Ok, so if you haven’t already figured it out from my numerous posts, I am teaching English in Córdoba, Spain this year on a grant from the Spanish Ministry of Education with a program called the Auxiliares de Conversación. I think my official title is a “North American Language and Culture Assistant.” Basically this means that I am the English teacher’s assistant at a bilingual school in Spain. I am not here on a work visa (it’s almost impossible to work in Europe as an American) rather I am here on a student visa and the government considers me as doing graduate work or an internship and I get a stipend. The program runs from October 1 to May 31 every year, and there are usually around 2000 positions available throughout Spain. You work 12 hours a week at your assigned school and you get paid €700 per month. There are 17 regions in Spain, and when you apply you get to pick your top 3. Since my plans for the future are still up in the air, I decided I would go ahead and reapply for this program for the following year, as an option, especially since second-year assistants get priority with choosing a region to live in.
I found out yesterday that I’ve been placed in La Rioja, in the north, right near France. It is a very small region and it is famous for it’s wine. (If you buy Spanish wine in the States, it most likely comes from here). I picked it as my first choice on a whim because I passed through there once on a train, and it was incredibly beautiful with all the vineyards and mountains. Also, since I am living in Andalucía in the south this year, I was hoping to experience another part of Spain. But now the MOMENT has arrived, do I accept? Can I really live in Spain for another year? Can I go back to the States jobless? This is going to be one of the toughest decisions I have to make, and since I have to explore the pro’s and con’s for myself in order to decide, I figured I might as well share them here too, in case anyone else is trying to decide whether or not to do this program. Sometimes I wish I could have read something like this before I came here. Just remember this is about my own experience and my own opinions about my own situation in Andalucía; I’m sure there are plenty of people who don’t agree with me, but I have to write about what I know and what I think.
Ok, when anyone asks me about the program or what’s it like living in Spain, I’m usually really happy, chipper and annoyingly positive. “Oh, Spain is just so great! I love it here; it’s so beautiful and it’s great getting to travel; I never want to leave blah blah blah.” And this is all true. Spain IS beautiful. I DO get to travel a lot. I do REALLY love Spain and I could probably live here indefinitely. But that is just an easy response. Only those who I am really close with know just how hard it has been to live here. And this is coming from someone to whom traveling is like oxygen and Spain is like a second home.
Let’s start with the program itself, if you can even call it that. Hands-down this is the worst organized job I have ever had in my life. The application process is an absolute nightmare; in fact, I am sure that almost everyone who does it isn’t sure if they’ve done it right and wait around half-expecting to be rejected because of an incomplete application. Also it’s impossible to get answers from anyone in charge because they don’t answer their phones or emails. Fantastic.
Another big factor is you do not get to pick where you live. You get to list your top three regions on the application. They also organize the regions into three columns so that you have to pick a region in each column. This of course means that you probably cannot pick your top three regions because they are in the same column. For example, I would have totally picked 1. La Rioja 2. Asturias 3. Navarra, but they were in fact all in the same stupid box so I ended up picking 1. La Rioja 2. Cataluña 3. Balearic Islands. Also, you have absolutely no say in which city or school you end up at. This means there are plenty of Auxiliares de Conversación who are placed in the middle of freaking nowhere. I got extraordinarily lucky this year and though my school is in a village outside of Córdoba, it is close enough that I can commute there and back everyday and live in the city, even though that is a giant pain in the butt. I know some Americans who are living in decent sized cities while I know others who are in pueblos far away from Córdoba, so they are stuck living in a tiny town, which can be positive (super integrated culturally and lots of opportunities to give private lessons) or negative (you can probably guess the negative-no car, pueblo attitudes/Spanish, hard to travel, small town ect), . So initially this program seems really cool, oh yeah, I’ll go teach in Spain for a year, maybe I’ll get to live in Sevilla or Barcelona or Granada or Madrid, but most people don’t end up there, and even if you do, you can’t really afford to be there. There is a private program for Americans wanting to teach English here called CIEE. The best spots in Spain go to those who do this program because you have to pay over $2000 to do it. At the end of the day, you get to live in Spain, but in my opinion, there are a lot of sacrifices you have to make.
That brings me to my next point: money money money. €700 (around $975) a month is rough, and I mean ROUGH. That is just enough to live and not much more. That will cover necessary expenses and a few local trips. Again, I’m lucky and I’m in Andalucía which is probably one of the cheaper regions. Try living on that in the north and you’re screwed. You also cannot officially work to make more money because we don’t have work visas. What most people do is give private English classes to make money on the side. If you plan this well you can make a decent amount of money. You think hey I’m in Spain, I can go travel around Europe, but not really. Just to get to Madrid from Córdoba on the train and back costs over €100. We learned real fast how to travel on the cheap and how to save our pennies.
Also bear in mind that you start work on October 1, but you won’t get paid for at least a month. The Spanish government is extremely unorganized and is usually very late sending out the checks to the schools to pay us. My school didn’t get the check until December but they just advanced me the money anyways so that I wouldn’t starve. Let me just tell you, November SUCKED! There were plenty of auxiliares who weren’t paid for the first time until mid-November or December, and I have heard of some who were paid even later. This of course means that you have to arrive in Spain with enough money to last you at least a month. You also have to pay for your own transportation as well. You probably want to come with enough savings to supplement the monthly stipend if you actually want to do stuff here. Plus the euro to dollar exchange ratio blows. Just be prepared if you do this program, you will want to come with a couple grand in savings and be prepared to spend it all if you want to do more than sit inside your freezing apartment and eat pasta. You have to pay for your own flight to Spain, the visa and documents, transportation to your town, a hostel until you can find a piso (apartment) then the piso and the deposit, food, bedding, ect. Trust me, it adds up real fast.
Also be prepared that this “program” does not really help you at all, and you are mostly on your own. You have to get to your city and school on your own, find your own apartment, set up a bank account, figure out doctor’s, find internet and cell phones, ect (in Spanish). We arrived not knowing who any of the other auxiliares are. Again, Andalucía-I’ve heard different things about different regions. Luckily there is a facebook group so you can people meet that way, but there are no list of emails or anything. I just found out a few months ago that there is another auxiliar who lives on my street and I didn’t even know!! There is an orientation in the beginning with all the auxilaires in your province, but they mostly spent the morning trying to explain the complexities of the Spanish school system and how healthcare works here. It was a big waste of time and the only thing that made it worthwhile was the free food and alcohol afterward. It was also impossible to find the building because they only put the street and not a number and of course the phone number was out of service. I feel like that kinda sums up Spain.
Also trying to get your visa to come here and then once you’re here obtaining your residency card is another nightmare entirely. I remember trying to get my visa in Boston was awful! I had to spend hours running all over the city getting documents that I didn’t even know I needed before the office closed. It was the same deal trying to get my residency card here. And of course no one answers phones or emails which would have saved so much time and energy. Just so professional. You have to figure so much stuff out on your own here.
Now the school situation can be tricky. A lot of my friends here have really awesome experiences at their school, and for the most part I have too. I love love LOVE my students! They are so awesome and adorable. They are the reason I get up and commute everyday. Also the people I work with are incredibly nice and great too. They’ve made me feel very welcome here. On the other hand, (at least for me) my school situation this year has been incredibly frustrating. Also, I am writing about my own experience in my village in Andalucía. Know that there are plenty of other Americans with completely different experiences, but also know that I have several friends who have had similar or even worse situations than me.
In my opinion, there are many English teachers in Andalucía who are not qualified to be teaching English. Many have only a basic understanding of the language and even then it’s usually written. Until recently the main way for teaching languages here was written, not oral or listening. Then you bring in a young native English speaker to work with the teacher, things can either go really well or really badly. Since I am the assistant I am not supposed to do lesson plans, but what ends up happening is that I’m not given any lesson plans in advance and I have to wing it! What would usually happen is I would get to class and have no idea what we would be doing, and then be thrown in front of the class and be told, “Liz, teach the planets. Go!” WTF!? If anything, I have learned to think on my feet real quick in Spanish with an audience. This combined with a lot of other things that I am not going to elaborate on here made me so miserable I finally complained to the school. Most of the teachers in my school are wonderful, and there are plenty of great teachers working with their Auxiliares de Conversación around Spain but there are a lot that don’t have any idea how to teach a language or what to do with you, and then there are some who will take advantage of you and try to use you to their own ends. So be careful and know exactly what your contract says so you can stand up for yourself.
In addition, my school, along with many others are officially called bilingual schools. This is a HUGE joke! My school, and many bilingual schools in Spain are Spanish schools with classes taught in Spanish where you learn random English vocabulary. I feel like Spain is so concerned with appearances and not about backing it up. I know this is a harsh statement and I’m sure other people feel differently, but for me and my situation, it’s true. I mean just look at this program. They love to broadcast how many Americans they have here and how popular this program is, but then so many schools don’t use the auxiliares to their full potential. I know I spent my first few months here not even included in the classes. It would be better to pay us more and have us work more hours so that all the students can take advantage of us, as well as have us more involved in the classes. They love to say that have so many bilingual schools, but how many of them are actually bilingual? There is not one student in my school I can have a conversation with in English. Another example, my school has installed a bunch of Smartboards and given free laptops to all of the older students, but then they almost never use them. It’s just a waste of money.
So, after reading all this, everything seems so negative. But these were just the con’s. The pro’s are evident in every single one of my blog posts. So many things are annoying, difficult, and challenging, but at the end of the day, I’m living in Spain! I may not get to travel in comfort or the way I would like to, but I do get to travel and see more of Spain. I may not have the biggest apartment or even have an apartment with heat or air or electric gas, but I do live on a narrow white cobblestone street with white buildings and flower-covered balconies, and when I walk out my front door I see a medieval palace. I can walk to one of the most famous sites in Spain (the Mezquita) in 15 minutes. I now have found my friends, and I’m settled in and getting to do all the things I want to do. My Spanish has gotten so good that I never have to worry about not being able to say what I want to. I work with great people and great kids. So I guess the question I am asking myself is is it worth it? What will my experience be like if I accept this program next year in La Rioja? Can wonderful experiences really be repeated? Will it be the same, or will it be better or worse? Or am I willing to ignore all of the problems just to be here for another year? I will be sure to keep you all posted on what I decide, but for now, I am just going to be very Spanish, and take it one step at a time, day by day and enjoy the moment. I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it.
If you are interested you can read more about the program on the Ministry’s website here, as well as access the application.
Or if you have a couple extra grand laying around and are interested in doing this program through CIEE, you can see their website here.