auxiliar program, spain, work

What Exactly Is An Auxiliar De Conversación?

Recently during a walk down memory lane, I’ve realized that, though I came to Spain over 10 years ago to become an auxiliar de conversación, I haven’t really explained everything that entails. I was an auxiliar in four (and a half) different schools over a few years, and here’s what my experience was like. Right now the application process is wrapping up for next year, but if you want to apply, head over to the official government website.

Some Spanish TV program is playing in the background on a chilly day in Zaragoza, the heater making my two-bedroom apartment cozy. I’m sitting on the couch with a cup of tea, staring out the window and thinking back to all the places I’ve lived in Spain over the last decade. I had an aha moment: “Girl, you really have a LOT of content to write about.” I have a lot of stories to tell, including what my first teaching experience in Spain was like.

What exactly is an Auxiliar de Conversación? It sounds vaguely like some kind of emergency rescue team or maybe a charity. “Auxiliar” in Spanish means “assistant” and “conversación” clearly means conversation. Conversation Assistant. So we… help people talk? Right! The government of Spain decided that the Spanish population was truly terrible at speaking English and needed some help. So they came up with a program that would invite foreigners – native speakers of different languages, mostly English and French – to come spend a year working in public school classrooms to help students speak better. Apparently this program started way back in 1936 and has been hosting foreign teachers for nearly a century!

El programa para auxiliares de conversación extranjeros en España fomenta la calidad de la enseñanza de lenguas, al incorporar a los centros escolares españoles auxiliares de conversación que colaboran en el aprendizaje de lenguas extranjeras.

So by now, thousands of foreign language-speaking individuals have been through the auxiliar de conversación experience. First things first: it’s a job without being a real job. On the Spanish books, auxiliares are not real employees because they’d have to make work contracts and do a bunch of legal stuff to make that happen. So the government made this kind of loophole where auxiliares come over on a student visa as a type of student-teaching experience. Kind of like an internship, but not even as official as that. The student visa is needed for anyone outside the European Union to be able to stay in Spain for more than 90 days. So technically, you’re not supposed to work in any other jobs, even though it’s not considered a “job.”

So what does this job-not-job entail? The short answer is: for a whopping 12 or 16 hours a week, English speakers go to Spanish public school classrooms and…. talk. Like magical language fairies bringing stories of American football, peanut butter (or Marmite or what have you), Thanksgiving and cheerleaders. The other requirement is to make the students actually speak English by rousing their interest – aka, not boring them with grammar rules.

note on chalkboard

The first day this works pretty well because any stranger walking into their classroom is a welcome distraction and they want to know everything about you. And oh my, they do. have. questions. After working in high schools for two years, I spent my third year in an elementary school, and my favorite will always be the 5-year-old who obviously didn’t know English yet so asked in Spanish, after seeing a ring I was wearing, how many husbands I had. Or the second grader who asked if I went back to the USA every day after school. The high school students with more English skills loved asking questions about American high school, pets, family, hobbies, and whether I like Spanish food. For the high schoolers I made a fun slide deck with multiple choice questions about myself and where I’m from to get them guessing the answers.

It was part babysitting, part entertaining, part teaching, all with the aim of getting these kids to speak English. Some of the teachers were clueless about how to use me in their classrooms and had me stand up and read from a textbook, a few shamelessly used me as a substitute teacher so they could do other things, but many incorporated me as a team member and co-teacher. I learned to find speaking games on the internet, use videos of Mr. Bean for humor, use song lyrics to teach certain grammar points (thank you Beyoncé, “If I Were A Boy” greatly helped with the conditionals), and I learned to always have a backup of my lessons on a USB drive because the school’s internet would mysteriously stop working on a regular basis.

I have vivid memories of my first day in my first high school outside Bilbao. I had come from corporate America, where I had been working in a shiny office building in a quiet cubicle as an admin assistant for construction project managers. Key word: quiet. On October 1st, 2013, any remains of a quiet life were torn to shreds when I walked in the front door at Barandiaran High School. Teenagers of various sizes were shouting at each other, pushing each other, throwing pencil cases back and forth, running down the halls. Basically, a zoo. I was shocked to see some tiny-looking boys in the mix alongside manly-looking boys – I had forgotten how puberty works, and I also hadn’t realized that high schools in Spain go from ages 12 to 18. There’s no separate middle school for those little ones!

Getting introduced to those first classes was a whirlwind. The kids were noisy, fairly rowdy, and they called their teachers by their first names! I thought they were joking like we used to do when we called teachers by their first names (always behind their backs) at home. But I quickly realized that this is just how high school works in Spain. The teachers introduce themselves with their first names, and that’s what the kids call them.

They’re starting to warm up to me, I think?

Even though I was only an assistant teacher, the first few months of that first year were exhausting. I remember going to the café next to the school during a break one day early in the year (an especially tough  day) and thinking, “how am I going to survive this year?” I actually cried on several occasions when I got home. Most of my frustration came from the class where I worked with especially intense twelve-year-olds an a very absent teacher. She excused herself saying she was part-time secretary, so she could get away with not showing up to class for the first 20 or 30 minutes, leaving me no instructions or help. It was the closest thing to herding cats I’d ever done. The kids actually seemed to really like me, but their behavior was impossible to deal with. One of the best-behaved girls always said, “I’m so sorry you have to put up with us.” And talking to my boss, the head of the department, got me nowhere, in fact she made excuses for the teacher. So there was nothing I could do to change it. In another class where I was left alone (but with prior lesson instructions), I looked up and saw a thirteen-year-old girl smoking, which obviously freaked me out.

It was all herding cats with this group

Much later in the year, I managed to find a bit of self-confidence and started disciplining the students when I could. Disciplining in Spanish schools is sending the naughty kids out in the hallway. The smoking girl got sent directly to the principal’s office. (Interestingly enough, she never got punished.) In my second year, when I was left alone in a class and they didn’t stop misbehaving, I said “I’m done” and walked out of the classroom, found the teacher, and told her I wouldn’t put up with them anymore. The teacher made the whole class apologize to me, and it was pretty awkward, but I never got left alone with them again and they behaved much better. So with time, working with teenagers got a little bit easier.

The one thing that seemed to really help me gain favor with them was learning their names and paying attention to them individually. The kid who was clueless about English but made some really cool graffiti-style drawings in his notebook? “Hey, you’ve got a real talent for drawing.” Asking one girl the most basic questions about herself when we were leaving school at the same time turned her from “ugh, why does SHE have to come to our class?” into my biggest fan.

Is it obvious that I’m totally overwhelmed by all this teenage energy?

Being an auxiliar de conversación is like being the big brother or sister, the English-speaking friend. Kids say hello in the hallway, they internet-sleuth to find you on Instagram, the younger ones draw you pictures (my favorite: Queen Dina) – some days it actually feels like being a minor celebrity. After working as an auxiliar for 4 years, in three high schools and one elementary school, I feel like I made hundreds of young friends. Another fun thing is going back to visit the towns where I worked before and having students recognize me.

A lot of days you think, “what was I thinking signing up for all this?” while playing conversation games in English with a bunch of rowdy teenagers, but then you run into a group of former students at the town parties who not only remember you, but tell you that you were the best language assistant they had.

Last year, at least seven years after working in one town, I was visiting and out for a walk when someone called my name, all out of breath. It was a student I’d had in my second year, now at university, who was so excited to see me that she ran to catch up with me. Those are the moments that I feel grateful for having left the US behind to make this weird career change.

My dear 2º babies threw a party on my last day.


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