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Six years ago, I was about to graduate with a degree in journalism with a minor in how-the-hell-do-I-get-abroad. I didn’t care where I was going or what job I’d be doing once I got there, but knew that I needed to be anywhere but Iowa.
My study abroad office referred me to the Language and Culture Assistants program through the Spanish Ministry of Education. Coming from a family of teachers, it was a profession I’d sworn off all my life, but the program looked like a winner: a student visa, health insurance and a reasonable stipend for a 12-hour work week during eight months at a public school in Spain. After a quick, me apunto! (sign me up), I was working at a high school outside of Seville teaching English in Spain.
Six years later, I’m still teaching English and running a small language school in the center of Seville. Even in a country ridden with unemployment and cuts in public education, I find that my skills as a native English speaker are more than in-demand – I’ve easily been hired to work in several educational positions thanks to my experience working as a Language and Culture Assistant.
But here’s the catch: I married the Spanish stallion I met in my early days in Seville, allowing me to have work and resident permission. This is indeed the golden ticket in Spain, as finding a teaching job is easy, but convincing a company to sponsor your visa is not. Even with talk of payment problems, the auxiliar program is one of the easiest ways to live in Spain on a valid visa.
What is the Auxiliar, or Language Assistant, Program?
Spain is the butt of European language jokes: the level of spoken and written English is rather poor in several regions, so the Spanish Ministry of Education opened a program that allowed native English speakers from around the world to work in public schools to help improve oral communication. The program has since been extended to several other languages and has more than 1600 North Americans, hundreds of UK citizens, and even runs a parallel program for Spanish teachers in North America.
Candidates who are accepted into the program are assigned to a public K-12 school or to an Official Language School and are expected to work eight to nine months for a stipend. The amount of money you receive monthly will depend largely on which region you’re assigned to, but due to the low cost of living in many regions, it’s more than enough to get by while allowing yourself a few luxuries.
Language Assistants often find tutoring opportunities at language academies or take on private lessons to supplement their income. Once they’ve completed one academic year, they are given preference to renew their contract – be it at the same center or another – for a second academic year. When the position has been accepted, the language assistants are expected to attend a pre-course orientation to receive paperwork and learn about their new gig, then get to work assisting a team of teachers who give classes in English – you can expect to give music, gym or science class. In my three years as an assistant, I taught technical drawing (aka geometry), music and technology.
Job duties, work schedule and even dress code is quite varied between regions and even schools, and one of the biggest pitfalls of the program is that there is no all-encompassing description of the job. Some schools have a plan for you; others have no idea how to use you. Be open to what your bilingual coordinator asks of you, but if something doesn’t feel right, be firm and polite about fixing it.
How to Apply for the Auxiliar Program
The application process for becoming a language assistant for North Americans is done nearly entirely online through an internal platform called Profex. Stay tuned to the official program website for exact opening dates, then get ready to nervously sit next to your computer hitting the refresh button as everyone else tries to get the lowest application number possible.
Before you begin, you’ll have to have a few documents scanned and ready to be uploaded onto the server:
- A copy of the picture page of your valid US or Canadian passport
- A copy of your college transcripts or college degree
- A statement of purpose
- A letter of recommendation from a professor or boss
- If you’re a New York resident, you’ll also need a MOU
The program website has a wealth of resources to help you through every step of the process, from how to write the statement of purpose to how to evade Profex snafus. Read them carefully before applying so you can make the process as easy as possible.
You’ll be taken to a page asking you for your preference of city/town/village/no preference, level of education and choice of autonomous regions. You’ll be asked to choose one of the regions from each group A, B, or C. Note that North Americans cannot be given positions in Cataluña, Comunitat Valenciana, Castilla-La Mancha or Navarra, and there are very few positions in the Baleares, Canary Islands or Ceuta and Melilla.
Once you’ve completed the application, you’ll be given a PDF summary with a number. This is considered the inscrita number, and this is the number with which you’ll be assigned a position. Generally speaking, the lower the number, the better chance you have of getting your first choice. You must print the PDF, sign it and send it to the regional coordinator, whose exact mailing address is given in the program manual, along with a checklist that must also be initialed, signed and dated. When that paperwork arrives, your status on Profex will be changed to ‘registrada.’
What Happens Next in the Auxiliar program process?
You wait. Get used to it, as Spaniards seem to love to queue up anyway.
In the meantime, brush up on some Spanish, take a TEFL course if you think you might learn something from it, enjoy eating all-beef hamburgers (they’re often made of pork in Spain) and driving a car. The placement process doesn’t occur until mid-May, after which you’ll have to scramble for a visa and buy a flight and try and find a place to live and then actually get yourself to Spain.
How do I apply for a visa and resident card in Spain?
Once your status on the Profex system as been changed to “admitida,” you’ll receive a regional placement. Don’t expect to know what city you’ll be assigned to – just the region, which you’ll have five days to accept or reject through Profex.
Your visa process begins when you receive your carta de nombramiento, or the actual school assignment. Follow the visa instructions sent to you, which will outline every step of the process for your nearest consulate. You’ll be asked to surrender your passport, to which a visa will be affixed. The visa is good for 90 days from your first entrance in the EU, and before those 90 days are up, steer yourself to a Foreign Resident’s office to apply for a Número de Identificación de Extranjero (NIE for short), or the foreign resident’s number. This plastic card will allow you to travel in and out of the EU freely during its duration.
The process, again, will vary slightly from province to province, so be sure to go prepared by asking a vet for the documents you’ll need – try expatriate café or a Facebook group. You cannot get your paperwork sorted before the general orientation meeting, as they will give you the necessary documents regarding health insurance and payment.
Advice for Auxiliares
I consider myself a lucky one: my experience as an auxiliar was overwhelmingly positive. I was paid on time, had wonderful coworkers who treated me as an equal and got to design curriculum that is still in place today.
More than anything, I think the experience depends largely on attitude. People complain about long commutes to far-off villages so that they can live in big cities, or that their students don’t pay attention in class. Whining gets done on the Facebook groups about long lines at the bank or the about getting the run around
This isn’t just your experience: it’s EVERY Spaniard’s experience, too.
The opportunity to make some money while living in a beautiful, interesting country and being able to travel at the weekend and learn Spanish depends largely on your outlook. Network with other language assistants, but try and make some Spanish friends or live with them. Do your best to teach some English, but realize that it’s not your job to get them speaking conditionals at the end of the year. Don’t pass up the opportunity just because you don’t get to live right on the beach and surf on your lunch breaks.
I was there, too: questioning if taking a year to be an assistant teacher was a good idea or a big waste of time. Truth be told: coming to Spain to teach completely changed the course of my career and allowed me to meet my partner. There are headaches about living here, but the sunshine and siestas more than make up for it!
Are there any alternatives for teaching English in Spain?
The auxiliar program is by far the largest and most-well known, and there is no application fee. The spots fill up quickly, as they are generally assigned according to application number. Others have chosen to do the BEDA program or the UCETAM program at Catholic schools, which have similar working hours and pay, and the majority of the positions are concentrated in Madrid, the Spanish capital. Similarly, the CIEE Teach in Spain program offers a position, TEFL certificate and in-country support for a premium price.
It’s not recommended to come to Spain and try and find a teaching gig unless you have work papers or are willing to risk deportation. In my experience, even private language schools are unwilling to hire anyone who does not have credentials and a valid working visa.
Even with its issues, the North American Language Assistants program offers a way to secure a visa and have a job already lined up in Spain. A year of sun and Spanish in exchange for a mere 12-hour work week? Easy decision.