When considering the prospect of teaching English overseas, native speakers are blessed with a wide variety of countries to choose from. After researching my options, I chose Spain and applied to the BEDA program based in Madrid. After a Skype interview, I received my placement at a large school just outside the city center and began planning for my new life in Spain.
It was a year of trial and error; I learned a lot about the country and, more importantly, myself. It was an incredible experience, ups, downs, and all, and for those looking to embark on their own personal adventure in Spain, I hope the following bits of advice help you make your transition to teaching abroad in Spain a smooth and happy one.
You'll Get Used to the Laid-Back Pace of Life
If you lead a highly scheduled life, moving to Spain will take some serious getting used to. Spaniards make time to enjoy themselves: it's family, friends, work, in that order. As someone who is laid-back to the point of being chronically late, I thought the transition would be seamless. I couldn't have been more wrong. My ten-minute liberties could not rival my co-teachers who would sometimes waltz in 30 minutes late, without an excuse, and generally unconcerned about the chaos that was playing out before them.
As an American, the "no pasa nada" attitude seemed flippant and careless to me at first. You, too, may have these moments of frustration as you start your teaching career in Spain. But you need to take a moment to remember this: you are not in your home country. Although old habits do die hard, it's important to understand that the Spanish way of doing things is not wrong, but simply different. In fact, they have gotten a lot of things right when compared to life in the US.
In no other country have I had the feeling that time is almost endless. I very rarely felt rushed. I always chose to make the hour walk home from my Wednesday private lessons rather than taking the metro and getting there in a fraction of the time. I learned to just exist and take in the moments as they came. It took some time: I struggled for many months to stop comparing things in Spain to things in the US. When I finally let go of my rigid, preconceived notions of how life should be, I was able to fully enjoy the Spanish way of life.
You'll Enjoy Affordable Cost of Living
Living on a teacher assistant's salary in Western Europe may produce visions of crammed student accommodation and packaged pasta for every meal. While this is true for a lot of countries, the good news is that with a low cost of living, you can enjoy a comfortable lifestyle while teaching in Spain. Although rental prices have increased in Madrid since I taught there in 2014, they are still wildly more affordable than other European capitals. It is common to find apartments advertised as "gastos incluidos" which means what you see on the ad is what you pay for both the room and utilities.
The thing that struck (and delighted) me most was the cost of fresh produce. Good quality fruits and vegetables can be purchased for a fraction of what they cost in the US. I happily fed myself for what seemed like pennies and still enjoyed many cheap meals out on my daily two-hour lunch breaks (no, that is not a typo). After having lived in Dublin, Ireland for almost two years, a recent trip back to Madrid to visit a friend had my mind blown. A glass of Spanish wine and delicious tapa cost less than a glass of Coke in Ireland. Considering you can't get a pint of stout in Dublin for less than €5 ($6), I wondered why I had ever left.
You Can Pick Up Extra Cash with Private Lessons
To get to Spain, you will most likely go through a program that grants you a student visa. With this permit, you are allowed to work up to 20 hours per week. However, that will generally be filled up with your teaching hours depending on the program you have chosen. If you are looking to pick up some extra fun money for weekends out or travel, teaching private lessons is totally acceptable though technically not legal.
When living in Madrid, I assistant taught 22 hours per week at a concertado (semi-private school) across from the Santiago Bernabeu stadium. Every Wednesday after school, I walked 15 minutes to give an hour each of private lessons to two very nice sisters. While one night a week doesn't sound like much, this brought in €40 ($48) extra which even in Madrid was more than enough to fund an entire weekend and then some of tapas and cañas.
Finding private lessons can come from a variety of sources. Of course, word of mouth is the time old way of getting work. Check with your Spanish co-workers and school principal as they are often approached by friends or parents asking for native speakers to teach their children. From personal experience, I would not advise giving private lessons to kids in any of your classes. Aside from others possibly accusing you of favoritism, the line between silly games at home and an orderly classroom may become blurred for your student.
A site I highly recommend is Tus Clases Particulares. You can post a free ad in your area advertising your services and potential students or parents can contact you directly. When posting my ad, I wrote it in both English and Spanish. Children may be studying English from nursery school but likely their parents have not. Although the level of English in Spain is improving rapidly, it is still quite low compared to other European countries. Adding a Spanish translation is your best bet for getting a response.
Securing Housing is Easier Than You May Think
Aside from MEDDEAS, which offers teachers the option of a homestay, you will need to find your own accommodation after you arrive in Spain. This can be an overwhelming thought for anyone, even those who have an intermediate level of Spanish like I did when I moved there in 2014. Fear not! The most common way to find an apartment is no different than how you would house hunt in your home country: go online.
I used Idealista and Piso Compartido during my housing search. Both sites have the option to be viewed in English which can be helpful even if you have a decent level of Spanish -- I found I didn't know some of the key vocabulary words so it can nice to toggle between the two to learn as you search. Messages can be sent to ads directly from the sites and those apartments can subsequently be saved to favorites so you can keep them all straight. Much easier than Craigslist!
A TEFL Certificate Isn't Mandatory, but It Can Help
If your memories of English 101 freshman year are a bit hazy, you might want to brush up on grammar and punctuation before you go. Similarly, a TEFL certificate can give you a crash course in both the basics of teaching and the important details of teaching English.
Although your job description describes you as a native speaker there to facilitate spoken English, don't be surprised if you find yourself leading half or the entire class. At my school, I taught one full class a week for each of my 8 classes and was also regularly consulted on grammar points. If you haven't done a refresher beforehand, it can be daunting when your co-teacher asks you to give an example of the present continuous and you can't remember what it is. We use all of these tenses expertly and without thinking every day, but putting a name to them can be difficult.
There are many low-cost TEFL certificates that can be completed online, so if you are really rusty it might be a good investment. Your school won't require it, but it is certainly something you can tout in your private lesson ads. Another feather in your cap could mean another euro in your wallet.
Conversational Spanish Will Help You Integrate Into Your New Home
I studied Spanish from the age of 11 up through college where I picked it up as another major. I could hold more than basic conversations but speaking at length was tiring because I hadn't practiced enough with native speakers. Because humans instinctively avoid what is difficult, I got lazy.
If you find yourself placed in Madrid as I did, you will be surrounded by Spaniards with at least basic English proficiency, as well as a sea of English-speaking expats. Unfortunately, this can become a crutch, as it did for me. All of my friends were English-speaking expats and although one of my roommates was from the Canary Islands, he and I had a peculiar arrangement. Both fluent enough to pull it off, he spoke to me in Spanish and I replied in English. It did neither of us any favors.
It may seem easier to stick with English speakers but in the end, you'll sacrifice some wonderful friendships with Spaniards. Extremely warm and generous people once you put in the time, I later found on return trips that I had missed out during my year there. Speaking basic Spanish will not only help you navigate your daily life, it will show people there that you have an interest in not just existing in Spain but fitting in. This will go a long way in making your time there meaningful and unforgettable.
Find Support Through Social Media
Assistant teaching in Spain has become very popular for native English speakers which means there is a wide network of other expats across Spain.
A Facebook search for "auxiliares de conversación" will lead you to established groups for assistant teachers. You can hardly throw a stone in Madrid without hitting another expat, but if you are based in one of the 16 other autonomous communities these online forums can be very helpful for potentially meeting new friends, sharing teaching tips, or just getting some support from others who are in the same position.
If you are homesick or frustrated, talking to friends and family back home can help, but they will have a hard time relating to your fears and experiences. Nothing beats the words of encouragement you'll find from fellow auxiliares.
Your teaching adventure in Spain is likely to be one of the most exciting chapters in your life yet. Like everything in life, it will turn out best if you leave your expectations behind and come with an open mind and heart. Spain is a country that has so much to offer, see, and do so take full advantage of every opportunity to explore. Whether you pursue teaching as a career or treat this year as a way to travel and learn a new skill, working in Spain will no doubt stick with you forever.