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Teach English Abroad: That Is, If You Want To

A Cultural Exchange Program in Spain

Author and friend enjoying churros in Madrid.
The author and a friend enjoying churros and hot chocolate at Madrid’s famous Chocolatería San Ginés.

I am fortunate and grateful to be running my laptop from my favorite neighborhood café in Madrid. For the second time, the beautiful country of Spain has welcomed me enthusiastically within its borders. Two years ago, I spent a semester studying in Seville. Now, I work as a Language and Cultural Assistant (auxiliar de conversación, or simply auxiliar) just outside the capital. After less than four months in Seville, my appetite for living abroad was piqued but far from satiated. I knew I needed more time to speak Spanish, immerse myself in the culture, and share my life and experiences with the locals who were so generous and welcoming.

My advice to anyone who can swing it financially (however creative you must be) is to do what I did after graduating from college: move abroad to teach English. Asterisk. It's a big asterisk, though a relatively intuitive one. Move abroad to teach English…if you want to teach.

There's So Much More Than Teaching Alone

Let's backtrack here for a moment. There is absolutely no denying that my time in Spain has been enriching. So yes, as a teacher, I don't just teach. I also learned that my language skills, pedagogy, and understanding of Spanish culture have all deepened and improved. I have also had the chance to immerse myself in a foreign education system. Doing so is of great personal and professional interest since I focused on education within the context of my Social Policy degree at Northwestern University. Plus, I eat: my gourmet geekiness has been satisfied at restaurant after restaurant, market after market, and friend's kitchen after friend's kitchen. I sightsee: my travel bug is happy too, thriving on Madrid's central location in Spain and its easy access to the rest of Europe, western Asia, and northern Africa. And, I socialize: I have made a concerted effort to meet locals through language exchanges and networking — an effort that, although at times taxing, has proven to be worthwhile.

It could stop there: I added stamps on my passport, added lines on my résumé, added friends on my Facebook list, and a few added inches to my waistline.

Small tapas or pinchos in a Madrid restaurant.
The mouthwatering pinchos (small tapas) at the author’s favorite restaurant in Madrid, La Musa de Espronceda.

Teaching Abroad as Cultural Exchange

But this is where the asterisk comes in. Move abroad to teach English…if you want to teach English. That doesn't mean you must plan to be a teacher for your whole life, but you must be genuinely interested in being an agent of two-way cultural exchange. As Spain opens its wide and welcoming, albeit crisis-stricken arms to me and provides all of the opportunities mentioned above for personal and professional enrichment, at the end of the day, I'm still here primarily to teach, as my official title reminds me. I'm here to give back to the country what the country gives to me. As a Language and Cultural Assistant, the paychecks come in on the assumption that I will live up to that title. As I write, Spain is at the center of the financial crisis in Europe, and it is enacting many of the austerity measures that go along with this economic hardship; however, the current government has chosen to make English education a priority and is funding my program; it is my responsibility to make that investment worthwhile.

The North American Language and Culture Assistants Program (NALCAP), sponsored by the Spanish Ministry of Education, is the easiest and most lucrative way to live in Spain and teach English (see the FAQs on the site for more information). "Easy" because acceptances are based more on a numbers game than assessing applicants' qualifications or experience. "Lucrative," not because it will make you rich, but because our financial situation is livable: auxiliares don't pay any program fees, and we receive a monthly stipend for 16 hours of teaching per week that, when combined with additional income from private tutoring (which almost all of us do), gives us sufficient cash to pay our basic expenses and travel a bit on the weekends. However, having some starter funds and a small cushion to fall back on is highly recommended, as the auxiliar stipend provides little flexibility for unforeseen expenses (or even security deposits).

With every pro, there is a corresponding con, and in this case, the negative is this: the program is quite disorganized. The application process and ensuing visa and temporary residency card sagas can be a headache. They appear to be slightly different for everyone, so even when putting our minds together, we auxiliares often seem to be a bit lost. The program's mantra is something to the effect of "it always works out in the end," and for the most part, that appears to be true. If you decide to come to Spain with this program, try your best not to fret and instead adopt the "no pasa nada" ("no big deal") lifestyle that is so fundamental to Spanish culture.

High school where author taught in Spain.
The high school where the author taught is in Majadahonda, Spain.

The Job

In line with the highly variable application process, every auxiliar's job description ends up being different. Some work with small children, others with teens and students in their early twenties. Some work at bilingual schools with teams of five, six, or seven auxiliares, assisting with everything from history to physical education classes, while others are the only language assistants at their non-bilingual schools, assisting only in English language classes. Some work with small groups of students, others work with entire classes at once; some follow the book and/or head teachers' instructions, while others are given complete freedom to plan lessons as they see fit.

There's a popular internet meme among the other English assistants, with six pictures, each labeled "What my ____________ think(s) I do in Spain," each depicting a different stakeholders' (our parents, friends, coworkers…) view of what our job entails.

I can't speak for all of us. However, what I really do in Spain is teach at a public, non-bilingual high school with students aged 12-18. I move around to the English classes of all age and ability levels in the school, designing, planning, and implementing 45-minute lessons about the English language and American history and culture, doing my best to be "the fun teacher" while still making sure my students learn.

Of course, what I do in Spain includes eating tapas, visiting parks and monuments, and traveling when I have time off. Yet, in Spain, quite honestly, I also spend most Sundays in front of my laptop, planning new lessons for my 24 highly diverse classes of students. Not every lesson is a gem, of course, but I am learning what works and what doesn't every day. One of my most successful activities with my youngest students was a cross-continental collaboration with students from my hometown in honor of World Read Aloud Day. My oldest students' favorite lessons have included designing their own advertisements for and against the consumption of turkey on Thanksgiving (after viewing some statistics and learning about PETA) and a historical lecture on Martin Luther King Jr. accompanied by a viewing of Remember the Titans. They also enjoyed an in-depth presentation about chocolate chip cookies, complete with a tasting in the week leading up to the students' cooking-show-style presentations of a similar format.

Outside of the classroom, I'm happy to chat with my colleagues in English if they're looking to practice, share bites and recipes of my favorite American snacks with them during our mid-morning break, and spend free periods advising a student who is determined to study in the United States. This is precisely why the Spanish government brought me here; this is why they made room in their ever-shrinking education budget for my (and my 1,000+ fellow auxiliares') respectable stipend. Unfortunately, this can be all too easy to forget. Some see the teaching job as a way to "study abroad" again, worry-free, this time with a salary to fund the late-night trips to the disco.

Seize the Moment

Therefore, please allow me to repeat my advice. If at all economically feasible, take a year (or five) off after college to teach English abroad if you want to teach. As a native/fluent English speaker, you are fortunate to have been born with a skill that millions of people around the world expend excessive amounts of energy and money to obtain. In addition, as a college graduate or graduate-to-be, you will still have your whole life to make a respectable salary at a 9-5 job at home. If you are reading this article, you're likely young and probably have few serious responsibilities. Whether you're not sure what you want to do with your life or you're 100% committed to dentistry investment banking or floristry, you have plenty of time to make it happen. It is not written in stone that you have to start your career immediately.

Research, Research, Research

Research your program options carefully, and think critically about your needs, skills, and personal limits. There are many choices available, which I saw firsthand as I sat for months on the waitlist for the program I'm currently with and frantically tried to find a way to teach English in a Spanish-speaking country. Think about the following: can you afford to work as a volunteer (and perhaps even pay a program fee) or receive a small stipend? Or do you need a more substantial salary? Are you cut out for a homestay in a developing country, or would you prefer to live independently in a first-world nation? Do you want to teach businesspeople and college students or school-aged kids? Do you want to go to a country you're familiar with or one that has always piqued your interest from afar? Do you already speak or plan to learn the native language of your host country? Don't take these questions lightly, as these are ultimately months or years of your life, and if you're not happy, neither you nor your students will benefit from your time abroad.

In Summary

If you heed my advice, be ready for the most challenging, eye-opening, and memorable experience of your life, but remember, it goes both ways. You are a guest in your host country, and there is no doubt that you were motivated to go there to learn, grow, and enjoy yourself. There are very few human behaviors that are wholly selfless, and it goes without saying that going abroad is of great benefit to the traveler. So have a blast. But you're also a teacher and a cultural ambassador, and you must not forget what that entails. Enjoy yourself, take advantage of all of the opportunities you're given, but remember who is writing your check or paying for your homestay at the end of each month. You're there to teach, to open your students' eyes to other cultures, and to improve their futures by advancing their English skills. If you do it right, the teaching and the learning, the giving and the receiving, and the work and the fun will flow from one to the other more naturally than you'd have ever imagined.

For More Info

Teach English Abroad in the Spanish-speaking world:

  • UCETAM: a language assistant program in Spain

  • CIEE: a large company that offers various teach abroad programs in many countries, including Spain (note: there are program fees, but also more transitional and in-country support)

  • BEDA: a language assistant program at Catholic schools in Spain

  • Fulbright English Teaching Assistant Programs: the prestigious Fulbright Program offers English teaching assistantship positions all over the world (note: there are limited placements and a long, selective application process).
    See this page for Teaching options in Spain.

  • Teach and Learn in Spain: a program in which participants work toward an education-related master’s degree while working as a language assistant
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