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Language and Culture Assistants in Spain

by Ryan G. Resch, February 2008
Ryan Resch

If you've done a little bit of research for teaching English in Spain, then you've encountered the Ministry of Education and Science website.  However, in the case that you are not familiar with the general information posted on the website, let me fill you in.  I will be discussing what's not on their web page, but should be.  Let's begin.

Spain has recently opened their doors for Americans and Canadians to teach English in Spanish schools as language and cultural assistant.  The Spanish students in this program are engaged in a bilingual atmosphere in the classrooms.  Under no circumstances should Spanish be spoken.  This program has been established to recognize cultural differences between American and British English and cultures.  The main role of the assistant is simply to assist, not to teach.  They provide and clarify American pronunciation because many of the Spanish professors teach British English (excellently), and the program desires that all students learn and comprehend both dialects.  Many of the students in this program have been educated in a Spanish-English bilingual program since the beginning of their education.  You will find that many know English very well and if you get a little bit jealous, don't worry, it happens to everyone. 

If you are looking for a super sneaky way to obtain a work visa, you should keep looking.  Assistants will not receive a work visa, they will receive a student visa.  This means that you are not allowed to work legally in Spain in other locations apart from what the program has hired you to do.  Technically, this program gives you a 700 euro grant/stipend as a student to teach English in Spain.  They have set this program up so that assistants cannot work.  I know, I know.   How could they do this to us? But, fear not.  If you have good Spanish skills, you can always try and find a job in a local bar or cafe.  This is the easiest place to work illegally.  I am in no way advocating you to do this, but it is a question that potential applicants want to know. 

If you are a bit on the frightened side of breaking the law, you can always teach “clases particulares,” or private classes. In many regions there is a high demand for English, especially in towns where there is a university.  However, there is a very general exception to this rule.  Want to take a guess?  It's the South of Spain.  This touristy region has already inspired many English speakers to stay there, which has lowered the demand for private lessons.  This is not to say that no one wants additional practice with English, but expect to get paid less, which will be discussed in a minute.  Teaching private lessons is a great way to earn extra money and stabilize your pay.  Depending on where you are, you can charge 10-15+ euros/hour for a private lesson.  Most assistants teach four or five private lessons a week.  Also, be prepared to walk a little bit to and from these private classes.  Sometimes the family may request that you teach their child at his or her home.  In these cases, don't be hesitant to charge a little more than normal for the walking.  However, it's also beneficial to have them come to you, so lower the price.  Teaching 5 private lessons a week at the minimum 10euro/hr rate gives you another 200 euros to play around with.  And for those of you not up to date on the euro/dollar exchange rate, well, they win.  Currently, the euro is worth 1.47 dollars.  So an extra 200 euros is really an extra $300. 

To start teaching private lessons, talk to your school because chances are that they will have names and numbers of people who are interested in lessons.  Another great way to attract people is to post little flyers in cafes.  For those of you who know Spain and their coffee shop culture, there are loads of places to post.  You will most likely be tutoring private lessons for a variety of age groups.  Most assistants prefer teaching younger children (assuming they have a patient disregard for what can best be described as a child's absentmindedness to pay attention).  Why would someone want to have an occasional non-pay-attentioner?  Because chances are the need to prep will be low, which means you  have more time to enjoy whatever strikes your fancy. Here's another little tip: when tutoring younger children, ask their parents how rigorous they want their child's lessons to be.  You may be surprised to find out that they simply want their child to get exposed to English early on.  If this is the case, don't burden the child with grammar and loads of vocabulary.  Instead, play a bingo game.  Make coloring books of the alphabet.  Make this fun!  This is an easy way to make extra money, don't complicate it.  An average person chooses to teach 5 additional classes, so, assuming you are an average person, expect to walk more to get to the lessons.  Don't be surprised to walk one to three hours a day in Spain.  But don't worry, for those of you who dislike walking, for shame, but Spain has amazing public transportation.  You will have no problem teaching private lessons to earn more money, but reader beware! people will cancel on you; you will cancel on people.  Life happens. 

I suppose we should backpedal slightly in order to talk about the NIF card.  If you are unfamiliar with the NIF card, then think of it as an ID.  A tourist visa in Spain lasts 90 days, but you will have a visa for 9 months (or so).  However, applying for your NIF can be a pain.  Before you come to Spain, look it up online.  Do a little research before you go on applying for a NIF in your region; it will save you time.  They do not tell you that your passport will get the traditional tourist visa for 90 days.  When you see this, relax.  This happens to everyone; they have not made a mistake.  The rest is up to you.  Speak with someone at your school about where you go to apply for your NIF card.  But here is a general overview of the process.  Firstly, fill out the application and have copies of passport and visa and contract. Secondly, wait some more. Thirdly, and this is the often tricky part, you may need to justify your address at the town hall.  This all depends on your region.  Clarify this with one of the professors or another language and cultural assistant.  Fourthly, pick up your visa.  This all sounds a bit overwhelming, but remember that you do have 90 days to find your way around, but don't be foolish and wait too long.  What happens if you go past your 90 days?  I'm not really sure, but I'd guess nothing since you are there with a contract and a student visa (you just haven't applied for it yet).

Assistants will have the wonderful opportunity to teach various age groups and classes.  For example, your first class of the day may be with one professor teaching English to 13-14 year old students; your second of the day may be assisting a professor in a geography class taught in English to 10-11 year olds.  This program is neat in this aspect.  In some places the assistants get to help choose their schedule, but this varies from school to school.  But, very rarely do assistants have more than two classes a day.  

An assistant works no more than 12 hours a week.  However, if they regularly schedule you for more than 12 hours per week, you need to step up and remind them of your contract.  This has been known to happen in the past.  Do not be shy to confront them if they are not timid of abusing your contract.  Normally there will be 9 hours in the class room and 3 hours for prep.   In most cases the professor has planned for the week, but wants you to know what is going on before getting into the classroom.  There is very minimal outside work to be done for this program.  Professors may also request you to look up a few different activities to do in class.  For example, if students are learning about geography, they may ask you to prepare a little activity or lesson on the geography around La Crosse.  But, generally speaking, this prep time is very relaxed and easy going.  The goal for this program is not to overwork you or be a burden to your life in Spain, but this does not mean that you can do nothing and still collect a paycheck.  Sometimes the American “work horse” attitude overwhelms us all, but don't worry: a Spaniard will inform you if you are working too much or too little—they're not that shy. 

Speaking of working too much, in the case that an assistant becomes ill and needs to take off work, it's okay.  This program offers you insurance.  The insurance will pay for everything but the medicine.  Here is how this works.  When you get to Spain, you will get a card and a book of doctors, dentists, physical therapists, etc.  You can use any of the places in this book for free.  In the case that you need medicine, get the generic brand because they cost much less.  Don't be afraid to go to the doctor.  It's not a hard process to figure out.  Try asking one of the professors about a good doctor because I'm sure they have had this question before.  The professors are very helpful and they are a truly good resource.  I know that many times the American work complex makes us all feel guilty when we have to call in to work sick, but this is not quite the same in other countries, especially in Spain.  The program should be sensitive to your needs.  Again, I have to stress that every participating school in this program varies, which now leads us into the more needed information.

The website (above) describes very well the basic information to attract your attention: teach 12 hours a week, pays 700 euros a month, get to live in Spain, etc.  This is all great, and everything we went to see on a potential job offer.  However, I had the opportunity to explore some of the other unmentioned aspects of this program.  And, if you're like me, then you want to know as many details as possible before committing yourself to a program for a year of your life. 

I've said it before and I'll say it again, but here is the number one rule to this program: every school in every region is different.  Applicants do not get the option to select the school, city, or region.  This is what happens.  The application will ask you to select three regions in Spain, so research three regions that you would be happy to work in for a year.  Although the Balearic Islands are a region in Spain, don't get your hopes up of having that as an option.  However, be prepared to live in three different regions.  After that long waiting period that everyone hates, they will send you a response saying that you have been accepted to [insert region here].  From there, you have to fill out a second form agreeing to commit yourself to this program, and there is a box to write additional comments.  If there is a certain city that interests you for whatever reason, you can write about it there.  However, don't get your hopes up because you might be needed more in another city.  Always try to remember that you are applying to help them, and not the other way around. 

Make sure to check the exchange rate and to save money before you arrive in Spain.  You will not get your first payment for quite some time, maybe even 3 months.  This means that you should bring approximately $2,000 dollars with you, if not more.  Here's why: you will need enough money to pay for transportation and a hostel/hotel from the airport to your city.  The school may be in contact with you to help find a place to stay for the year, but again, rule number one is in play.  You should budget anywhere from $100 – 300 for transportation and lodging.  Next you will need to pay a down payment on your apartment when you find one, which may be $300 (depends on your apartment, obviously).  Then you will also need to pay the rent for two to threemonths.  After finding a place to live, you will need to buy things for your room: sheets, pillows, etc.  Don't waste precious luggage space carrying bed sheets, hair dryers, etc.  Just buy that stuff there.  Last but not least,  you need to eat for a few months, so budget appropriately.  Again, this could all be very different for you and your experience, but assistants recommend bringing about $2,000. 

The one major disadvantage of this program comes from getting paid on time.  Although you can set up a bank account for free and have direct deposit, sometimes these payments don't come when they are supposed to.  This is not to say that every payment will be late, but be prepared to encounter this from time to time.  Normally, this is not a major issue for people because they always have extra money saved for whatever reason.  If for some reason you have not received your payment and you really feel as if you should have, which will be the case, speak with your personal director.

Your personal director will be announced to you after being accepted into this program.  Try to establish contact with him or her before going to Spain.  See if he or she will help you find a place to live.  Ask general questions that you are curious about.  Remember that you don't have to write in Spanish.  These people are teaching English after all.  Speaking of communication, rumor has it that there is a facebook group for individuals that have been in this program, or are in it currently.  I have spent many wasted hours (as are all hours on facebook) searching for it, but, alas, to no avail.  If you happen to know what the name of the group is, share the wealth.

There are just a few more things that I want to explain before I wrap up this little article for you.  One of them is your monthly spending.  You will be making the euro, so try to think in terms of the euro at all times.   Expect to pay: 140-300 euros for rent; 15-30 euros for “gastos,” or gas and light; 100 euros for food a month, depending on how much you enjoy food; 100 euros for outside restaurants and other places; 100 euros for going out a month, having a good time at the bars, etc.; lastly, around 25 euros a week if you expect to travel frequently to another city.   But above all, rule numero uno applies here.  Every city is different.  I cannot stress that enough. 

We've gone off the beaten track with this tutorial, but these are some of the major questions that I had about this program.  I know its hard to want to dedicate yourself to a program when you don't feel that you know all the details.  I hope this helps.  I just want to add that overall, this program is wonderful.  It offers you a great opportunity to help teach in Spain.  If you are looking for a way to get back to Spain, become fluent, and gain some teaching credit, this is your chance.  Seize it.  Most schools that are in this program have more than one North American language and cultural assistant, so do not be frightened that you will be alone. A world of experience and adventures waits for you at the end of this road.  Should you choose this road, it will be worth your time.