Spain: Auxiliar de Conversación Program

For the next eight months, I will be teaching English while living in Andalucia, Southern Spain. I know everyone thinks Southern Spain is all palm trees and sangria and topless beaches, and in a way, it is. But this is not my reality, unfortunately. I’m living in the province of Jaen, which has one main purpose of existence; it’s OLIVE COUNTRY.

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To put it simply, Spain is the world’s top producer of olive oil, and this hilly region that I call home is the epicenter of it all. There are mountains and hills and little towns spotted along the horizon, all bobbing amongst a sea of olive trees. Virtually all of the countryside in Jaen is owned and cultivated for olives and their oil. Aside from the olivos, the land is arid and dusty. You can see large mountains in the distance, and having never lived anywhere with mountains in sight, I’m fascinated by their towering existence.
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I came to Spain to work as an English assistant, specifically anAuxiliar de Conversación. This program places native English speakers in public primary and high schools for a duration of 8-9 months. It’s offered by the Spanish Ministry of Education, and you receive a 700 euro per month stipend in exchange for working 12 hours per week (Those in Madrid receive 100 euros and work 16 hours per week). LINK. Unlike my previous experience in Thailand, this job is only as an assistant, I’m not expected to lead my own classes and make my own lesson plans. In Thailand, CIEE basically gave us everything on a platter (a job and a contract, housing, medical insurance, work permit, and a lengthy orientation), which made assimilating simple and stress-free. Here in Spain, things are very different. The Ministry provides you with the job and accompanying medical insurance, but everything is up to you. All they care is that you show up to your assigned school come October 1 and every subsequent day after.

I am working at two schools in the town of Jodar (pronounced Ho-dah) a small pueblo about 20 minutes from where I’m living. I work six hours in a primary school, and six in a high school. Most classes I assist the teacher with pronunciation and questions about language and culture. The classes in the high school are bilingual, which means the students are taught in mostly English and expected to speak it through the class, and all their texts and worksheets are in English as well.
For additional income, I’ve picked up evening classes at an English Academy one night a week. These classes I teach alone, and at first it was terrifying, but I’ve gotten used to how it works by now. I have a teacher’s manual and every student has their own book, so the lessons are basically pre-planned for me. I also have begun tutoring one evening per week for one hour. I teach five young kids at a time, in a family’s apartment close to where I live. It’s easy money and fun, we can play games and I can actually share my own culture with them being that it’s a small group.

Somehow, I made it through the first month (virtually) scratch free and settled into Spanish life here in Ubeda, Jaen. When I first arrived in Spain I was homeless and clueless, but a little over a month later, I have multiple jobs, a really nice apartment, WIFI, a Spanish cell phone, a bank account, and my residency all sorted out. I won’t lie and say any of that was easy (unlike what you may think, not many people speak English where I live), but we managed with the help and kindness of multiple Spanish speakers, and Google translate. The assimilation was more difficult than I’d hoped, but it’s all done now and I can appreciate that I’ve successfully moved to two foreign non-English speaking countries and survived! The wine is pretty amazing here in Spain, so that always helps.

Provincial Phrapradaeng

I realize that many of these posts have been focused on traveling around Thailand, but there’s a lot to be said about where I live in work when I’m not traveling. I consider myself very lucky to have been placed in Phrapradaeng, which is basically a suburb of Bangkok. There’s a definite small town feel walking the streets, and I am usually running into people I know from school or locals and we exchange a smile and a wai. I can buy anything I need or want in town, either from the little shops, Tesco (grocery store), or street stalls.The side streets are designated for either produce, fish, or meat stalls. It’s like a giant farmer’s market within the town, which is a common characteristic of Thailand found throughout the country. It’s interesting coming from America, a place that I thought was obsessed with shopping. Turns out, Americans got nothin’ on the Thais! Thai people find their little space on the street and will set up shop selling just about anything; everywhere. Checking out the market is one of my favorite things to do, there’s always something to buy or look at.

My apartment building is a non-descript four-story building that sits back on a quiet soi (side street). The building is home to all Thai people, except for us  five foreign teachers. There are some families that live in the small one room apartments, but you would never know it by the constant quietness in the hallways. My apartment reminds me of a college dorm complete with white cement walls, twin beds, a wardrobe, small fridge, and a vanity. To our shock, we found TVs in all of our apartments upon moving in. There’s an endless amount of Thai channels and luckily 2 English speaking channels. The Universal channel. We’ve become a little too familiar with the handful of shoes on this channel than we’d probably like to admit.

I have a small balcony that faces that loudest high school in the history of the world, where they love to use a megaphone as a means for everything. The alley between my building and the school is cluttered with some trash, but is mostly a thick mess of palms and mango trees. The other day I watched a large monitor lizard slyly slink his way through the alley, a subtle note that I am indeed living in a tropical country. We live about a 5 minutes walk from school and about 10 minutes from the main area in town. I pass the beautiful temple of Wat Songtham everyday and sometimes there are festivals going on in the yard. They range from religious to downright ridiculous, but there’s always good food and people watching.

night festival at Wat Songtham

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I wake for school a various times each days, depending on the rain that morning. If it’s sunny, the students are gathered in the school’s courtyard to pray to the Buddha statue, sing the National Anthem and a Thai “Happy Birthday to You” to whichever student is celebrating on that particular day. Next on the list is a funny song that everyone, myself included, is required to dance along to. I like to think of it as the Thai Macarena, with some simple moves that are hilarious at 8 am when executed by 500 kindergartners.

morning school line up

morning school line up

I share an office with three Thai teachers who are always bringing in treats, both Western and Thai, and sharing them with me. It’s usually a delicious exotic fruit like rambutan or mangosteen, sometimes it’s little cakes or candies. Today’s office treat is some sort of seed that pops out of an over sized green pod. My class schedule is spaced out, leaving me 2 hours for lunch everyday. I walk over to the primary school and eat their delicious soup for 20 baht, it’s the same everyday but I haven’t tired of it yet.

my school lunch for less than $1

my school lunch for less than $1

My students are bursting with energy every time I see them. If I don’t have a particular activity or game planned, it means 40 five year olds running around screaming and knocking each other over. My lessons are simple and always include a physical game, song, or drawing activity. I reinforce the English lessons they learn in their regular classes, attempting to inject a little creativity and fun into their day. This week we are learning animals, but the kids already know the names of many animals in English. That makes it easier on me, so I gave them an assignment to draw their favorite animal. They wrote the sentence, “My favorite animal is a….”. Their drawings are creative and some are really talented! Their handwriting is superb, I think it’s because Thai writing is so intricate and beautiful that when they write in English it comes with ease.

drawing our favorite animals

drawing our favorite animals

one of my K3 classes

I laugh a ton in my classes. Some days the kids don’t want to listen and then we end up sitting in silence with their hands over their mouths (a Thai method, not mine) until they are ready to learn. My students are still young and innocent for the most part, they love to run up and hug me, and five highs are their favorite. I recently started teaching an extra 2 hour class on Saturday mornings and it’s simply hilarious. It’s more of a summer camp feel than school. This past Saturday started with the teachers all wearing cardboard chicken hats and dancing to the chicken dance. I teach two 30 minute classes which are hardly enough time to play one game, so it’s not a lot of pressure for me to come up with a sixth day of lessons. I like to spend the extra time with the Thai teachers on this day, it makes me feel more like I’m part of the staff since they welcome me into all of their photo ops.

always a humbling experience at school

always a humbling experience at school

Amnuayvidhya School is a great place to work. Everyone is friendly and the kids are respectful and cute as hell. It definitely doesn’t feel like work most of the time. Our school has been run by a family for the past thirty years, and the adult grandchildren now hold positions as Director and Head of English Department. We were recently invited on a weekend trip with the family go to down to Hua Hin in September. It’s definitely going to be an interesting weekend; I’m looking forward to traveling with Thais and experiencing what they do on a holiday weekend. The fact that they invited the us foreign teachers means a lot to me.

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practicing our shapes

practicing our shapes

Pi Chompoo, my amazing and crazy co-teacher

Pi Chompoo, my amazing and crazy co-teacher

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The weeknights in Phrapradaeng are quiet and relaxing. I try to spend a few hours in my office after school doing work so I won’t go home and take a long nap (tough life, huh?) The rainy season has officially made its way to the Bangkok area, and the daily spurt of rain has turned into downpours that last hours. The rainy season will last until November. Here’s to hoping that our area won’t flood… that much. Bangkok is accessible by one of the city buses that parks just around the corner, and we go often for shopping, mainly, and Western food. However, we are still removed from the hectic life of the city and our town sees basically zero foreigners. I really couldn’t be happier with my little life here in Phrapradaeng.