Welcome to the Chockalife podcast Lester, thanks for talking with me today. Tell me a little bit about how you ended up teaching in Spain?
Lester: I’ve been asked that a lot – so a couple years ago I was working in nonprofits, I got laid off and then, actually before I got laid off I went to Spain 4 years ago so that’s actually how I first thought of Spain. I was there for 9 days and I fell in love with it. I was trying to find opportunities to come back because I was realizing that as someone who’s been in nonprofits that it can be, how can I put this, it can be stressful and risky because job security is not always secure. There’s no such thing as job security – I’m realizing now.
No, not anywhere right?
Lester: Right, so I was like, I got laid off, and I was like I think I want to find out ways to go abroad now because I think this is my calling. A friend of mine was like Lester just go for it, you don’t have to worry about too many bills, family or a mortgage. You might as well just do this. So for about a year or two I was trying to do research, finding opportunities, as well as saving money and then I decided to just go for it even though I didn’t have enough money, I was like – let’s just go for it, I’m just gonna see where it takes me and wow, it has taken me to a lot of incredible opportunities that I never thought of..
Right, it’s amazing if you just open yourself up, suddenly things appear.
Lester: Uh, huh, absolutely, yeah.
So you’d been out of college for a few years then?
Lester: Oh yeah, you could say a long time, but yeah. I’ve been working in nonprofits for five years and maybe six, seven years in the workforce.
When you were looking for an opportunity abroad, what were the things that you were looking for?
Lester: That’s a good question. I think, what I was looking for is…I think something when it comes to interacting and doing something with languages because I’m realizing – and especially in a country like Spain everyone wants to learn English and I definitely wanted to know about language learning and different cultures so I did some research. Someone actually told me at the LA Times travel show in 2011 – and it seems that the only way to go abroad – if I want to go abroad and work is really teaching. That’s like the hottest job out there and a lot of people loved it. So I was telling the tourist office of Spain that was one of the booths at the travel show, that I want to teach and are there any opportunities abroad and they said – yeah, you should definitely do the Auxiliaries de Conversacion program where they have a lot of English native speakers from all over the United States, Canada, Australia and you’ll be placed at a school somewhere in Spain.
So that’s a government program?
Lester: That’s correct. So there’s a big push by the Spanish government to make their kids be bilingual because in the past most people from Spain don’t know English. When I went – the first culture shock I experienced was that not everyone spoke English, especially in Spain. Other countries like probably – maybe in France or Germany – you could probably get by with English but Spain – no. My Spanish was just so essential to get by and even though it’s intermediate.
So what was the process that you had to go through then to get this position?
Lester: So the first thing I did was look at their website – by the time I applied for it I was number 5000 so I was on the waiting list forever and I decided to apply again and again and basically you just have to apply. You have to show documentation that you’re a US citizen, you have to go through a background check and you need a recommendation from either an employer or a college professor and then you have to write like a 300 word letter and then after that, it’s all about the waiting game.
So they didn’t require you to have any teaching skills, per se?
Lester: No. not necessarily, cause we’re not teachers, we’re more like English language assistants. I mean we definitely spend time with students but our main job is to really assist teachers with the curriculum, give ideas and be more like a cultural ambassador and really help them with things – not just teaching things in the classroom.
So sort of be the native English speaker expert on the culture and conversation, I would think?
Lester: That’s correct yeah. Some of the things I tell the students when I correct them – some of the teachers are grasping – “oh that’s how you say it – oh!” and they repeat whatever I say that they’ve never heard of before so – (laughs) yeah, it’s pretty funny –
So, are they – are most of the teachers you work with then from Spain? English isn’t their native language?
Lester: That’s correct. So each Auxiliares would be placed – one or two Auxiliare’s would be placed at a school whether it’s an elementary school, a high school or vocational school or even a language academy and they’ll be the ambassador for the English language.
Did you have any choice on where you would be placed in Spain?
Lester: Uh, yes – I get to choose the region but not the city. So I chose the community or region I wanted to be placed in but then the government or the ministry of education will decide where exactly you’ll be assigned to.
Ok – so is it a contract for say a year or something?
Yes, it’s from October 1st to about like late June. That’s when school is out for the kids, anyway, like in the United States.
And then can you renew? Or?
Lester: Yes, you can renew. You can renew for another year and be on two years. The max on paper is two years, but I’ve known people – I’ve heard there have been people that have gone beyond two years by going to a different region or by knowing someone. But usually it’s no more than two years.
So how do you like it so far? You’ve been there since September. Now it’s about six months after that.
Lester: Uh, yeah – I’ve been enjoying it. I’ve had my ups and downs – I’ve been learning a lot and – I don’t know it seems like it’s so easy to be – there’s some things that can be frustrating at times but I always tell myself not a lot of people can get the chance to do what you’re doing and so I definitely try and see the positive side of it.
Would you say those frustrations are more from cultural differences or the actual work of teaching?
Lester: Uh…yeah, it can be both. Obviously with the culture side – one thing I’m not used to is a lot of things closing on Sunday’s sometimes and the two-hour siestas which I actually don’t mind. But It took a while – I mean it took me a while to really get used to it like when I was at – I have to leave my place around 8 o’clock because I work outside of Madrid so to get to a job – I start at 9:30. So that can be kind of stressful because I have to get everything organized and then sometimes teaching can definitely have its challenges – especially if I have never dealt with kids. I’d never worked with kids – I’ve worked with youth in nonprofits but I’ve never been like an actual full-blown teacher.
And, what age group are you working with?
Lester: I’m working with five year olds, six year olds and seven year olds – so it’s a whole new ballpark!
Right (laughs) they demand attention and you have to keep them busy, right?
Lester: Yeah, they really want to play with me, they want to be my friend, yeah, they definitely want the attention for sure.
(laughs) So, I’m curious since it’s a government program do they kind of show you – do a little bit of cultural training or get you established – find you a place to live? How much do they sort of take care of you on this program?
Lester: Well, um, we have an orientation that the ministry of education gives us an orientation about the program but it’s actually the responsibility of the director of the school that you’re assigned to help you with housing, to help you with resources – they don’t do it for me but they gave me great suggestions on where to go, where to see a doctor, what markets to go to – where to look for a place. You know, that was like my main guide and resource.
So you had to pay your own way over and set up your household? They didn’t help you with any of those things?
Lester: Yeah, in a way so – luckily the Facebook groups helped me out tremendously. There’s a lot of Facebook groups for the auxiliares, you just have to post a question – where’s a great place to live or is anyone working in this area or what are some good activities…so anything that auxiliares have a concern with or have questions – there’s always going to be an auxiliares that will always answer and it’s just our own network with each other- which has really helped me tremendously.
That’s fantastic! Um – and what would you say if you had to give advice to someone thinking of doing this – what advice would you give – maybe you would do things – you would suggest for them to do?
Lester: I think it’s all about doing your research – doing your homework a lot. Definitely asking former auxlliares, you know, about what they did like, what they didn’t like. Also, be prepared to go over moments that you’re not gonna like and learn how to make the best out of every situation. Like for me, I’ve always wanted to work in Valencia or Barcelona but however the programs in those areas have been cut due to crisis (financial) going on right now (in Spain). So, I was saying to myself let me try Madrid and let’s see where it takes me and you know, I’ve been able to meet a lot of cool people here in Madrid and it’s the center of everything, so I’ve been able to be very positive about it.
And, just speaking of the crisis (financial) what’s it like then to be in Spain? Does that – do you think it had an effect because you’ve been there awhile ago and you can see the difference. What effect do you think that has had on the country or the feeling maybe, being there? Or any?
Lester: Well, when I was here a couple years ago, I wasn’t even that aware of the crisis because Spain, actually at that time won the world cup – so they were still celebrating like three months after they’d actually won (laughs). But when I started talking to people about the program, I knew a girl – she was in Catalonia and we were sort of trading things back and forth – she was telling me that she wasn’t paid on time – oh that’s another thing of advice too – that, you know, save as much as you can and get ready to save up at least three months worth of rent payments, if possible – which I know isn’t easy, but some people in the program get paid on time, some don’t. it just depends on the school and it depends on region that you’re in.
Wow! That’s a huge thing. What about – what’s it cost about a month to rent a place and are you – do you have a roommate or?
Lester: Yeah, I mean, I’m in room, a flat with roommates, so – maybe if you’re lucky, maybe like $250- $300 – but it can go as high as like $400 – $500 if you want to be in the center (of Madrid).
Right – you’re in a big city so you’re paying sort of more than if you were in a smaller town.
Lester: Correct, yeah.
That’s pretty cheap though, honestly, if you think about it. I mean, are you finding things are pretty cheap there, otherwise? Food, going out…
Lester: It actually has been cheaper here and obviously I know that – alcohol is cheaper too and a lot of other goods but the euro – if you think of the exchange rate against the dollar – it can yeah – it can be expensive in a way. But I’ve seen clothes a little cheaper here too.
Well, it’s kind of interesting when I think of Spain, as well, I think of a lot of people going out to bars and it’s very social there. I would think you’d want to have some money so you can definitely go out because you’re probably not getting paid a ton of money working in this situation.
Lester: Uh right – so I think the best way people do it is – they go to open markets or they would just go to restaurants where they have like the menu of the day and you can be really taken care of or whenever you go to restaurants there’s always a lot of specials out there you just have to take advantage of them. For me, I would just probably go to maybe one of the open markets. One of my favorite places in Madrid are the open markets here, so I definitely take advantage of them – like Mercado de San Miguel or other markets as well but that’s just where I’ve been hanging out most of the time.
Oh cool! And what do you think about the culture and the people there – how would you sort of describe what it’s like – do you meet a lot of Spanish people or do you mostly meet other teachers – who do you hang out with?
Lester: So when I’m in school, I definitely hang out with my teachers and what not – that’s during the weekdays. During the weekends, I definitely try to hang out with other people in my program and also try to hang out with people who I do intercambio’s with (language exchange). For me I really wanted to live with a Spanish family but that didn’t really happen so I decided to – let’s try to practice as much Spanish and try and get myself out there as much as possible.
I’m sure it’s made a huge improvement in your Spanish just by being there (laughs).
Lester: Yeah, it has. It definitely has. Over the weekend I went to Zaragoza. I was invited by a friend of mine who I met in Valencia and he said you should definitely come to my place in Zaragoza with me and my son and we’ll definitely show you around. It’s probably my best weekend here in Spain, so far.
Oh wow – yeah, there’s nothing like when a local shows you around their home. That’s amazing. And what other things would you would have been highlights of just taking this leap and deciding to move abroad.
Lester: Hmmmm…it’s definitely another world out there and it’s really putting yourself out there and really meeting a lot of people. It’s just…I’m amazed I put myself out there. I mean, I’m usually an introvert but usually when you travel alone or when you go to events you’re definitely going to meet someone. I always bump into people who speak English and we’ve been able to make connections there, as well as there are some people who like to talk to me in Spanish. I actually like to do intercambio’s (language exchange) so I have a co-worker, she wants to improve her English and she’s helping me improve my Spanish, so that’s a pretty cool thing that I’ve been doing. And there’s a lot of great activities here, especially a lot of events so a great example is – I went to a conference about language learning – so there’s a lot of companies here – they’re really selling to the Spanish people to, you know, learn English in America or learn English in England with these programs over the summer and I actually met the Senior VP of Education First and I got an interview for a summer job – so it’s really been an interesting ride, I’ll tell you that.
Is that back in The States?
Lester: Yeah, that’s correct. So Education First is a company located in – they’re based out of Switzerland. I was talking to the Senior VP, I told him I’d definitely like to continue working in language learning and I was wondering if he had any jobs in the summer and he said let me connect you to someone – our contact in the UK and I was able to connect with someone in Boston. So it definitely opens a lot of doors that I never thought possible.
Right – it’s sort of changed the whole arc of your career, I guess.
Lester: Oh yeah, oh yeah (laughs). I knew that coming in but it’s going to help me decide what kind of career I want to take in the future, that’s for sure.
Do you think – so you’re going to go back to The States in the summer and then do you think you’ll do this again?
Lester: Yeah, I’d like to do it again. Right now, I have been searching jobs like crazy. I’ve had two interviews for summer jobs but I’ve been able to connect with my old network as well in nonprofits and that’s kind of been like a safe base for me – but I’m definitely going to try my best to come back here again to perfect my language – to perfect my Spanish – because the family that I visited (in Zaragoza) they really understood me, they say – yeah, you speak very well – I think staying here for another year will help you perfect the language…
(laughs) Right! Yeah, so, it’s interesting – even the summer is a ways away – so anything could happen, right?
Lester: Right, right – anything could happen and I know other people who are in my program they’ve been asking me for advice since I’ve been in the workforce for a couple of years so – they’re trying to go back – they don’t want to renew – they definitely want to go back to the workforce.
So would you recommend this to someone else who was thinking about doing this?
Lester: Absolutely, I think I would definitely recommend this if you like to travel and would like to try something new and challenge themselves. Just keep in mind that this program is for people between 18-35, so it might not be for everyone, however, I know people I’ve talked to said they’d do it again and I think there are just so many skills you walk away with – whether you do the program again, or not.
So Lester tell me – what about a visa and how does it work as an American citizen getting work there?
Lester: In my program the government sponsored my visa so I can work there but I’ll be considered a student because I’m doing this program. To be a teacher as an American, I think the best bet is going to a TEFLA training facility that will sponsor your visa. It’s expensive but they’ll help you with the visa so I think the best bet is to ask other American that have had a visa through a school because it’s a lot harder. I know a lot of Europeans, especially a lot of British people do come to Spain for TEFLA programs and they have no problems getting jobs. But it can be hard.
So with your visa can you do any work outside of that language teaching program?
Lester: Technically no (laughs)
Technically no – I’m wondering though is there sort of – I guess they call it in Europe “black” work – where you’re basically working without a visa.
Lester: Yeah, there’s some under the table – there’s a site called Clases Particulares – and, I don’t know if I should be saying this, but there are some (laughs) – a lot of us, the way we make extra money is to give private classes to people – whoever needs English classes or that wants conversation.
Right, and then I’m wondering if you want to stay on how easy is it to stay on – would you have to get an extended visa then?
S Lester: Oh, yeah – if I decide to do the program again – the ministry of education will instruct us on how to extend the visa for next year.
And then – one other thing I thought of – I know that when I taught English overseas – certain countries preferred the American accent to the British accent and vice versa – which is preferred in Spain?
Lester: Um – I’m saying British just because when you go to the trains and everything’s bilingual, we hear a British accent. The books I see – the textbooks are more British lingo, I guess you could say. However, though a lot of the students like things American too. They love American TV, even though everything is dubbed in Spanish.
(laughs) That must make it hard.
Lester: Yeah, they love The Big Bang Theory, Two and a Half Men and they love Breaking Bad –
(laughs) You’re kidding?
Lester: No, no.-
Lester: I talked to a lot of Spanish and they love American TV – it’s ridiculous.
Breaking Bad, though, is an interesting one – that’s too funny.
Lester: Yeah, I don’t get it either but I guess it’s some good writing.
Cool – well, thank you so much Lester – it’s great – I’ll put this information on the website about the program and other tips for people thinking about teaching in Spain.
Lester: Alright – also, I just want to say there are other programs beyond auxiliaries, I mean everyone’s getting their TEFL here and that’s been a hot career path that people like to do while they’re living in Spain.
Right – so you’re taking the TEFL course and then I think you can become a full-fledged teacher of English anywhere.
Lester: Right – the auxiliares program – it doesn’t require you to have a TEFL, it just requires you to have a Bachelor’s degree.
OK – that’s fantastic – but you’re not interested in doing that at this time then?
Lester: Right now – I think I want to do a second year and see if I want to keep doing it. But right now, I just want to see where June takes me
Thank you Lester
Lester: Thank you so much.