Part II: What to Think About While You Apply
Which region would you like to live in?
You cannot choose the exact city, but the application lets you list your top three regions. Spain is a vastly different country depending on where you are. The south is dry and slow-paced (slow-paced in Spain = SLOW PACED), the north is mountainous and rainy, and the middle of the country is a vast plain and has huge temperature shifts between seasons. Liz Carlson of Young Adventuress has a great breakdown of the 17 regions in Spain, and I don’t want to reinvent the wheel here, so feel free to check out her in-depth analysis of the places you could choose. (Her blog helped me out a lot when I was getting ready to apply.) I’ll add just a bit of my own two cents:
• If you’re dead set on living in a large city, I suggest choosing all small regions (like Basque Country, Cantabria, Asturias, or Madrid). In places as huge as Andalucía, there is a high likelihood that you’ll be placed in a small town far away from any of the major capitals, and trying to commute from a big city to your school would be unrealistic.
• Regions hit hardest by the economic crisis, like Andalucía, Extremadura, and Galicia, mean cheaper cost of living; but you also can’t charge as much for private lessons.
• Some regions have their own languages apart from Spanish. Galicia has Gallego (similar to Spanish and Portuguese), Asturias has Asturiano (80% intelligibility with Spanish), Basque Country has Basque/Euskera (unrelated to any other living language, and absolutely unintelligible with Spanish), and Cataluña and Valencia have Catalán/Valenciano (similar to Spanish and French, though don’t worry about it, since these regions don’t offer the Auxiliars program—see note below). Spanish is spoken as well in all these places, but just keep in mind that you’ll hear these languages too. My colleagues usually speak to one another in Basque, but are happy to speak Spanish with me.
How strong is your Spanish?
The southern Spanish accent (Andalú) won my heart over when I lived in Granada, but my God is it hard to understand. People combine consonants, drop final letters, speak a mile a minute, have different diminutive endings, and overall make it nearly impossible for foreigners to understand. Here’s an example: “Where are you going?” “Adónde vas?” becomes “ándava?” I’ve had other Spanish friends tell me they can’t even fully keep up with a conversation with Andalusians. That being said, if you learn Spanish in the South, virtually any other variation will be a piece of cake. I was BLOWN AWAY when I came to Bilbao—so that’s what comprehension feels like!
Do you need to be near an airport?
If jetting off every weekend is your main goal, you realistically need to be located near a big airport. Madrid is the clear option, but Malaga and Sevilla (Andalucía), Santander (Cantabria) and Santiago de Compostela (Galicia) are all well-served internationally by the budget airline Ryanair (which has actually revamped its website and carry-on rules, so I don’t feel like I’m going to have a heart-attack every time I try to book with them anymore). Bilbao also has a fine airport, but isn’t well served by the budget airlines, so you’ll have to dish out more for tickets.
How much does weather affect you?
If you’re from the Midwest or the East Coast, winter in Spain will be a breeze no matter where you are. If you’re a wimp from sunny California like me, think long and hard about your ability to cope with weather. I wrote this post after a month of straight rain in Bilbao. If you can’t stand the rain, don’t choose the north–but if you think you can adjust, the lush green landscape may make it worth it! The center of the country is where the real extremes are, since it’s on a high plain–burning hot in the summer, frigid cold in the winter. In general, the south is warmer, though Granada is high up in the mountains and my heating bill one month reached 100 euros per person.
How badly do you want your first choice region?
If the answer is very, apply early. Once you submit the online application, you receive an application number, called your inscrita number. The Auxiliar de Conversación program is basically first-come first-serve based on that number. Last year I applied exactly when it opened (remember, it opens at midnight Spanish time, so 6–9 hours earlier in the U.S.!), submitted it two hours into the application window, and was inscrita number 113. I was rewarded with my very first choice, Bilbao! I believe by the time the application period ended in April, there were close to 5,000 applicants (for a bit under 2,000 spots).
And one more thing to keep in mind: on the application form, all regions of Spain appear. This is because the online system Profex is used for a number of government programs, and not just the English Assistant sector. But there is no existing Auxiliar de Conversación program (at least for U.S. applicants) in Cataluña (tear no hope for Barcelona), Navarra, Valencia, Castilla la Mancha, or the Canary Islands. So if you mark these as any of your three choices, you waste an option are that much more likely to end up in a random region that you did not select.
What age group would you like to work with?
On the application you can state whether you’d rather work with little kids, teenagers, or adults. I used to think I was a little-kid person, but now I’m so happy I was placed in a secondary school. I like to have more intelligent conversations with people, even if it’s generally about loving/hating One Direction, or why Athletic Bilbao is the best soccer team in the whole wide world. But some people’s hearts simply melt at hearing 25 little seven-year-olds chanting the days of the week, or throwing crayons at each other. To each her own. One note: I don’t know anyone in all of Basque Country that works in a primary school–the way the bilingual Spanish/Basque education works here, it may be that there is only room for Auxiliars in secondary schools (middle/high schools) and Official Language Schools.
What type of school would you like to work at?
In most regions, there is the opportunity to teach at regular public schools (primary or secondary schooling), and also Escuelas Oficiales de Idiomas (Official Language Schools) and business schools. The public schools are what you would expect–children between ages 3–18, with class sizes between 20–30. You may just be working with the English department (as I do), or you may be helping out Math, Science, and History teachers, but teaching the topics in English. The EOIs are schools in which anyone 16 years or older can sign up for language classes. This means you’d be teaching people around your same age, or even much older. They signed up voluntarily, so normally they are more motivated to be there and easier to handle behavior-wise. However, EOI classes are often during the afternoons, which may make it difficult for you to set up private lessons on the side, as most private lessons are after the children’s school-day or the adults’ work-day. From what I can tell, working at an EOI also requires you to do a bit more lesson planning–it’s one thing to show up to a group of 14-year-olds who are content to play Would You Rather all period, but it’s another to come empty-handed to a class of paying, expectant working adults and scrounge together something off the top of your head. Some of them are parents–a.k.a. trained B.S. detectors.
So there you have it. Good luck applying! Here is the 2014 application manual for the Auxiliar de Conversación program, which I recommend reading through VERY CAREFULLY well before the window opens, as you’ll need to request things in advance–your official university transcripts, and a letter of recommendation from a former professor (or employer, if you’ve been out of school more than 5 years). Although you’re not technically asked to show proof that you have an intermediate level of Spanish—as is “required” to apply—the application is all in Spanish. So either study up, or grab a fluent friend to patiently wait by your side as you fill it out. And don’t be overwhelmed! On the surface it’s complicated, but just remember you don’t have to struggle through any business-casual job interviews, write tedious cover letters, or fake any smiles or other strained first impressions. It all hinges on you being a native English speaker, holding a college degree, and not having a felony on record. Hooray for high English demand in today’s crappy job market!