|Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, during a night rain|
A quick refresher: the auxiliares de conversación program is sponsored by the Spanish government—the Ministry of Education, Culture, and Sports—but because the autonomous communities are ultimately responsible for education, language assistants report to the regional governments.
In exchange for working 12 hours a week in Spanish public schools, assistants receive 700 euros a month and health insurance, and get time off during school holidays. (FYI: in the Community of Madrid, they work 16 hours a week and get paid 1000 euros a month.) These auxiliares work in preschool, primary, secondary, or adult-level classrooms and assist teachers in English-language education, but experiences vary widely.
First, I’ll talk about my time in Galicia and my coastal elementary school, and then I’ll tell you my thoughts about the program in general.
My experience this year
When Fran, my bilingual coordinator, told me I would be leading a lot of English classes this year, I kind of freaked out at first since I hadn’t done anything of the sort the year before and our job description as assistants kind of precludes that. But in the end it wasn’t a big deal at all and I grew a lot personally.
Every Monday morning, we sat down and planned my classes for the week: what textbook pages to focus on, which activity book questions to assign, ideas for games and songs, etc. I had a few days to “shadow” her classes to see how she handled things and then I was basically turned loose (but not really, since the grade-level teacher was always present to keep rowdiness under control or explain directions).
|Me and the kindergarteners|
Also, while in Villanueva del Arzobispo I endured the kindergarten class from Hell, this go-round I was in charge of the entire preschool program in Abanqueiro. Sounds scary, but it was just three classes and I was provided with an extensive curriculum—and super-adorable kids who really caught on fast.
My first year in the program I lived in Úbeda, a mid-sized city of around 35,000 people, and commuted to the village of 8,000 my school was at. This year, I lived in Santiago de Compostela, the nearly 100,000-strong city of pilgrimage and university fame. It was a smart decision to live in the capital of Galicia and commute two hours each day out to the coast, because the bustling city, simply put, had so many more opportunities than the municipality Abanqueiro belongs to, Boiro.
A few dozen fellow English-speaking auxiliares also chose to live in Santiago, a real blessing because this gave me an immediate community to plug in to once I arrived. From Thanksgiving potlucks to hiking daytrips, having like-minded friends who simply got you made all the difference in enduring the dark, cold, rainy winter.
|Praza de Mazarelos, Santiago de Compostela|
In Santiago, I ended up living with another American in the program, Noé, who I met while going out for dinner with the other assistants during the apartment hunt. The two-bedroom apartment we signed for couldn’t have been in a better location: right outside the old town where a bajillion bus routes went by, but on a quiet residential street that took us down to a sprawling, glorious city park. Our rent, at 350€/month, was about average for a city outside of Madrid. And praise God that the place came with a dehumidifier; otherwise, our laundry would probably never have dried here in rainy Galicia.
I’ll be the first to admit Galicia is a far-flung part of the country, but highways and railways cross the region just like they do any other part of Spain, so it’s easy to hop on a bus or train and be in Madrid in half a day. The western coast of Galicia is home to not one but three different airports, but I only ever found cheap enough flights from Santiago’s airport to visit Sevilla. It was actually cheaper for me to ride Promo-price all-day trains to Barcelona and from Madrid when I flew to Italy instead of flying from Galicia there…oh well.
The program’s regional variation
|Praza das Praterías, Santiago de Compostela|
Although the Spanish Ministry of Education sponsors the teaching assistant program, apart from placing us in our respective regions and throwing money our way, there’s very little the central government actually does—there’s not even an official How To Use Your Language Assistant guide, so things can vary a lot from region to region.
|Lively street in the old town of Santiago de Compostela|
Those of us who work in Galicia have come to a consensus that they have the best-run program in the country here. Government big-wigs attended the big auxiliar orientation at the beginning of October, and Elena, the functionary in charge of the program in Galicia, has always helped us out with any school placement or bank issues we have had. Whereas in other regions the government officials can be unresponsive, fickle, or outright hostile to their assistants, I give two thumbs up to how the Xunta (regional government) has organized the program.
Your experience comes down to luck & attitude
|Me and the 6th graders|
I’m gonna be blunt and say that risk is a fundamental characteristic of this program. You take a risk when you apply that you might get placed in Galicia, Asturias, or Castilla y León, or in none of the above. You take a risk that you might work in an elementary school or a high school, or even adult language school—it could be preschoolers, their parents, and everyone in between. You take a risk that you might get placed in a bustling metropolis with tons of fellow English-speakers…or in a tiny hamlet with no public transportation links to the “outside world.” You’re likely to have a wonderful year wherever you end up, but it’s still a possibility you could get the short end of the stick.
Even though it’s frustrating how chance/fate/destiny/the hand of God can determine a lot of how your year goes, your attitude actually plays a big part in your experience, too. You might have dreams about living in the next hip neighborhood of downtown Madrid or sunbathing on Andalusian beaches after work every day—and then be crushed to learn you’ll be packing your bags for middle-of-nowhere, landlocked Extremadura. I’ve seen a lot of people on the Facebook groups whine about how they desperately need to switch regions to get to Madrid, or even worse, complaining that their school is in a distant village in the region of Madrid instead of the capital’s city center (not making this up).
|Praza de Mazarelos, Santiago de Compostela|
Trust me, I’ve been there (twice!), but I’ve learned to adopt the Spanish no pasa nada lifestyle of no worries. In both of my initially-disappointing school placements, things turned out for the best and I had a good year nevertheless.
A final reminder: if you stick it out through a less-than-desirable assignment through your first school year, you’ll have priority as a renewal and can basically get your dream school when you apply for a second year. Liz Carlson of Young Adventuress transferred out of a crappy situation in Córdoba and had the time of her life in northern La Rioja, and one of my close friends in Úbeda moved across Andalucía to the happenin’ capital of Sevilla.
|Belvís Park, Santiago de Compostela|
TL;DRThe auxiliares de conversación program is a great way for native speakers of English who have recently graduated college to live abroad in Spain. You get paid a living wage and health insurance, you have lots of opportunities to travel and practice speaking castellano, and you don’t need expensive qualifications or have to spend all your time lesson-planning and grading papers.
Becoming a language assistant in Spain, however, does involve a lot of risk because you essentially “go potluck” with your region and school placement, which can really decide if you have a good or a bad year. It’s not out of the ordinary for folks to head back home after a crappy year, but I personally have had a positive experience both in the south and up in Galicia.
If you’ve ever been an auxiliar de conversación before, how does your experience compare to the one I’ve just described? Add your thoughts to the discussion below!