languages).
This one is obvious but I’ll say it anyways because to me it represents the biggest pro: your Spanish will improve. I can’t predict how much you will improve because everybody learns at a different rate. However, I can guarantee that you will be astonished at how much better a handle you will have on the language by the end of the year. Your students will be your best teachers—trust me on this! I picked up on so much Spanish just by listening to my students interact and asking them questions when I didn’t know what a new word meant. Students also loved the unexpected role reversal of having their teacher become the student.