Pros and Cons of the North American Language and Culture Assistants program in Spain

Pros and Cons of the North American Language and Culture Assistants Program

If you want to work in Europe but you don’t hold the golden ticket – an EU passport – chances are you’ve spent hours combing through the few job options available. When you’ve read “candidate must have permission to work in the EU” for the thousandth time and are convinced that your only option at this point is to marry an EU national, I may have a solution for you! Your ticket to Europe, specifically Spain, is the North American Language and Culture Assistants program.

Never heard of it? That’s okay. I hadn’t either until about a week before I applied. NALCA is a program run by the government of Spain that allows Canadian and American Bachelor’s Degree holders to work as English language assistants in public school classrooms across the country. Spaniards’ English proficiency is notoriously low, so your job is basically to help out the teachers – many of whom have poor English themselves – and give students the opportunity to learn from a native speaker. You work 12-16 hours per week and are free to use the rest of your time to do whatever you like. For detailed information, check out the official website.

Ask a former language assistant whether they’d recommend the NALCA program and you’ll probably get as many saying, “yes, definitely!” as “no way in hell.” The experiences vary so widely from region to region and school to school that it’s almost impossible to know what to expect from yours.

As with any big decision, making a pros and cons list for the program is a good way to figure out whether it’s right for you. While you’ll probably spend hours scanning other blog posts and Facebook groups for information, I hope to make the research process a bit easier by highlighting what I’ve learned from my own experience as well as the experiences of other language assistants.

Pros

  • Live in Spain for an extended period of time. To participate in the program, you must apply for a student visa. The visa will be valid for 90 days from the day you intend to enter Spain, at which point you’ll replace it with a foreigner’s card (TIE) valid until the end of your contract.  You’re free to stay in Spain or the Schengen Zone for up to 90 days after your TIE expires. This means you could spend about a year in Spain or, if you renew, even longer. If living in Europe is your ultimate goal, the NALCA program is a great starting point.

  • Four-day workweeks. Language assistants are expected to work 12 hours per week (16 in Madrid) spread out over four days. This means that every weekend is at least three days long. Remember that the Spanish love their holidays, so don’t be surprised if some months your weekend is longer than your workweek! Many language assistants take advantage of the limited hours we work by taking on private lessons or travelling.

  • Gain teaching experience. For those language assistants planning on becoming teachers back home (me), the program is a good way to get your feet wet and feel out if this profession suits you. I was placed in both a primary and secondary school. While I would have preferred being with the secondary students full-time, working with the primary students has been beneficial in that it has confirmed that I have no desire whatsoever to teach elementary education. Young kids just aren’t for me. However, as a language assistant, I have learned valuable classroom management skills as well as lesson planning tips. Preparing games and activities for the kids has really pushed my creativity and given me ideas that I can reuse in the future.

  • Improve your Spanish. Unless you get placed in Galicia, País Vasco, Catalunya, or Islas Baleares, of course. Anywhere else in Spain, the chances your Spanish will improve if you put the work in are pretty good, especially if you live in a small town. Remember not to latch on too tightly to other English-speaking assistants. It’s good to have friends who understand you, but it won’t help your language learning.  

  • Escape winter. This is probably more applicable to me than to those language assistants from, say, California, but one of the major perks of the program is that the Spanish climate is very mild, especially in the south. This weekend in Granada I’ll be tanning in the park and within a few weeks it will be beach weather. The three-ish months of winter (Dec-Feb) can feel unreasonably cold due to a lack of central heating, but the rest of the year totally makes up for it. So, if you feel like saying goodbye to -30 for a year or two, keep the program in mind.

  • Make tons of friends from around the world. I know I said not to spend too much time with English speakers if your goal is to learn Spanish, but it’s inevitable that you’ll befriend other English teachers, international students, or locals. Cherish those connections, because the people you meet abroad are probably the only ones who will ever truly understand your life there. It’s a special kind of relationship.

Cons

  • Low pay. The pay for language assistants is 1000€/month for a 16-hour work week in Madrid and 700€/month for a 12-hour work week everywhere else. If you break it down hourly, you’re getting paid a decent wage. However, 700€ can be challenging to live off of if you’re in a more expensive city like Barcelona. Most language assistants supplement that income with private lessons. If you want to have an active social life or travel, you’ll probably need to use savings or provide private lessons in addition to your monthly stipend.  

  • Limited choice of location. When you apply to the program, you are asked to pick the top three autonomous communities (think: states/provinces) where you’d like to be placed. The spots are then assigned on a first-come, first-served basis… usually. The whole process is sort of mythical. No one really knows how the people in charge go about placing the applicants and it can change from year to year. Don’t get your hopes up if you’re looking to be placed in a particular city. You can make a note on your application that you’d like to be placed in Seville, but there’s absolutely no guarantee that the person doing the assignments will so much as glance at your special request. If you do get placed in the city of your choice, consider yourself lucky! Keep in mind that in any case, it’s unlikely you’ll be assigned to a school in the city centre as these spots are limited. I was extremely lucky to be placed in Granada, but my commute is nearly an hour each way.    

  • Late payment. This varies from region to region and person to person and is probably the most common complaint language assistants voice. Some regions are notorious for paying their assistants their first sum up to three months late. Others have no issues. Why the variation? Your school receives money from the government, so if the government is late paying the school and the school doesn’t have the extra cash to cover you in the meantime, you might not see a paycheque till January. Ridiculous? Absolutely. Something you should be prepared for? Unfortunately, yes. It’s recommended you arrive in Spain with at least 2000€ but my advice would be to bring closer to 3000€. That first month abroad is full of unexpected expenses.

  • Long commute. As I mentioned earlier, chances are you won’t be placed in the centre of whatever big city you’re closest to. If you’re okay with living in a small town, you don’t have to worry about commuting. For those who prefer the city, however, keep in mind that you could be travelling an hour or more to get to work.

  • Being split between two schools. I spend six of my 12 hours in a primary school and the other six in a secondary school. They’re both in the same village, but my schedule is kind of a nightmare. It’s always changing and I work with about 25 different groups of students, so it’s difficult to learn their names, let alone foster a relationship with them. Apparently, once upon a time, there were two language assistants in my secondary school. Now there’s half of one. It seems this is the result of a lack of funding and while it makes my life a bit more complicated, it’s really the students who suffer as they don’t get the most out of having a native speaker in the classroom.

  • Feeling undervalued. This is probably what frustrates my friends and me the most. There are days when we show up to class only to find that we’re not needed – no prior notice. Sometimes this gives us a nice hour break, but there have been days when I’ve had two or three out of my four classes cancelled. When you’ve travelled an hour to get to work and you have to sit around for three hours doing nothing, it can feel like a colossal waste of our time and knowledge.

  • Being exploited by staff who don’t know the requirements of your position. The job duties of a language assistant are clearly laid out in a handbook that each coordinator receives and should share with the bilingual teachers. I say “should” because there have been horror stories of language assistants who have been left alone to manage 30 kids or to plan every lesson for every class. These are huge no-nos. I can’t stress enough how important it is to know your role and to make your duties crystal clear to any teacher who tries to use you as an excuse to get out of doing her job. Your job is to assist where needed. Of course, there are assistants, like me, who are okay with doing some planning and more or less leading a lesson. That being said, the lead teacher is always there to step in should I need help. Know your boundaries and make sure your colleagues know them, too.

  • Getting sick ALL. THE. TIME. As much as I love my students, they are walking, talking viruses. I carry hand sanitizer with me at all times because I know they are infested with germs just waiting to be passed on through bear hugs and kisses. This winter was the first time I got the flu in years and I was sick at least once every month from October to March. They say this is common in your first year teaching as your body builds immunity. Pack lots of Nyquil.

Verdict: Despite the frustration of things like a long commute and feeling like your time isn’t valued, my experience in the program has been positive. I’ve never been paid late, my coordinators know my role, and I was lucky enough to be placed exactly where I wanted to be. It has been a great way to gain teaching experience and helped confirm that I’m happiest teaching older students. That said, I won’t be renewing in the program because I don’t see myself staying in Spain long-term. If I were guaranteed to only be working in a secondary school, I might reconsider.

Ultimately, accepting a position in the NALCA program is a risk, but it’s one I encourage you to take if you’re at all interested in teaching. Spain is absolutely underrated as a place to live. It’s cheap for western Europe, the people are kind, and the landscape is breathtaking. Yes, the country is immensely bureaucratic and the cultural differences make you want to pull your hair out from time to time, but that’s all part of the experience. That’s also one reason you’re there: to share how your culture differs and encourage cultural exchange.

If you have an idea of what you’re in for before you begin the program, it’s likely you’ll have the tools to adjust to whatever Spain throws at you. There’s even a Facebook group for each year full of people going through exactly the same thing ready to give valuable advice.

I say if you want to live and work in Europe for a year (or more), give the NALCA program a chance. Having nearly completed my year, I’m open to answer any questions you may have and ease your doubts. Feel free to leave me a comment below or send me a message privately.

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Want to teach English in Spain? See if the North American Language and Culture Assistants Program is right for you

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