The Pitfalls of the Language and Culture Assistant in Spain Programme and How to Overcome Them

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Just to be absolutely clear before I start bemoaning the problems of the programme, I loved my year as an auxiliar in Madrid. Loved it. But you can love something and still realise it has faults, can't you? I thought it might be useful to put a list together of a few things that might crop up in your year as an auxiliar to interrupt the sleep, eat, siesta, repeat cycle because to be aware of them hopefully makes you better equipped to deal with them! Fingers crossed you don't have any of these problems but if you do, here's how to overcome them...

Some Assistants Don’t Get Paid                    

The first few months can be a tense waiting game for a number of participants. Due to funding delays, budget restraints and poor organisation, it can take a while for some assistants to get paid. And ‘a while’ can be a matter of months in some cases. This is not applicable to all assistants and wholly depends on where you are placed and who handles the budget for assistantships in your comunidad, but it is something to be aware of. It is always worth persevering through this time, frustrating as it may be, as in recent years the money has always eventually been paid (usually around Christmas or the New Year). However, if possible, make sure to have some savings or a support network at home willing to help you through should you be affected. Offering private lessons is also a great way to support yourself in the meantime, 8 hours of private lessons a week could bring in as much as 150€ a week alone!

I wrote a more detailed article about this issue for which you can find here if you'd like to know more.


If you don’t speak Spanish, or perhaps even if you do, the paperwork involved in working legally can be overwhelming. If you are a European citizen, the process is much simpler and only involves applying for and collecting your NIE (Número de Identificación de Extranjeros) and opening a bank account. British Council, who organise the programme placements for UK citizens, will help you to arrange a NIE appointment, but if you are in need of any guidance some useful links are:

Instructions for North American candidates can be found here:

It is usually necessary to have a NIE number before opening a bank account although, in some cases, banks such as La Caixa may accept your passport as ID, although you will be charged a monthly fee for not having an up to date NIE. You can later apply your NIE to your account and avoid further charges so it's a good way to get started even if you don't have your NIE yet!

Being Placed in a Small Town

A large percentage of assistants request a large city or town for their placement, which means a number of applicants are disappointed if they aren't granted their first choice. The first thing to do is research transport links to nearby towns and cities; many assistants choose to travel between 1-2 hours each way to work every day in order to live in a more urban setting. It’s important to remember that working weeks are only four days, so this compromise may not be as drastic as it first seems. Schools are sometimes (although this is rare, I admit) willing to work out a timetable which suits their assistant too, so it is worth asking if it is possible to condense your schedule into three days. Embrace the advantages that a small town setting can afford as well; there will be few English speakers and assistants have the opportunity to properly immerse themselves in a community. Plus you won't have to hear "I went to my village and played with my cousins" every day when you ask what your students did at the weekend - you'll be IN the village!

Misinterpretation of the Assistant Role

The role of the assistant is open to various interpretations by different schools and institutions. It is important to firstly know your rights and what is expected of you and secondly what you are prepared or would like to do. Assistants are not supposed to be left alone with students, nor are they expected to complete planning or marking outside of their working hours. In many schools, however, this is an expected part of the job and can cause tensions between teachers and assistants. It is important to be clear from the beginning on both sides what is to be expected and to re-iterate the guidelines if too much is being asked of you. Similarly, if gaining experience in teaching is your main objective, more responsibility is likely to be negotiated in time should you ask for it and should you wish to contribute extra help to your school. Really, you are in a great position - lots of responsibility and experience if you want it but no obligation if you don't. 

Tension between Teachers and Assistants

The reason why assistants are often asked to undertake more work than they are contracted to complete is that many full time Spanish teachers feel overworked and underpaid. Pay can be a real cause of tension between full time and assistant teachers so it is advisable (as probably in any workplace, but more so here!) to not enter into discussions about salary or hours unless strictly necessary. This is only a real issue in some very isolated cases but has become more apparent in recent years due to teaching reforms, particularly in the teaching of English, which threaten job security for some of the most long standing teachers. It is important to reassure the teachers you are assisting that you are there just to provide cultural and linguistic support, not to be overly critical of their teaching methods. In most cases, English teachers are happy to have an authentic English speaking presence in their classroom and you won't have this problem, though it does exist.

Yet Despite Everything…

The Language and Culture Assistant programme is one of the best programmes of its kind in the world. Significantly, it is also one of the only programmes to allow international applicants to legally gain a work visa in Europe and afford them the opportunity for language learning, travel and experience in teaching. It can be financially very rewarding and an exciting new experience filled with incredible opportunities (am I selling it yet?)

For more information on how to apply, visit:

Additional questions may have already been answered on the Facebook group:

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