5 Misconceptions About Teaching English in Spain

5 Misconceptions About Teaching English in Spain

When I was accepted, and then placed, as an Auxiliar de Conversacion (Language and cultural assistant) in Spain, I felt like I was getting away with something – something BIG. Teaching English abroad had always been a dream. I saw it as a way to share my love of language with students without having to be a high school English teacher.

When I was applying to the program, I closed my eyes and nervously ticked the box listed “basico” for my Spanish skills* and listed my part-time tutoring gig in college as teaching background. Any previous experience living abroad? Nada.

*And by basic, I mean the most formal teaching I’d received up until that point was from cats in the app Cat Spanish.

I was prepared to fight tooth-and-nail to assure them I could do a good job even if I had a couple of obstacles in my way. I’m a fast learner; I’m resilient. And if I were to get rejected, I planned to build my skill set and try again the next round. But I got the gig and couldn’t have been more ecstatic about it – if not a little skeptical!

As I read more about the program, perused blogs from previous Auxiliares and talked to someone who had done it before, I felt more at ease.

  1. Everyone confirmed you’re just an assistant. You show up, act as the English expert for a couple hours a day, and go home to teach private lessons.
  2. Chris assured me that his friend’s boyfriend, who also did the program, didn’t know any Spanish, and he was fine. 

So I went for it! And now I’m here, living the Spanish life (more or less). I have more free time than I’ve ever had before, I’ve already traveled to a few cities on the weekends and I’ve been offered private lessons to make money on the side – without even hustling that hard!

Still, I wanted to share my first-hand experience about what I wish I knew before I decided to come to Spain as an English teacher. These things wouldn’t have deterred me in the least, but they would have given me a better perspective about what to expect

So here’s what DID turn out to be a little too good to be true:

1. Knowing Spanish is “a bonus”

Lies, lies, lies (for me, at least). Someone in Madrid, Barcelona, or the Balearic Islands, where there is more tourism, might be able to get by just fine with basic Spanish. In Logroño? No way.

Sometimes, I seriously think the only English speakers are the teachers and students in my classes.

Don’t get me wrong! I don’t hate it. I respect it. They shouldn’t have to accommodate me and my English-speaking ways. I didn’t come to Spain to speak English with people. I like the full-immersion experience.

I just wish I had taken it more seriously while I was preparing.

If I were to do it again, here’s what I’d do:

  • Set up an intercambio: Arrange a conversation exchange with a native Spanish speaker in your city. You help them improve their English, they help you improve your Spanish. It’s free and mutually beneficial!
  • Take classes: Whether you learned Spanish in high school, or are starting from scratch like I was, I would recommend being in a low-stakes environment where you can practice speaking and listening.

Me and my students in Spain

2. You don’t have to be a teacher, per se

I thought it was a stroke of luck that the application didn’t ask for any formal teaching experience. (I always meant to get that TEFL certification.) It was also something my coworkers asked me about before I left – did I have any teaching experience? Was I worried about it?

I said I was just going to be a teachers’ assistant.

The program’s orientation confirmed this. By design, you are mostly there to speak, to serve as an example of correct pronunciation, to explain English/U.S. traditions, to play games with the kids that help them reinforce the language.

So I was a little taken aback when my teaching background was the first thing the white-coated two female teachers at the school asked me about. I had to sheepishly explain that I wasn’t a teacher before, but a writer and editor at a marketing company.

And after giving me a hurried tour around the other school where I’m working, the tall fast-talking teacher stacked some English books on the table in front of me and said, “Well you like teaching. You like kids. That’s why you’re here!”

Erhhhh. Yeassss? (More like I’m here to live in Spain and write, but sure – the teacher thing. I got that.)

An email exchange with the previous auxiliare proved even more worrisome. She told me she was a teacher back in the states, and that I would need to inform the schools if I wasn’t comfortable writing lesson plans because that’s what they would expect.

Me… write …. lesson plans???

I don’t even really know what that entails! And after a restless night, I did the inevitable – I Googled it. It turns out a lesson can be as simple as teaching the kids how to play jeopardy, and then having them play with vocab words and subject matter you’ve introduced. Phew.

Moral of the story? Teaching experience helps. Or at least having some idea of what might be expected of you in the classroom.

If I knew this before I came, I would have:

  • Thought about what ‘lessons’ I might want to teach – holidays, food, sports, interests, etc.
  • Packed supporting materials for my ‘lessons’ (For example: If you talk about transportation, bring a bus schedule or a subway map. If you talk about art, bring brochures from museums.)
  • Asked fellow teacher friends for help with putting together some very basic outlines of lesson plans. (Keep in mind your teachers might have something else in mind already, so you don’t want to invest too much work for no reason.)

3. You have a one-year Visa

When I submitted my agreement for the job, I was dreaming of trips to Paris and Florence, Croatia and Munich, London and Brussels. Even before I packed my bags, I had pretty much planned my hike on the Camino de Santiago. When would I do all this travel, you ask?

Ideally during the weekends. But if my schedule was tough, over the summer – duh!

Turns out, it’s not that easy. Some people once upon a time got one-year Visas with the program. Some still might, but if you go into the Spanish consulate in the states with your acceptance letter and application dated for the school year, you will probably get an NIE card that expires on May 31, or whenever the program ends. 

This isn’t the end of the world. You have some options.

Here’s what I might do instead (I think):

  • Do the program for two years back-to-back and renew your NIE.
  • Take a trip to the UK for a couple of days when your NIE card (student Visa) expires, then return to kick over into a 90-day tourist Visa.

4. It would be a snap to find an apartment

I don’t mean to brag, but I am something of a seasoned apartment finder. After living in Boston for four years, Virginia and Colorado before that, I have navigated my share of:

  • Exaggerated Craigslist posts
  • Bozo real estate agents who are totally unhelpful
  • Tight move-in timelines
  • Unideal living situations

So I thought I was pretty well-equipped to find a place here. We’d have to pound to pavement, not take no for an answer – the usual drill.

But finding an apartment was NOT easy! (Muy dificile, in fact.)

The first problem was that we were hunting for places during Logroño’s annual week-long festival, so we could barely get anyone on the phone. When we did, they told us to call back after the fiesta. They said there was no way we would find an apartment that week …. Thanks?

The only reassuring thing was that we were not the only people in this situation. A lot of people in the program who arrived during the same week had the same issue. And I’ve read posts from Auxiliares in other cities who found it equally difficult to find good apartments in a reasonable amount of time.

What I wish I knew in advance was:

  • What I’d be willing to compromise.
    You’re probably not going to get everything the first time you rent an apartment in a foreign country. So decide what’s most important to you before you come. Is it location? Is it price? Is it style? Is it compatibility with roommates?
  • It will take about one week to find a place.
    This is obviously a generalization based on my experience, but it took me a full week to find a place. And I’ve found that timeline to be accurate for other people looking for apartments in Logroño, so get somewhere to stay for that duration.
  • There are additional fees.
    We had to turn down a gorgeous apartment because they sprung an extra 100 Euro gastos fee after we’d fallen in love with it. Gastos is a community fee that covers building maintenance. Ask about them!

Visiting London last year for my birthday

5. Traveling across Europe will be cheap and easy

Travel was a large part of the reason why I wanted to quit a job I liked, move out of a city I loved and cross the Atlantic to teach abroad. Long ago seduced by the promise of $40 airfares to top destinations like Paris, Switzerland, Milan, I imagined this would be my ticket to international voyages I might not otherwise get until I retired – if at all.

So I’ve been a little disappointed to find that many of those coveted RyanAir fares (indeed, to Paris and London and Brussels and Milan for as low as $20 roundtrip) are offered at obscure times during the middle of the week.

Who can travel on a Tuesday at 2 p.m. and return on Saturday at 6:50 a.m.?

Even with Fridays off from teaching and a relatively sparse schedule, I can’t make those kinds of schedules work. People with the best schedules (Mondays and Fridays off) would still find it difficult to score the bottom-barrel tickets without missing class.

What’s worse is that a teacher told me she was under the impression that the U.S. was a much cheaper place to travel than Europe.

Say what?

I came here for cheap travel, lady.  She claimed it’s not unusual for people to pay 500 Euro for a flight at a convenient time, for a legitimate vacation.

Moral of the story: The Auxiliare teaching job isn’t a magic beanstalk to your dream vacations. You’re going to have to do some finagling to make those cheap flights work or pay a little extra for a ticket at a time that works for your schedule and travel plans.

If I could do it all again and maximize my travel opportunities, I would:

  • Try to work 3 days a week. Proactively reach out to your teachers with an ‘ideal’ schedule. Let them know you’d like to work Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays if possible. This worked for one girl I met. If it’s not, don’t sweat it. The school schedules are crazy and the teachers are trying their best!
  • Live in a transportation hub. I requested a smaller city so I would have a less touristy experience, but when I’m browsing the RyanAir website, I have a twinge of regret over not choosing a bigger city like Madrid or Barcelona where there are more flight options.
  • Go to your top destination before you arrive in Spain. I regret not making a trip out of my travel. I immediately came to Logroño to get settled, and I could have already guaranteed that I make it to somewhere I REALLY don’t want to miss (like Florence or Siena!).

All told, I’m having a great time. And I never really expected it to be smooth sailing! It’s living abroad for Christssake. As they say, live and learn!