Cobblestone streets imbued with centuries of history. Quiet afternoons where the streets are empty as everyone returns home for siesta. Enticing aromas beckoning from corner cafés. Yep, there’s plenty to love about Spain. But what is it like to actually live there? And how do you get a job there in the first place?
We caught up with Kate McCully, a Spanish major who graduated from Reed College in 2013 to discuss her teaching job in Spain and her life abroad.
Where do you work and what’s your job title?
I was hired by the Auxiliares de Conversación program run by the Ministry of Education. I work as a teaching assistant in a public secondary school in a town outside Madrid called Arganda del Rey. I am also an English teacher at a private language academy in another town, Velilla de San Antonio.
What was the application process like for your current position?
My academic adviser at Reed told me about the program. She had had another student who did it, and she put us in touch. I started the application for the Ministry in my last year of college. The application was online, and required some letters of recommendation, a personal statement, the usual things. The most laborious part was the visa application, which was required for working in Spain for longer than three months.
What is a typical day like for you on the job?
I was the language and culture assistant in the English classrooms in my school, which meant that I planned activities that had to do with American culture (the true history of Thanksgiving, the rules of Ultimate Frisbee) and speaking-heavy lessons and games. In some classes, I just helped the teacher give the lesson out of the book, while in others, I taught more independently. I brought in lots of English language songs, poems, and newspaper articles, and played games. One of the most rewarding activities involved adapting a chapter of Animal Farm into a play and helping the kids perform it, costumes and all.
At the language academy, I was on my own in the classroom. I taught a class of seven-year-olds, which involved a lot of silly games and discipline, a class of thirteen-year-olds, where we did basic speaking activities and watched movies, and a class of adults, where we did business role-play games and general conversation practice.
How have you handled logistics like visas, housing, and transportation?
The visa process was long, but the Ministry provided all the proper justifications that we needed to apply. Once in Spain, I had to apply for a foreign identity card. The amount of paperwork I’m doing as we speak to renew said card is staggering.
I lived in a hostel for the first week and a bit when I first arrived. It was pretty stressful to wake up and put on my work clothes when kids were just stumbling in from a night out partying. But I found an apartment using the housing search tool “idealista.” I got a Metro pass as soon as I could because I have a long commute, and the Madrid Metro and bus system is excellent and not too expensive, especially if you have a monthly pass.
What are your favorite aspects of living abroad? What are some challenges you face?
Living abroad, as in not living in the States, has been a nice change of scenery if nothing else. There are new political issues to follow, different plants to learn the names of, proximity to cities I’ve only ever seen pictures of, and new food to eat. Madrid specifically has been a lot of fun because it’s a really artsy city. I lived in Portland, Oregon, for four years, and although it’s also pretty artsy, it’s very new. Madrid has a massive history of theatre, literature, and visual art. Art is woven into the culture in unexpected places.
Being an immigrant worker is pretty challenging. I have had to fill out so much paperwork since I got here. Sometimes the people who work in the bureaucratic machine are not the friendliest, and I’ve had to deal with a bit of annoying but ultimately harmless profiling (“Do you want the menu in English?” “Are you American? You must be rich.” “Why didn’t you just try to find a job in your own country?” “Hollywooooooood!”)
What advice would you give to students who are thinking about applying for jobs abroad after college?
Brave the bureaucracy. The forms and procedures and visas are intimidating, but it’s worth it. If you let a little confusing legal paperwork keep you from doing something, you won’t get far.
Also, be open to what people have to say to you. I’ve met lots of people who are curious about where I come from, but it can be difficult to distinguish that curiosity from insensitivity. Language and cultural differences mean that in order to get a grip on interacting with people somewhere else, you have to learn not to take things personally.
What are some resources that you found particularly helpful, either with your international job search or with living abroad?
There are Facebook groups for everything. You can find other expats living in your area who are willing to give lots of advice to newcomers. Couchsurfing also organizes events and language exchanges in lots of cities.
Homework time! Kate mentions that she found out about her current job through her academic adviser in college. Be sure to ask your professors if they know of any opportunities to teach abroad, and check in with your alumni office to see if they are in touch with any alumni who are based in the area where you want to live.