In 2009 at 18 years old, I made the momentous decision to step on a plane alone to go alone to the capital city of Spain to start my college career.
Five years later, I was back in Spain to earn my Master’s degree and work as an English Assistant Teacher.
This article is all about my experiences living, working and studying in Spain. If you’re interested in doing this or maybe you have a friend or a relative who would like to spend some time in Spain, I hope this article will help you with that.
La niña Nikki
Let’s begin at the beginning with my story. I started learning Spanish when I was 13 and I was hooked. I wasn’t too good at it at first. I remember that I would always get the tú and él/ella/usted forms mixed up, and the fact that you conjugate a verb by removing the ending and putting a personal ending just blew my mind.
But, I made Spanish a big part of my life by watching TV, listening to the radio, talking to Spanish speakers, and later volunteering and working with the large Mexican population that is in my community, a suburb of Chicago. And I got it in my head that I wanted to go to college in Spain because it was a Spanish-speaking country, and I thought Europe was cool and romantic, so I started a search for American universities in Spain.
I did not get a lot of guidance from my parents or anyone else really, so I had it in my mind that the only university I could go to was an American one, which definitely was not the case, but I did the best I could as a 17/18 year old trying to plan out the next stage of my life.
Undergraduate study in Spain
If you’re an American, there are American universities in Madrid. Here are the ones I looked into most:
- Saint Louis University - Madrid Campus (SLUM is what we called it, thinking we were clever)
- Suffolk University, based in Boston
- Schiller University
I ended up choosing SLU, which was the cheapest option, and from what I remember back then had the most extensive academic programs. You could actually graduate there with a degree without returning to the States, unlike Suffolk. I believe with Schiller you can go 4 years there too. Their programs and offerings may have changed over time, so it’s best to check them out if you’re interested and don’t just take my word for it.
If you’re not interested in getting an American degree from an American university in Spain, you can check for universities in your own country that have a campus in Spain OR just research programs you would be interested in from any major Spanish university.
The difference is the type of degree you would be getting. At an American or British or Australian university, you would be getting an American/British/Australian degree, and at a Spanish institution, you’ll get a Spanish degree, which means you may have to jump through some hoops to get it recognized in your country of origin.
You just have to decide what’s best for your situation.
Anyway, I chose SLU and I had a great time as an undergrad. I left Spain to return to the home campus after my Freshman year because I needed to get a job, which I couldn’t get in Spain. I think it ended up being better for me anyway because back in the States I was able to get an awesome internship and many job opportunities when I was studying that I wouldn’t have had the visa for if I were offered the same opportunities in Spain.
Visas are just horrible sometimes!
Then we go to Graduate Studies. Again, you can do the same thing and look for universities from your country that offer grad programs in Spain or you can look at programs from Spanish universities, which is what I did when I went back to Spain a second time. The reason why is that I made a promise to myself and to whomever cared that I was NOT going to go into more student loan debt to get a graduate degree. Either someone was going to pay for it for me, or I would get it for free.
So I got it for free!
I searched for different programs at different Spanish universities for Teaching Spanish or Spanish language studies, something like that, and I found Universidad de Alcalá de Henares, Instituto Franklin. They offered 100% tuition reimbursement (aka free tuition), plus a monthly stipend in exchange for “part-time” (the part time is in air quotes, as I’ll tell you about later) English teaching in area schools. I had to do a Master’s thesis, which was quite fun, but a lot of work, which I’ll also mention later.
There are plenty of other renowned Spanish universities that have great programs for just about anything you want to study, and I encourage you to do a search. Of course, your Spanish level should be at least intermediate unless your grad program is in English.
Teaching English in Spain
So, what about if you don’t want to study and you just want to work?
You can do that too, especially if you’re a native English speaker. Since I haven’t looked into any job opportunities besides English-teaching, that’s the only type of work in Spain that I’ll be talking about now. Anything else I would be completely unqualified to talk about!
The community of Madrid wants all of their schools to be bilingual in English and Spanish by 2020 or something like that. That means that there are tons of opportunities for English speakers to go there because the government and other organizations are recruiting people to be native English speaking assistant teachers.
- BEDA program, which helps place English speakers into the various Catholic schools (you don’t need to be Catholic or Christian)
- UCETAM program, which helps place native English speakers into Madrid’s concertado schools.
- Spanish government’s own program, which is the North American Language and Culture Assistants program, which places Americans and Canadians into public schools
All programs have their own requirements, but I believe all of them have these requirements in common:
- No education experience needed
- Need to be a native English speaker
- Need to have a high school diploma
- Need to be within a specific age range
Again, check the program requirements and do plenty of research into the program again because their requirements can change over time.
How is life teaching English in Spain?
So, how is it teaching English in Spain?
To be completely 100% honest with you, I hated it. It depressed me, and I’ll tell you why.
First of all, I was expecting to work part-time and do my Master’s program as my main priority. That’s the impression of the program that I got from the university. I can tell you that I was in contact with people from the BEDA program, UCETAM and the North American Assistants program that you will work substantially more hours than what you first think you will.
The first school that I was placed at in Spain, I ended up leaving at the start of the second semester. The first week, the director of the school sat down with me and explained that I had to pay 300 euros per month for the transportation to the school (riding the same school bus as the kids) and for the “free” lunch they provide to all the teachers every day OR I could work an extra 10 hours a week.
So, I worked there full time, except for the Friday afternoons when I had to be in class at the university. I was originally supposed to work 18 hours, as per what the university had told me. They count your classes down to the minute, so at 50 minute class counted for 50 minutes of work time. They didn’t account for any lesson prep time at all.
It was draining, especially considering that the school was in a rural area, and I had no choice but to take the school bus there with the kids. There was no public transport, and riding a bike would have taken over an hour.
I felt terrible at that school for that reason, but also because of a fundamental difference in how I view education as an American-trained teacher rather than a teacher in Spain.
In Spain, students are expected to copy notes from the board, do book exercises, memorize facts and figures for exams, regurgitate everything and are punished for wrong answers. This was for students as young as 6 years old.
The way I had been taught to approach education in the US, working in schools here was that critical thinking and creativity are highly valued. School is not just a place for academics, but also for learning how to get along with others, be compassionate and explore your own interests and passions. It doesn’t always work like that in the States, but every teacher I have worked with here has strived to create that sort of enriching environment for students.
In Spain, I was told that the only way to get kids to listen to me was to yell at them and punish them, and that really destroyed my motivation and passion for teaching in the classroom.
This is my experience, so maybe you would have a different one, but I know that my experience was not a fluke. In my program at the university, I had 90 colleagues who were placed at schools all around the region, and we would regularly exchange these types of horror stories.
That was our reality, but I don’t want to get you too down. I just want you to be prepared if you do decide to do this. I wish I would have known this before going because then I could have prepared myself better emotionally.
La buena vida
Spain is a beautiful country. The food is wonderful. The history is rich. The public transportation is so good that you can take adventurous day trips or weekend trips to explore the cultural diversity of this marvelous country. You can walk daily on cobblestone streets and visit medieval sites and view historic architecture, and it’s just a wonderful atmosphere.
My tips for you
If you do decide to spend some time in Spain, I suggest the following:
- do a lot of pre-planning and get your visa in order early
- expect to do more than what is originally asked of you in whatever program you choose to go through
- do as many day trips and mini-adventures as you can on your days off
- DON'T SPEAK ENGLISH EVER unless you need to for your job or talking to your family back home
- avoid fellow English speakers unless they agree to speak Spanish with you
- go to local events and meet Spanish people
- rent an apartment with Spanish people (check some sites like craigslist in Spain where you can find rooms in people’s apartments to rent: )
- get into the culture as much as possible, and despite any horrible culture shock situations, you’ll still enjoy your time there
So, would I have done it all again knowing what I do now, even with the bad experiences?
Yes, I would have, and part of that is because the struggle makes it seem so much more of a valuable experience. And the reality is that going to Spain and struggling was what planted the seeds for I Taught Myself Spanish Academy.
My Master’s thesis was the basis for the Spanish for Beginner’s course that so many students have commented saying that it helps them learn Spanish in a fun way.
I originally designed a high school curriculum for my thesis, based on resolving the problems I see in the American school system for learning a foreign language. There is almost no focus on conversation and actually using the language in real-life scenarios. Curriculums are centered around grammar and not around communication.
That’s why I designed my thesis, and later the Academy around what you need for communication and conversation.
At the same time, I understand that teachers need their students to be able to show improvement through exams and standardized tests, so my curriculum is based around the same grammar you would learn at school, but presented in the way of a story, following some characters and their daily lives. You learn grammar through speaking, listening, reading and writing rather than through rote exercises only. It’s the same grammar presented through the lense of conversation and communication, which is why it makes such a successful course now. Students can immediately apply what they learn in each unit to conversation.
So, yes, I would do the whole Spain thing again, and I’d be happy to give some tips about how to get there yourself - nothing too in depth. I’m not a study abroad expert, but I can lend some advice from personal experience.
I hope this helps you gain insight about how to go spend some time in Spain!
Recordings of this talk, downloadable slides and links to all the resources mentioned are included in I Taught Myself Spanish Academy. Enroll today to ensure that whatever trip you take to a Spanish-speaking country will change your life for the better.