I’ve been able to live in Spain for two years now (and going on my third) because of Spain’s auxiliares de conversación program. As a language assistant, I work 12 hours a week at an elementary school from October through May and receive 700€ a month and health insurance in return. Experiences vary widely in this program, but I’ve been fortunate enough to teach at two good schools in the south (Jaén province, Andalucía) and in the north (Atlantic coast of Galicia), commute from larger cities to my schools’ villages—Úbeda and Santiago de Compostela—and travel across Spain and Europe.

Yours truly at the Mosque-Cathedral in Córdoba

What is the auxiliares program?

Me with my four-year-old preschool English class
So, every year the Spanish Ministry of Education receives applications from thousands of native speakers of English (primarily from the U.S., but also from Canada, the UK, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand) and places us in public schools everywhere from downtown Madrid to a tiny village, as the Spanish say, “forgotten by God.”

Being a language assistant (auxiliar de conversación) isn’t the same as being a full-fledged teacher; instead, we’re placed in English-language classrooms to assist the native Spanish teacher with their job. Our roles can be very different from region to region, or even school to school in the same town, but usually we correct pronunciation, play games, give cultural presentations, direct activities, and generally help out in the school’s foreign language program. It’s a little different from your traditional teaching English job since there is always a head teacher in the classroom with you.

If you’re interested in learning more about my experience as a language assistant, you can check out the following posts I’ve written on the blog:

A Day in the Life of a Language Assistant in Spain (my day-to-day life teaching in rural Andalucía and living in Úbeda)

Another Day in the Life of a Language Assistant in Spain (my day-to-day life teaching in coastal Galicia and living in Santiago de Compostela)

My Review of Spain’s North American Language and Culture Assistant Program (my thoughts on the program after Year One in southern Spain)

My Updated Review of Spain’s North American Language & Culture Assistant Program (my thoughts on the program after Year Two in northern Spain)

Where do people teach?

The tiny village of Albarracín (Teruel, in Aragón)
There’s Spain, and then there are The Spains. This diverse country is broken up into 17 autonomous communities, all of which are in charge of running education on behalf of the central government. So even though the national Ministry of Education hires us, the regional departments of education assign, manage, and pay us each month. Most regions participate in the program, all except independence-seeking Catalunya, corrupt Valencia, and the Canary Islands (where British Council peeps can work). All others are fair game, with the lion’s share of placements going to Madrid, Andalucía, and Galicia.

Most people work in primary or secondary schools. Elementary schools cover both the optional infantil years (preschool ages 3, 4, and 5) and the required primaria cycles (first through sixth grade). You can usually identify them by the CEIP in front of their names, which stands for Centro de Educacion Infantil y Primaria—“Preschool and Primary Education Center.”

High schools are mostly composed of ESO—Educacion Secundaria Obligatoria (“Obligatory Secondary Education”)—a four-year program that covers the American equivalents of seventh through tenth grade. Bachillerato is an optional two-year extension for college-bound teens. A high school is called IES, which stands for Instituto de Educacion Secundaria (“Secondary Education Institute”).

A significant handful, however, work in adult language schools. An EOI—Escuela Oficial de Idiomas (“Official School of Languages”)—offers beginner to advanced courses in modern foreign languages for anyone beyond high school age.

Should you do it?

West façade, cathedral of Santiago de Compostela
* If you’re looking for an easy way to live abroad, travel around Europe, and improve your Spanish, this program is it. The Spanish government provides you with the means to live in a foreign country for eight to nine months, your residency card allows you to freely move about Europe’s Schengen Area without worries of imminent visa expirations, and what better way to learn and practice Spanish than in a real-world, immersion setting like Spain?

* If you’re not sure teaching English is your calling, working as a language assistant—rather than full-fledged classroom teacher—is a good way to test the waters. This real-world experience can give you an idea of what to expect in this field, and there are always opportunities to work in language academies or give private lessons on the side. Although you don’t need to be ESL-certified to apply, if you do happen to have your TESOL or CELTA, coming to Spain as an auxiliar is a low-pressure way to try out your new skills and see if teaching is what you’re cut out to do.

* In this day and age, finding a decent job that pays you a living wage and offers basic benefits like health insurance can often be hard to come by. Thankfully, the 700 euros a month you receive as a paycheck scholarship is more than enough to live comfortably on provided you rent a room in a shared apartment and cook most of your meals, and the health insurance covers any and all doctor visits (prescriptions, while not covered, are much more affordable in Spain than in the States).

Madrid, seen from the Círculo de Bellas Artes
* Compared to, for example, the English-teaching program in Korea where they pay for your trans-Pacific flight, arrange and pay for your studio apartment, and basically take care of you, this is a very bare-bones type of deal. Apart from the contracted eight months’ pay and health insurance, the government isn’t under any obligation to help you find a place to live or a carpool to school, open a bank account, or get through the residency process. Granted, most people are fortunate enough to get placed in schools where the faculty and staff welcome you and go out of their way to help you get settled—but it isn’t always the case. And if you show up speaking little to no Spanish, you’re gonna have a rough time moving here as you’re essentially on your own.

* As with any move to a foreign country, there’s a fair amount of risk involved in leaving your friends, family, home, pets, partner, and perhaps a well-paying job in your career for a place you’ve never been before and where you know nobody.

* Although most people have similar experiences as language assistants, the reality can vary widely from region to region, and even from school to school in the same town. Whether your school or region pays you on time, your carpooling gig (or lack thereof), your students’ level of English and motivation, and your fellow teachers’ attitudes can all play a huge role in determining how your stay in Spain will turn out—and “pueblo life,” living in the village your school is in, can be very different from a big city. Some people are lucky, and others…not so much, but how you react to (un)fortunate environments plays a major part in how your year goes.

How to apply?

A Guarda, on the northern border with Portugal
The most popular post on my blog is my huge how-to post titled rather boringly, “How to Apply for the North American Language & Culture Assistant Program.” First, read through the official PDF guides to the online Profex application that Spain provides first; they go through all the nitty-gritty details in this extremely idiosyncratic program. Then, search the comments thread to see if your question has already been answered; there are well over 400 comments right now.

Once you’re accepted into the program, you’ll need to visit one of Spain’s many embassies and consulates scattered around the globe. If the Houston, Texas, consulate is nearest to your permanent residence in the U.S., I’ve written a how-to guide on applying for a student visa there.

If you liked teaching English in Spain as a language assistant so much that you can’t say goodbye after eight months, there’s a post on my blog for you, “How to Renew for a Second Year for Spain’s Language Assistant Program,” which also applies for third- and fourth-year renewals.

Have any questions about the language assistant program? Want to share your experience as an auxiliar in Spain? Share your questions and comments in the discussion thread below!
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