Originally published November 30, 2015; updated April 10, 2018
Everything you wanted to know about how to legally live in Spain for a year (and then some).
It’s Thursday, my busiest day of the week. This morning, I’ve got an English class sandwiched between science and math. I stop by the teachers’ room in between classes, greeting and being greeted with a chorus of hola, buenas from my coworkers, stopping to chat for a few minutes while I switch out my materials and leaving the room with plans to meet up for coffee and tostadas during recreo.
Contrary to popular belief, my average day here in sunny southern Spain tends to unfold as described above. When I told people back in the USA about my plans to move here, many of them seemed to have some Pinterest-perfect vision of me spending my days gallivanting around the Continent with handsome strangers on the backs of their Vespas, stopping only to enjoy a refreshing glass of sangria in a sun-drenched plaza. The closest I’ve ever come to doing that is taking a spinning class at the gym, then coming home to my apartment and having a glass of tinto with dinner.
Point being, I have a job and responsibilities here – I’m not living in a Eurotrip storybook fantasy. I am getting paid to live in Spain, but it requires some effort on my part. I work as a language and culture assistant (auxiliar de conversación) with a program run by the Spanish government. Because the application period for the 2018-19 school year is in full swing, I thought I’d share what this opportunity is all about for those who are interested in applying.
What is the North American Language and Culture Assistants program?
Spain has long been the butt of Europe’s jokes re: foreign language proficiency, particularly in English. This program is essentially a PR strategy to change that image. It allows native speakers from the USA and Canada to legally reside in Spain for one academic year, helping teach English (or French, as applicable to our friends up north) in bilingual and non-bilingual schools.
Bilingual schools? What are thooooooose?
In centros bilingües, all course material is presented in both Spanish and the designated second language – in the case of both of my high schools, English. This means that my job as an auxiliar went far beyond explaining the difference between “they’re,” “there,” and “their” to non-native English speakers. I assisted in math, science, geography, and history classes that are taught in English, as well as a handful of English language classes.
Go to the program website and check out the list of requirements (bookmark the site and refer back to it often so you know when the applications open). You’ll need to fill out an online application and submit several other documents. The requirements occasionally change from year to year, so be sure you’re reading the most updated info.
With that being said, placements are given on a first come, first serve basis. As long as you meet the (very basic) requirements and submit all parts to the application, you will more than likely receive a spot. There is no TEFL certificate or previous teaching experience required. It is “recommended” that you have at least a B1 level of Spanish, but judging by the girl who copy/pasted her entire acceptance letter into our Facebook group a few years ago asking “what does all this mean??????” they don’t really take that into consideration, either (they probably figure it’s not their fault if you’re screwed when you get here because you can’t communicate).
If you’re still unsure about the program, apply ASAP just in case – you can always reject your placement later with no consequences if you change your mind.
I want to work in a big city in Castilla y León with primary school students. Can I do exactly that?
In theory, yes. The application will ask you to select your top 3 autonomous communities (some communities are not always available to North American applicants; check the program manual for more info), your preferred age group, and the size of city where you would like to work. If you have no idea which comunidad autónoma is the best fit for you, here’s a great guide to all 17 of them written by a former auxiliar.
Again, in theory, the sooner you submit your application, the more likely you are to receive your preferences. The program attempts to accommodate everyone’s choices as best as possible, but sometimes comes up short. I got my first choice region of Andalucía and my first choice age group of high school students, but instead of a large city as I requested, they put me in Cantoria (pop. 3,592). You win some, you lose some. I lived in a larger nearby town and commuted to school with my coworkers, and was not nearly as bad as I was expecting.
Keep this in mind and be open to anything, because it’s not a given that you’ll be given your top preferences (in my case, I’m pretty sure they just threw a dart at a map of Andalucía and placed me wherever it happened to land). Also, if you request Madrid, keep in mind that Madrid is its own autonomous community, and not just the city itself. Be prepared to live closer to your school, or commute!
Tell me about the benefits.
You get paid €700 a month in most communities (€1000 in Madrid, to make up for the higher cost of living), in addition to free health insurance in all regions. Some other regions, such as Murcia and Valencia, have also introduced higher salaries for auxiliares as well as more working hours.
The salary looks small, and while it’s nothing luxurious, it’s easy to live off of here in southern Spain, where the cost of living is much lower than many people would expect. For example, I paid €250 per month (around $300 USD) in rent my first year. That’s it. That’s the total price of rent, and the highest my share has ever been here in Spain. I lived alone in a huge three bedroom, two bathroom apartment. In contrast, my
shoebox apartment at OU during senior year was $910 total, with my roommate and I each paying around $500 after utilities. The place was half the size of even the smallest apartment I’ve lived in here. Spain wins this round.
You’ll work almost the vacation-like schedule of 12-16 hours a week, depending on how much your community pays. Many people freelance or teach private English classes in their free time to have a little extra money. You also only work 3 or 4 days a week, which gives you lots of opportunities to travel around Spain and Europe on the weekends and possibly meet a handsome cordobés stranger in a charming craft beer bar (but that’s a story for another post).
Above all, this program is one of the very few ways for a non-EU citizen to legally live in Europe long-term. If you like the sound of that but Spain doesn’t float your boat, there are similar programs in France and Italy.
What is your role in the classroom like?
First of all, auxiliares are not teachers. We are never allowed to be alone in the room with the students and aren’t expected to plan full lessons and/or teach the entire class period. My responsibilities ranged from basic pronunciation help to preparing short presentations or games to help reinforce the material, depending on the day and the teacher. If a teacher wanted me to prep something in advance, he or she always let me know ahead of time – and in any case, I always got briefed on the material beforehand so I knew what was going on.
That being said, I was lucky to work at two great schools during my years in the program. Not everyone is quite as fortunate. Some people are thrown up at the front of the class alone to handle 30 squirming preschoolers, jaded teenagers or anything in between, while the main teacher sits at the back of the room playing on their phone—or worse, disappears from the classroom completely. They might be expected to plan every single lesson for every single class period they teach. If you feel that you’re being taken advantage of, be sure to alert your bilingual coordinator, the school principal, or the local program organizers.
In many cases, teachers asked me to relate class material back to my own country or culture. I helped teach about the American Revolution in history class, the National Parks system in geography, and the US dollar and all of our weird imperial units in math.
I’ve applied to the program. Now what?
Be patient. Within a few weeks, you’ll find out if you are admitida (meaning that all your documents have been accepted and you meet all the requirements. Very few people don’t get admitida). In April, once the application period closes, people will start to find out their regional placements (which autonomous community you’ll be working in) – again, the sooner you submit your application, the sooner you’ll find out your placement. After accepting your regional placement, you’ll get your school placement, which is where you’ll be working. I got my school placement one week to the day after accepting my regional placement for Andalucía this past year, but it can vary based on location. Some people in other regions often wait well into July before they learn where, exactly, they’re going to be working.
Your school placement comes in the form of a carta de nombramiento, which you’ll more than likely get by email (I don’t think any regions send them out as snail mail anymore). KEEP YOUR CARTA because you will need it to apply for your visa, as well as for some things here in Spain.
After getting your carta, it’s time to start the super fun visa application process! Make your appointment well in advance, because slots fill up quickly. At some consulates, you might not need an appointment (lucky!). Because I’m from Ohio, I had to go to the consulate in Chicago to apply for my visa, which meant driving 12 hours round trip from Cleveland to spend approximately 30 seconds handing in paperwork. The visa requirements vary by consulate, so be sure to check what is required for yours and only yours.
Check to see which consulate serves your jurisdiction before applying for your visa, too.
These are the most common questions I’ve gotten from friends and acquaintances back home about this program, so I hope it helps. If there’s anything I didn’t cover here, please comment below or send me an email and I’ll be happy to help.