Teach English in Spain – Interview with Cat Gaa

Teach English Abroad
Teach English in Spain
Teach English in Spain

How long have you been teaching English in Spain?

I came to Spain immediately after finishing a journalism degree at the University of Iowa. What was intended to be a nine-month chance to study abroad again has turned into something more permanent: I just celebrated the beginning of my fifth year in Iberia. Throughout this time, I’ve had several different jobs related to teaching English, including working as an assistant teacher in a public school with a government program, teaching and directing an English language summer camp, and working as a classroom teacher in a private school.

Please tell us about your job?

I currently work in a private elementary school in the southern capital of Seville. The working hours are long and the pay is low, but I make the same as any other teacher in the private school sector in the area. Work contracts are provided on the basis of a convenio, or a series of laws drafted by education unions, and approved for all private education centers.

My work days are from 9am until 5pm with students, though we have weekly meetings and are obligated to meeting with parents. As a classroom teacher, I teach English, science, art, music, PE and values to first graders, totaling 50% of their weekly instruction. There is an A section and a B section. If I’m with A, the B section is with the Spanish teacher, and vice-versa. We celebrate all kinds of holidays and theme weeks at the school, like Holy Week and Halloween, and enjoy two months of vacation in July and August. Additionally, we have a full week at Easter, nearly the whole week for the April Fair and two at Christmas in addition to bank holidays. It’s not always fun, but the reward is in the process.

How did you find your job?

I studied abroad in Valladolid, Spain in the summer of 2005 and had it clear that living abroad was a good option for me after graduating. Using contacts from my time overseas, the Study Abroad office of my university and Internet search boards , I found the Auxiliares Norteamericanos program, allowing me a visa, a small wage and a placement to teach English in a public school for eight months. Luckily, I was given an assignment just 10 miles outside of Seville in a high school with a strong program and wonderful, supportive coworkers. I imagined I’d be in Spain for just a year, and I worked at I.E.S. Heliche for three school terms!

Finding a job outside of that program proved much more difficult, as I was up against EU citizens and had neither working permits or a teaching degree. Spain, like many places in Corporate America, operates on the prospect of enchufe, or connections. My good friend, also from Chicago, turned down a job offer and suggested they call me for an interview.

How easy is it to find English teaching positions in Spain?

Spain’s need for English is a conundrum. I recently attended a conference on bilingualism in Madrid and was impressed by the Spanish Ministry of Education’s bilingual initiative. There’s a definite need for native English speakers, and the Ministry of Education offers nearly 2,000 positions throughout the country to angloparlantes. Despite this, finding a job outside of the Auxiliares de Conversación program is difficult, given the political climate and steep unemployment rate. What’s more, companies risk a huge fine in hiring non-EU citizens without proper working permits, so even working part-time at an academy can be risky.

My suggestion is to look for a position in the Ministry of Education’s Auxiliar program, CIEE Teach Abroad or UCATEM in Madrid. They’ll help you facilitate the visa needed to enter Spain as a student, give you some on-site support and guarantee a position in a school or government-run language school. ¡Ojo! North Americans on a student visa can only work 20 hours a week on such a visa, and the hours as a language assistant usually factor in.

Is it necessary to have teaching certificates or training to find employment?

Due to the bilingual initiative in public education, more and more schools are asking for teaching certificates and experience. I chose to get a Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) degree before coming, and it’s been extremely helpful when it comes to planning lessons and knowing the English language inside and out. To work at an academy, a TEFL or CELTA equivalent is usually the minimum to be hired, and teaching degree is generally required for working in schools. Once you have a teaching degree, you’ll need to complete thehomologación process, which is really just a big, fancy (and difficult to pronounce) word to asses your degree’s compatibility with the Spanish university system.

How did you get your first work visa?

I did what any American girl in love with Spain and her boyfriend would do: I got married by way of a loophole called pareja de hecho. My money is still just mine and I can’t vote in the upcoming presidential elections, but I get the benefit of being able to live and work throughout the EU until 2016.

Are non-EU teachers at a disadvantage when looking for employment?

Most certainly. For young people, the unemployment rate is hovering at around 40%, making jobs scarce and professional formation necessary. There are ways around the law, such as procuring a student visa and getting hired part-time (non-EU citizens can work up to 20 hours with this type of permission).

Is it possible for teachers to arrive without a work visa and look for a job?

Sadly, it’s difficult in a place like Seville. While I know people who have done it in bigger cities, Seville is small and the region of Andalucia has many bilingual schools. My advice is to use the resources available to you before you leave to Spain – make contacts, do a TEFL or CELTA class, set a time limit. Moving abroad is never easy, so it’s important to give yourself a period to adjust, look for a job and decide if it’s for you. While it’s not overnight, bumming around can get boring after a while.

And don’t be hard on yourself if it doesn’t work out! Times are tough in Spain, as evident by the political unrest, the constant protests (I got clocked in the face while attending a recent conference on Bilingual Education in Madrid!) and high unemployment, even Spaniards have been migrating to Germany, South America and the UK to work. But I’m evidence that sticking to the task of making contacts and exhausting enchufe can lead to a solid career.

What is Spain like?

I don’t know that I could be happier living anywhere else than Sevilla, and I’ve been to many, many foreign countries. Spaniards tend to be open, warm and welcoming of foreigners (duh, one of their greatest sectors for generating money is tourism). I have totally surrendered my Type-A personality to long lunches, siestas and the mañana, mañana attitude.

Spain enjoys, on the whole, a privileged Mediterranean climate, sumptuous and varied cuisine, 2000+ years of history and some of the most talented athletes in the world. What I love most about living here is the ability to integrate into the culture with some effort. My friends are from all over the world, I eat well and I know flamenco. I’ve been to a bull fight and a running of the bulls, am an hour from the coast and living in a city that retains its heritage while pushing forward into the 21st century. I have those “Madre mía, do I love this life!” moments every time I ride my bike past the Guadalquivir or discover something new about Seville, when I can help a student master something difficult or when I indulge in a tapa.

I’m beginning to identify with sevillanas in so many ways, yet remain rooted to my American identity. When I moved here four years ago, I seemed a bit lost for a few months, not knowing who I was to become since I’d lost the labels I normally used to identify myself. Not the case anymore – I speak andalú fluently, have a solid base of friends and feel comfortable in my adopted city.

Can you recommend the best cities for teaching and quality of life?

I live in Seville, the heart of Andalusia and the most Spanish city there is. We’ve got months of sunshine, bull fighting, flamenco – anything you consider typical Spanish.  It’s one of the poorer major cities, but has a long history, is within a few hours of the beach and mountains and has about 1,000,000 citizens. I have a little circle of English speakers who have moved here to retire, look for a new life or because of work and marriage. I think, honestly, that it’s important to find another expat to be able to share information or frustration, or to sneak to Starbucks with you when you’re feeling a little homesick.

Madrid, with its wide avenues and all kinds of different subgroups, is a good choice for expats, as well. It’s big, so there’s opportunity abound to work. The cost of living is considerably higher than other capitals around the country, but the salaries are proportionate. I find Madrid to be a bit impersonal for me, but all of my friends living there say it’s la leche, Spain’s version of the bomb.

Another big city with opportunities to teach English is Barcelona, home to Gaudí architecture, a famous nightlife scene and located right on the Mediterranean coast. But beware, the people native to Cataluña, catalanes, are often not as open to foreigners, and friends of mine who have worked in BCN claim it’s difficult to find work in schools. Regardless, it’s a pulsating city with a lot of personality.

Don’t leave out Bilbao, Granada, Valencia or Salamanca, either! They’re considerably smaller, but each has its own character and is enough of a metropolis to keep you busy between museums, landscape and work.

How well do you speak Spanish now?

I’m now fluent in Spanish because I have a live-in tutor and work with only four other native English speakers at my school. In big cities, speaking English can get you further, but I’m employed because English is becoming more necessary for industry and tourism.

My main reason for wanting to move to Spain was to improve the Spanish I already knew. While I wasn’t thrilled about moving to a town for its poor pronunciation, I love the nuances in Andalusian Spanish, often called Andalú, and I find humor in their refrains (and often write about them on my blog!). If you want to learn a foreign language in Spain, there are ample opportunities apart from the traditional language school: you could get an intercambio, or language interchange, in which you meet with a partner who speaks the language you’d like to learn to spend half your session speaking in your language, and half in your partner’s. Couchsurfing groups in cities also have language groups that meet frequently at a bar to practice, and many European study abroad students, called Erasmus, tutor to support their fiesta lifestyle. Or, you could go the easy route like me: find a native significant other!

What is your cost of living?

As I mentioned, I make just about 1.500€ each month. The government takes 248€ of that for my health insurance and pension. I tend to be frugal when it comes to buying clothes and going out, but I can’t turn down a good meal, weekend trip or invitation to the theatre. You certainly can’t live extravagantly as an English teacher in Southern Spain, but you can more than certainly live comfortable, and well.

Take, for example, living. A shared apartment in the central neighborhoods of Seville won’t cost more than 300€, with gastos (electricity, water and building fees)sitting around 50€ a month. Cell phones are expensive and the minimum amount of time you can have a contract is 18 months, so most opt for a pay-as-you-go SIM card and pay about 30€/month. Seville is flat, so I bought a cheap bike with a strong lock and try and ride as much as possible, but being a small city, a bus or your own two feet can get you where you need to go.

Then there’s food. Due to General Francisco Franco’s 35-year dictatorship, Spain remained self-sufficient for decades,, and its varied landscape means everything from fresh fish to juicy game to citric fruits, not to mention great wines. A tapa in a bar will cost 1,80€ to 3,50€, a beer not more than 1.30€ in a restaurant, and a three-course menu del día, usually less than 10€. It’s extremely cheap to have a nice meal and a drink any night of the week in Seville, and the temperature means there’s always a crowd at any time of day.

Rent eats up the biggest amount of paychecks in Spain, and do be aware that renting an apartment requires a deposit of a month’s rent, so you’ll essentially pay two months’ rent upon signing a contract. Additionally, some banks have costs for cards and opening accounts, and the resident card costs between 10 and 36€, depending on your nationality and the type of permission you have.

How much money can the average teacher expect to save?

Salaries in Spain are low in general, and teaching is even more so. I earn just over 1.500€ a month, and due to my social security payments, walk away with 248€ less. As I mentioned, I teach on a convenio, so the salary is pretty standard for private schools. Salaries are higher in other cities, like Madrid and Barcelona, due to the steeper cost of living.

There is a lot of opportunity in Seville to look for tutoring jobs on the side, and I made 500€ a month extra when I worked as a teaching assistant. While it’s unreliable money, it’s also flexible and can be lucrative. A teacher could charge between 12-15€ an hour for one student. Apart from that, it’s not easy to save very much money, unless you’re not planning on traveling or eating out much.

Do you recommend Spain for other English teachers?

I recommend Spain to anyone in search of a good lifestyle, but not necessarily to build their teaching resumé. Teachers in the public sector have to deal with little resources and discipline issues, while teachers like me in private schools have long hours and low salaries, and most of the schools are Catholic. I am required to pray in English with my students daily, and we celebrate Holy Week each spring.

On the other hand, the bilingual initiative through the MEC is extremely successful and Spain starts teaching foreign languages much earlier than other European countries. Because of this, there’s been a huge surge in not only number of jobs, but also of interest. Even Halloween is becoming more widespread here, thanks to the influence of English language and customs.

If I wanted to be a teacher and make money, I would live in America or go to Asia for a few years. I stay in Spain for the lifestyle it allows me.

What advice would you offer for others thinking of teaching English Abroad?

Teaching English is perhaps the best way to delve into a culture and understand a people. When I considered moving to South America after a brief break up with the Novio, I wondered how I could possibly begin to know all about Argentina or Chile or Paraguay and its history, heritage and people. It begins with establishing relationships, cultivating trust and opening someone else’s conscience to what education can bring.

That said, doing your research is important and necessary. Know what a job entails, what responsibilities are required of you, what you’ll earn and how your vacation time is spread out and perhaps paid. Compare programs. Go with your gut – I nearly moved to Dublin to do the BUNAC program with two college buddies, and had a feeling that I was supposed to go to Spain. Work to establish an expat network when you get there, but don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone.

Really, just go.

English language teaching is an easy way to get abroad, earn some money and see the world while doing it. I can’t say I’ll teach forever, or that I’ll ever become rich doing it, but I love it. Even the days when my kids drive me nuts or I am stressed out with exams and observations and lesson plans, being invited into the world of a child and their educational process is really a beautiful thing. And, at the end of the day, I get to have my cervecita and I know I’ve ended up exactly where I was intended to go.

Cat Gaa gave up the skyscrapers of Chicago for the olive groves of Andalucia, Spain, four years ago. Follow her attempts to tackle andalu, brainwash her students into liking American sports teams and a recent kinda marriage on twitter at @sunshinesiestas, or on her blog, Sunshine and Siestas.

More Links
Find English Teaching Jobs in Spain

Teach English in Spain – General Information
Teach English in Spain (Cost of Living)
Teach English in Spain (Visa Requirements)