A Day in the Life of a Language Assistant in Spain

Since most of the posts on this blog have been mainly travel-oriented lately, I thought I’d whip up a post about what living abroad really looks like, about how I live in between exciting (but once monthly) weekend travels. If you don’t already know, I’m currently working as a North American Language and Culture Assistant (auxiliar de conversación in Spanish) in an elementary school in a small village called Villanueva del Arzobispo, which is in the south of the country. The gig is good for the better part of one school year (October 2012 through May 2013), and I work 12 hours or so a week for 700€ a month, health insurance, and three weeks of vacation (at Christmas and Easter).

Úbeda, Spain
Úbeda, the town where I live

Although travel is a strong passion of mine, I’m a pretty big introvert and homebody, so my Instagram and Twitter feeds probably aren’t always the most accurate representation of what life as a language assistant is really like. I hope this post brings things a little closer down to earth and gives prospective language assistants a peek into what they’re getting themselves into for a year.

In the morning

I set my alarms for 7:00am and usually roll out of bed around 7:15 to get some breakfast, take a shower, and get ready for the day. On my way out the door, I pick up any trash and recycling I have left and throw it out in the color-coded bins on the way to my carpool rendezvous point.

The teachers pick me up between 8:05 and 8:15 before stopping to pick up two other teachers who live in and around Úbeda, and then we make the half-hour or so drive to Villanueva. The scenery is always stunning and usually sunny: endless fields of olive groves cover the hills, which are interspersed with tiny villages. Mountains—sometimes you can see snow—loom in the distance and make the sun work a little harder to break through in the east.

We arrive a little after 8:45. Before school officially starts at 9:00, all the students line up according to their class in the courtyard, where they meet their teachers who then lead them in lines up to their classrooms.

At school

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I usually go straight to the teacher’s break room/workroom (sala de profesores) and mingle with the other teachers or (in the winter) warm up by the gas furnaces. Then the bells ring and everyone scatters to their classrooms. In the morning, there are two one-hour periods and one half-hour period, after which the whole school goes outside for recreo (“break”) for half an hour. After two more one-hour periods, everyone goes home at 2:00pm.

In class, I usually help the teacher in giving directions, reading sentences in English clearly and slowly, quizzing students with vocabulary flashcards, running the interactive whiteboard, and making sure the students aren’t having problems with their in-class activities.

Because the kids’ level of English is so low, it’s difficult to explain things in English, so I often have to use Spanish in class, especially with the little ones. Lots of kids just assume I “don’t speak Spanish,” but nevertheless ask me questions in that language!

Úbeda, Spain
Rotonda de la Constitución, near my apartment

Classes I’m in include science (conocimiento del medio, literally “knowledge of the environment”), music, P.E., and two actual English classes.

The entire school goes on break at 11:30am: all the kids dash downstairs and have a free-for-all in the patio and various soccer fields/basketball courts. They munch on their bocadillos (sandwiches) that their parents wrapped in foil for them, sip from juice boxes, play soccer with empty water bottles, and march in groups, arms-locked, around the school.

The teachers head outside as well, munching on the snacks that they brought (this time of day is called desayuno or “breakfast”!) and making sure the kids don’t get their eyes poked out or whatever. Four or five of the teachers and I trade off every week in walking down to the nearby alimentación (tiny grocery store) to pick up a bag of super fresh sandwiches of thinly-sliced sausage and olive oil—not even 1€ per sandwich!

Because it’s been so cold and rainy lately, on breaks I usually stay in the teacher workroom and blog, make smalltalk with other teachers, and generally try to stay warm and dry. Sometimes I give into temptation and drop 55 cents into the coffee machine for a hot chocolate. When the weather’s better, I often go outside and soak up the sun.

On special days or class periods, there will be often school-wide convocations for music performances or storytime in the auditorium, or festivities in the patio outside. I’ve been on one field trip so far, to tour an olive oil factory ten minutes down the road with the sixth graders.

At home

I get home around 2:45pm and, after putting away my wallet, keys, etc. or doing little chores like the laundry, I get to work cooking la comida, or “dinner,” even though as an American it’s really lunchtime for me. Having the institutionalized siesta in the middle of the day has been really helpful for me in learning how to cook; it’s been nice to have extra time in the afternoon to figure out what works and what doesn’t work in the kitchen.

After lunch, I usually chill out, catch up on blog-reading or blog-writing, prepare English lessons, or (rarely) take a nap. Around six-o’-clock I head out to give a private English class to either a fourth-grade boy or a university-level girl. With the fourth-grader, I usually help him with his English class homework, go over pronunciation, or try to get him to speak English outloud (instead of Spanish). I tend to stay for ten minutes after giving the class to chat with the parents, whose accent I have much better luck understanding since they recently moved from the province to the north.

With the university student, we just try to have sustained conversation for an hour since she’s taking the B2-level English exam to be a teacher and needs practice and confidence in speaking. Since I don’t have any previous experience (or teacher training), I charge 10€ an hour here in Úbeda for both lessons.

On the way back from classes, I sometimes stop off at the local Masymas (“more and more”) supermarket to pick up groceries, household supplies, or fresh bread, often blowing through the cash I just got paid.

I get back home around 8pm and go through an awkward back-and-forth of deciding to make dinner right then and there or to wait until 9 or 10 when Spaniards actually have supper. Sometimes I give in to my desire to go to bed at a decent hour and start supper early, but sometimes I feel ashamed to be having dinner so early (I know, 8-o’-clock, so early for supper, right?) so I wait until I actually feel hungry.

After eating and washing ALL the dishes (my least favorite chore), I curl up beneath the covers (since my apartment has no central heating!) and write blog posts, watch nerdy science videos on YouTube, or read Harry Potter. I end up falling asleep by midnight.

On the weekend

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Weekends are much different, especially since they are four days long (please don’t hate me!). My bilingual coordinator was able to move the puzzle pieces of my schedule around so I got Mondays and Fridays off, but had to work my 12 hours (the Ministry of Education doesn’t let us work more than that) all day Tuesday through Thursday. Also, the teachers stay at school until 7pm on Mondays, and I carpool with them in a packed car, so it worked out for the best.

On these weekends, anything is possible: running errands around town (sending mail, paying rent, buying groceries), writing blog posts, editing and uploading pictures to Flickr, sleeping in, cleaning the house, trying my hand at cooking new recipes, baking cookies, or hanging out with the three or four other English-speaking language assistants in town.

And that’s all, folks! I hope this has been helpful for those of y’all who are applying to be a language assistant next year (although there’s a caveat: experiences in this program vary hugely, so don’t expect your year to be just like mine). For friends and family, I hope this gives y’all a look into what life in Spain is like outside of the highlights of glamorous~~~ travels you might see flowing past on Facebook. I love you guys!

If you are (or have been) a language assistant in Spain, what does your daily life look like? Comment below!

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