by Tyler Black
Teaching English in Spain can be one of the most rewarding experiences of your life. It certainly was for me. However, there are a lot of factors to consider to ensure you don’t leave Spain with a bad taste in your mouth (school type, age level, English level, etc). One important thing to keep in mind, though, is the location. I’m not talking about north versus south, east versus west, or island versus mainland. I’m referring to big city versus small town or pueblo.
During my first year in Spain, I taught at two schools in a town called Badajoz in the autonomous community of Extremadura. After a very eye-opening year, I decided I needed a bit of change. I spent the following year teaching English at a school in Madrid. I knew there would be some differences between a town and a big city, but what I experienced superseded all expectations. Thankfully, I didn’t mind the changes too much because I consider myself a very open-minded person. Nonetheless, it’s important to know the differences in order to find something that best suits your preferences. I can’t speak for every region’s towns and villages, but I imagine they’re all relatively similar.
Number of Schools
In Badajoz, there were a good amount of schools in the town and surrounding villages, but only a handful of teachers assigned to the area. Because of this, it was very common for teachers to have multiple schools. One of my schools was a private institution in the heart of the town’s historic quarter, only a few blocks from where I lived. The other was a public primary school in a village just outside Badajoz called Gévora.
I enjoyed teaching at different schools a lot because each day I got a refreshing change of environment. On one day, I would walk through town and enjoy the old architecture with an occasional stop for coffee. On another, I would wait for one of my Spanish coworkers to pick me up and drive me to the village outside of town. It was very common for a fellow teacher to take me to those farther-out schools so I didn’t have to rely on public transportation.
Public Transportation While Teaching English in Madrid
In Madrid, things are a bit different. Although there are a lot of schools, there are also a ton of teachers assigned to the city. Chances are that your school will be very far away from where you choose to reside. But that’s okay! Madrid’s (and most of Spain’s larger cities’) public transportation is one of the best in the world. My school was located in Alcalá de Henares, about forty minutes outside the city. At first, I dreaded the thought of making that commute everyday. Fortunately, I very quickly began to enjoy waking up with the city as I took the city bus into Alcalá. Instead of rolling out of bed and groggily walking three blocks to my school in Badajoz, I could now let the commute give me a chance to physically and mentally prepare myself by the time classes started.
Curriculum and Responsibilities for Cambridge English Exams
Being the capital of Spain, Madrid’s schools focus very heavily on preparing their students for the Cambridge English exams at the request of the government. I imagine the other major cities in the country do the same. For those who don’t know what the Cambridge Exams are, Cambridge University administers an annual test at schools so that students can earn a certificate proving a certain English level. There are six levels ranging from the lowest skill level to the most advanced: A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, and C2.
When teaching English in Madrid, you’ll be responsible for preparing your students for the exam that correlates with the age group or grade. Although the exam at the end of the year was very stressful for me as I prayed I had instructed my students well enough to pass, it was very comforting to know throughout the year what each day would look like: just get the students ready for their certifications.
My first year in Badajoz was vastly different. Although there were one or two higher end schools in town that participated in the Cambridge Exam, the large majority did not have the funds to do so. Therefore my role in day-to-day class was very variable. In the private school in Badajoz’s historic district, I was in charge of creating an activity pertaining to that week’s lesson. One example was when the class was learning about cities like London and New York City. I stood in front of the class and called on students to read a paragraph in their textbook. Afterwards, I asked them questions about what they had read in order to garner discussion. Lastly, to make things more fun, I let the students choose five vocabulary words and draw them in their notebooks.
No Teaching Background, No Problem
I won’t lie, it was very stressful at first, especially since I didn’t have any teaching background or any idea how to lead a group of children. To say it was daunting is an understatement. But after a couple of months, I discovered many online resources that greatly aided me. I figured out what worked and what didn’t. Don’t let challenges like this dissuade you. You’ll learn very valuable skills along the way.
In my primary school in the village of Gévora, things were a tad bit simpler. The professor led the class the majority of the time, and I was only there to correct grammar and pronunciation mistakes. As you can see, each school can bring a different experience in smaller towns since they don’t have the government breathing down their necks. They have more freedom with directing your role as an auxiliar in the classroom. Depending on your past experiences or preferences, the challenge of a small town might intrigue you rather than teaching English in Madrid where things are more structured and concrete.
Expectations and Relationships of Teaching English in Madrid
Your relationship with the staff and their expectations of you will be a complete 180 between larger cities like Madrid and smaller towns. In Badajoz and Gévora, I found the staff to be very laid-back. Obviously I was expected to arrive on time and perform the tasks that I was assigned. However, if I was ever feeling under the weather, I could shoot a text to one of the teachers letting them know I wouldn’t be in, and that was that. Filming your students on your phone and taking selfies with them was not uncommon, either. It made things more personable.
In Madrid, if I called off, I was expected to bring a valid doctor’s excuse the following day or risk not being paid. Luckily, I’m not one to get sick very often, but it would have been nice to take a mental health day now and then. At this particular school, cell phone use was a big no-no. No videos or pictures of the students were allowed unless under special circumstances.
Towns and Villages Throughout Spain
In towns and villages throughout Spain, there’s a good chance that you’ll be the only English assistant at your school. I found the teachers to be very accommodating and willing to integrate me with the rest of the staff. I was invited to school events, holiday dinners, and even the occasional night out for drinks. One teacher even took me into Portugal for the day with her husband. It was great for me because I really wanted to improve my Spanish and be integrated into the Spanish lifestyle. I still keep in touch with a couple of my fellow teachers from Badajoz to this day.
On the other hand, when teaching English in Madrid, you’ll most likely work with a few other English assistants. At my school, we had five assistants. Because of this, we tended to congregate near each other in the breakroom instead of interacting with the other teachers. Furthermore, because we were in a big city, many of the other teachers all lived in different areas of the community. Depending on the school, there may not be any holiday dinners, nights out, or friendly excursions with the Spanish teachers. Although it was relieving to vent in English to the other assistants about my day, I truly did miss the authentic Spanish relationships I made in Badajoz.
Private classes, or “clases particulares,” are a very common way to earn a little extra cash on the side. But like everything else I’ve mentioned, you’ll notice some stark differences between large cities and small towns. In towns like Badajoz, you’ll find that most families will likely pay you €10 for an hour of class. That doesn’t seem like much (and it really isn’t), but the thing to remember is that word travels fast. You may only have one class a week, but eventually that family will tell their friends about you. And that next family will tell their friends. And the cycle will continue. At one point I had about nine private classes a week. Just be careful. Money is great, but don’t burn yourself out. Free time is important. After all, you’re in a foreign country. Take advantage of that.
When you offer private English classes in Madrid, your starting rate will be around €20 an hour. I can already feel your eyes getting wide. As they should! You can make a pretty penny if you plan your classes right. Here’s the downside though: classes are hard to come by in the big cities. I had to rely on websites like tusclasesparticulares.com and milanuncios.com to get in touch with families. Word of mouth did not exist. Furthermore, your travel time between classes will be greater than in a small town. It’s difficult to accept many offers if they don’t fit both parties’ schedules. However, like I said earlier, if you’re able to strategically plan your schedule, you can walk away each week with a nice supplemental income on top of the government stipend you receive.
Teaching English in Madrid is Worth It
No matter which type of location you choose, there’s going to be pros and cons. In order to make the best of your experience teaching English in Spain, you must align your preferences with those pros and cons. There’s a lot more that goes into it than just your monthly salary (for those that are curious, teaching English in Madrid pays €1,000/month and everywhere else pays €600). This will be a once in a lifetime opportunity for you. Make sure you do your due diligence. I was fortunate enough to have an amazing experience in a small town and in a large city. However, I do know people who didn’t enjoy their time in Spain because they were unaware of what each location offered. Be smart and resourceful, and you’ll walk away with a life-changing and unforgettable adventure.
These experiences are based on the schools and locations I taught at. There are always going to be different situations anywhere you go. There could be small towns where only English teachers congregate in the breakroom, and there might be schools in Madrid where Spanish teachers integrate you into the Spanish lifestyle. Perhaps there may be a school in a small town with multiple English assistants, and only a couple in Madrid. Just know that whatever situation you find yourself in, it will be well worth it!