Nearly three years after graduating with a degree in journalism from the University of Maryland, I found myself at the beginnings of a successful career in corporate communications and public relations. There was just one problem -- I had been bitten badly by the travel bug in my second to last semester when I studied abroad in Australia, and no antidote was in sight.
Having never been to Europe apart from a family trip to the United Kingdom, I was especially thirsty to visit Barcelona, Paris, Berlin, and the long slew of European destinations on my travel list. But I knew I wanted to do more than just visit Europe. I wanted to live there and work, both to keep my resume gap free and be able to have time to see more.
After months of searching, I found my opportunity to fulfill my dream by teaching abroad in Spain with the North American Cultural Assistants program.
The North American Cultural Assistants Program
The North American Cultural Assistants program is one of the best kept secrets for teaching abroad in Europe. Managed by the Spanish Ministry of Education, Culture, and Sport in partnership with the Education Office of the Embassies of Spain in the United States and Canada, this program offers thousands of native English speakers the opportunity to work in classrooms throughout Spain.
North American Language and Culture Assistants work side by side with certified Spanish teachers in Elementary and Secondary schools to help students learn and practice English language skills.
One of the best aspects of this program is that you don't need to have a teaching degree or even be TEFL certified to be selected, although prior teaching or volunteer experience with youth will help make your application stronger. To receive a placement you just need to be a native English speaker from the United States or Canada, and have completed your bachelor’s degree.
Teaching assistants, or auxiliares de conversación receive a monthly grant ranging from 700 to 1,000 euros per month and work 12-15 hours per week. Most teaching assistants only work four days a week and get a three day weekend -- perfect for long weekend getaways to nearby cities!
The application process for the program generally begins in January and positions begin in September or October. When you apply to be an auxiliar de conversación you get to select the three top autonomous communities, or provinces, in Spain where you would like to work. Unfortunately, as an applicant you don’t have much control over which region you are placed in.
Where Did I Teach? How Long Was I There?
I applied and was given a placement teaching in Galicia, a beautiful, yet rainy, province in the northwest of Spain. As this was going to be my first time in mainland Europe and I wanted to travel as much as I can, I wanted to be more centrally located, so I decided to accept a placement in Madrid through CIEE Teach Abroad instead.
Although CIEE has a separate application process, once I arrived to my school placement in Madrid, I was treated no differently than the other teaching assistants at my school who received their placement directly from the Spanish Ministry of Education.
I spent eight months teaching at an Elementary school in Torreledones, a small community northwest of Madrid. I was assigned to work with four different teachers and assist with students in the first, second, and fourth grades. As a teaching assistant you aren’t supposed to speak Spanish at all with the students (Even if you do speak Spanish, they prefer the students don’t know you know Spanish at all).
What The Actual Teaching Part Was Really Like
The students are pretty savvy however. “I don’t think you can live in Spain without understanding Spanish,” one of my fourth grade students told me one day, and during the year it became a little game as my students tried to trick me into speaking Spanish to them. I’m happy to say they couldn’t fool me!
My experience as a teaching assistant varied widely depending on the teacher I assisted. The first and second grade students at my school had to take an English speaking exam at the end of the school year, so I spent a lot of my time pulling small groups of students out of the classroom for 20 minute intervals and asking them questions in English from a pre-assigned list, doing my best to help them understand basic vocabulary and what these questions were asking.
For the fourth grade students I took a larger role and often delivered full lessons either from the curriculum book or ones I had developed on my own. In all classes I also gave presentations and led lessons on cultural topics from the United States, sharing information about holidays, customs, music, and my home state of California.
Along with the other teaching assistants at my school I also planned special events such as a Halloween Parade and an Easter carnival for the whole school.
No Two Teaching Assistants Have the Same Experience
If there’s one thing I learned from meeting other teaching assistants in Madrid its that no two teaching assistants have the same experience at work. Some assistants routinely taught entire classrooms while others spent all their time doing small group work. I heard a lot of complaints about this as well.
Some people who were certified teachers in the United States found it difficult to adjust to the downgrade in responsibility, while others who had never taught before found it difficult to develop and execute lesson plans. Your experience working will be completely dependent on what teachers you are assigned to work with, so it’s best to keep an open mind and be up for anything!
While I only technically worked about 14 hours a week at school, I spent much longer at the school each week as my school had a two hour lunch break and sometimes I would have other breaks in between classes. To be able to afford to travel, I also taught private lessons at night for extra cash. Some other teaching assistants would brag to strangers about how little we worked, but I never felt this way -- remember, this is a job and you will be working!
Making Friends and Filling Downtime
While I taught in a suburb of Madrid, I chose to live in the city center. Most other teaching assistants I met chose to do this as well as being in the city center made evenings and weekends more vibrant. Living in the city center also made it super easy to connect with other teaching assistants and local young professionals after work.
I've never had an easier time making friends than when I lived in Madrid! Being a part of the Auxiliar de conversación program immediately exposes you to a wide network of potential coffee mates and travel buddies.
One other common complaint I heard from other teaching assistants was that they didn’t have enough to do to fill their time. Especially those who went from working an intense, 40+ hours per week job seemed to have a more difficult time adjusting.
This wasn’t a problem for me as I kept busy with my travel blog, and taught as many private classes I could at night. I also tried to travel as often as I could and take advantage of my three-day weekends. If you're a person who doesn’t like a lot of downtime I would definitely recommend thinking of some hobbies you can pursue while in Spain ahead of time.
Like any life experience, my time teaching English in Spain was full of ups and downs, but I can honestly say that my year in Europe was the best year of my life. Teaching English afforded me the opportunity to legally work in another country and Madrid was a vibrant and fun base for me to use to explore Europe more extensively.
Thinking of teaching English in Spain? I have a few tips on how you can make your application stronger and increase your chances of being offered a placement.
Insider Tips for Making Your Application Stronger
- Apply early: teaching placements are assigned on a rolling basis. All applicants are assigned a number based on the date and time their application was submitted. Submit your application as soon as the Ministry of Education opens the process so that you get a better number that will give you higher priority over other applicants.
- Apply thoroughly: It may seem like common sense, but many applicants do not complete the application process thoroughly and therefore miss out on an opportunity to receive a placement. Go through the checklist the Ministry of Education provides and make sure you complete all parts of the application so that your name gets the green light for an application.
- Include any experience you have working with youth: While prior teaching experience is not a requirement to receive a teaching placement in Spain, it is an added benefit that can boost your application. Include any experience you have working with youth in your application. If you are planning on applying in the future, you may want to start volunteering now as a tutor or with an after school program to help make your application more competitive.
- Allow plenty of time to apply: the application process to be a North American Language and Culture Assistant is very time consuming and full of many moving parts, including essays from references. Plan ahead and allow plenty of time to complete all part of the application before the submission date. Don’t wait to the last minute!
- Be flexible: The process of applying can be long, slow and detail-oriented. Being patient and flexible with things like which autonomous community or school (Elementary or High School) you are placed in will also increase your chances of being accepted.