As anyone who’s read much of anything on this blog might know, I’ve been working in Spain in a program through the Ministry of Education called Auxiliares de Conversación. To provide the very briefest summary, the program places native English speakers as “language and culture assistants” in public bilingual schools to assist teachers in English language instruction.The program has lots of proponents and plenty of critics. To break it down, the life and experience of an auxiliar in Spain isn’t all sangria and tapas and wet kisses from first graders; it comes with its share of headaches and bureaucracy. Here’s my experience.
I did the program for three years from 2010 to 2013 in three different schools, all in the province of Málaga. My first year I was in an elementary school in the center of Málaga, my second in an elementary school in Fuengirola, and my third in a high school in Coín.
I’ll break down my auxiliar experience into where I was lucky and where I was unlucky, but I use the word “luck” with quotations because sometimes what you get really is just sheer luck, and sometimes it’s what you make out of it.
- All three of my school always paid on time. I put this one first for a reason. It would be hard to enjoy your long weekends when you have to ask Mom and Dad to transfer you money just to be able to pay rent and take the bus to work. Although I came to Spain with a decent amount in savings, I couldn’t have survived as long as many people had to while waiting for their schools to pay them (over three months).
- The fact that I was given a third year. The program’s official policy is that you can apply for a third year, but will be automatically waitlisted to give priority to first and second years. For many would-be third years this means waiting until late summer to find out anything, if they even got a spot. I got incredibly lucky and slipped through the cracks of the application system and not only got a spot but was placed quite early.
- Two years of problem-free schedules. My first two years, upon arriving for my first day of work, I was handed a schedule with Fridays off. While I never got the coveted three-day work week, I had very decent schedules without gaps between classes, and even some days to sleep in late.
- Fantastic teachers to learn from. Unlike many auxiliares, I’m in teaching for the long haul, and over the past three years I have gotten to work alongside some teachers that have shown me the type of teacher I want to be.
- Ideal location for first year. I didn’t know how lucky I was to get the city center my first year. Now, I attribute that “luck” to having forked out a couple thousand for the CIEE program and having sent in my application the very same day it opened (I explain the differences between CIEE and the Ministry program here).
- Not being sent to the Timbuktu of Andalucía. In the application process you get to request your autonomous community, and that’s it. The thing about Andalucía is it’s pretty big. Applying for my second and third year I knew that I could have been sent to the farthest corners of Almería or Huelva, hundreds of kilometers away from where I wanted to be. When thinking of that possibility, I got pretty lucky with towns a commute-able distance from Málaga.
- The bilingual coordinator from hell. I’ve swapped auxiliar horror stories with a number of people, and after this past year I always win. Everything this man put me through and how I won every battle he picked with me deserves its own post. Suffice it to say for now that he and the school were used to having a first year, who was sent out to live in the pueblo, and had no idea what to expect from the job. My flaw for him was that I knew exactly what my job entailed, and what it didn’t. I didn’t fit into the cookie cutter mold, and would not be taken advantage of. I dreaded going to work everyday this year, and it was 99% because of him.
- Location second and third year. Like I’ve said, I was lucky to not be sent too far from Málaga. I liked the city just fine; the only thing I was missing was my boyfriend. For years two and three I sent emails along with my application requesting to be in Granada, where Pepe was. Some people have success in Andalucía emailing specific city requests, but mine were obviously ignored.
- Some really horrible teachers. Something I’ve realized as a teaching assistant is that if the class doesn’t respect the lead teacher, it’s hard for you to develop a good rapport with them. I’ve been with some yellers and screamers, some who let the class walk all over them, and many who obviously don’t prepare ANYTHING for class. For me to enter this class and contribute something meaningful is nigh on impossible. But on the plus side, I’ve seen how NOT to teach.
I think anyone’s experience in the program will have its ups and downs. Despite having ended on a sour note with my last school, I would recommend the program to anyone on a few conditions:
- Be open-minded regarding your location. If you have your heart set on the center of Barcelona or Sevilla, be prepared to NOT get that. Being placed exactly where you want is difficult, and even more so in big communities like Andalucía. Investigate commuting from where your school is to where you want to live, but be realistic. For example, I wouldn’t recommend the commute I did this past year from Málaga to Coín. It’s a big part of the reason I wasn’t happy there, but Pepe had come to Málaga to be with me and found work. That wouldn’t have been possible in Coín.
- Be flexible with your school. You are an assistant and will need to adapt to how each person teaches. Come out of your comfort zone. And remember, if you want to ask for favors (a few days off when your parents come to visit), be prepared to return it by working some extra hours or helping with additional tasks.
- Be sensible. If your school doesn’t ask for any documentation of that one day you were home sick, don’t take advantage. They’re friendly but not stupid. They’ll notice if you only seem to get sick the first or last day of your work week.
- Be patient with all the bureaucracy you have to go through. From getting your visa to your NIE and TIE, to renewing, be patient. The funcionarios, or civil servants, who work in government offices have a horrible reputation, but in my experience it’s not usually deserved. For what ever paperwork you are trying to process, ask questions, be polite, and if your Spanish isn’t good enough to communicate what you need, bring someone can translate for you. And yes, when they say a copy of every page of your passport, they mean it.
As many have said before me, the auxiliares program can be hit or miss, but I think that with an open-mind and some flexibility you can definitely pasarlo bien.