Small town vs. city life: Language assistants in Spain 2-year review

Two years ago, I said goodbye to one of my favorite places on earth: Ohio University and Athens, Ohio. Being a Bobcat truly changed me for the better, but as I walked across that stage I had no idea that the best was yet to come.

A few months later, I hugged my mom goodbye in front of John Glenn Columbus International Airport and scurried inside to catch the first leg of my one-way flight to Spain. The original plan was to spend just one school year working as an auxiliar de conversación in Andalucía, but as one thing led to another, I found myself first renewing my contract in the program, then pulling out all the stops to stay here in Córdoba after discovering that the program was kicking all second-year auxiliares out of Andalucía. Now that everything has been signed, sealed, and delivered for pareja de hecho and I have the certificate in hand, I’m leaving behind the language assistant lifestyle in favor of greener pastures (read: social security, permanent residency, and the ability to apply for actual jobs).

Throughout all of its ups and downs, this program has been very good to me. I’ve worked at two high schools in two very different environments and tutored quite a few kids in private classes for my side hustle. My students have inspired the heck out of me on multiple occasions, and at the risk of sounding cliché, I’ve learned a lot about myself as well. To reflect on my experiences over the past two years, I decided to put together a compare-contrast review detailing different aspects of the two places in Spain I’ve called home.

leaving cantoria
Kind words from my 3ESO kids (freshmen) on my last day of work in Cantoria. The “don’t leave” message, not the math.

Where I live and work

Year 1 (2015-16): I was placed in a tiny little village called Cantoria (population 3,500something) in the province of Almería, Andalucía. I lived in the largest possible nearby town, Albox (population 12,000something), and commuted to and from work every day with other teachers. I wrote all about the small-town Spanish life here.

Plaza de San Francisco in Albox, Spain, where I lived while working as a language assistant.
Plaza de San Francisco in Albox

Year 2 (2016-17): I live and work in Córdoba, a much larger and more well-known city. I live in the city center and either walk or get the bus to work, depending on time/weather/how lazy I feel that day.

Plaza de las Tendillas in Cordoba, where I lived and worked during my second year as a language assistant.
Plaza de las Tendillas in Córdoba

My schools

Year 1: Small town = small school. There were maybe, at most, 200 students in the entire high school. I only worked with the bilingual group of each grade level and kept the same schedule all the time.

My time as a language assistant in Spain allowed me to travel to Madrid with my students. Here we are at the Royal Palace.
At the Royal Palace of Madrid in November 2015 with my segundo de bachillerato kids on their version of a senior class trip.

Year 2: My school this year has 1,000 students. I still work only with the kids in the bilingual program, but since it’s a much larger school, each grade level has multiple bilingual groups. I have a rotating A-and-B-week schedule which allows me to have several classes a week with each group.

Work schedule

Year 1: 12 hours spread out over three days: Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. My boss told me herself that she wanted me to have time to get out of town and travel due to the fact that there wasn’t much to do in that area.

Albox, Spain, where I lived during my first year as a language assistant.
A sunny square in Albox

Year 2: 12 hours spread out over 4 days: Monday-Thursday with Fridays off. This is a more realistic auxiliar schedule.

Work environment

Year 1: Being at such a small school meant that I was able to get to know my students as well as my coworkers personally as well as academically. It was much easier for me to memorize students’ names (since there weren’t as many of them), and hardly a week went by when I didn’t run into one of them around town. There were also less teachers at the smaller school, and I felt I was able to make some great friendships with some of my coworkers. The fact that I commuted to work with several of them helped strengthen these relationships as well.

As a language assistant in Spain, I helped my students perform plays in English.
My 4ESO kids (sophomores) in Cantoria taking their bows after performing an entire play in English.

Year 2: My school this year is wonderful as well, and I’ve had many positive experiences throughout the year. However, the fact that it’s a much larger school means that I haven’t been able to connect as much with the students. I see each group for about two hours a week max (and sometimes even less), so I have to make the most of the time I have with them. On a similar note, my coworkers have also been nothing but kind to me, but it’s been harder for me to get to know them better due to the sheer fact that there’s just so many of them.

Classroom experience

Year 1: I worked in bilingual math, science, and social studies classes, as well as English language classes. Language assistants at bilingual schools in Andalucia typically don’t assist with English language classes, but there were so few bilingual classes at the school that they had to put me somewhere. The English classes ended up being my favorite for many reasons: I’m passionate about language learning, and the classes provided lots of opportunities for active games and fun group discussions.

Year 2: There is a much larger variety of bilingual subjects at my school this year. In addition to the subjects above, I also help out in more specialized classes such as technology and government. Although I don’t work in any English language classes, I spend an hour each week helping the students in cuarto de la ESO (the equivalent of American sophomores) and segundo de bachillerato (seniors) prepare for the oral interview part of the Trinity English exam. Although it’s not as active as an actual English class, this is one of my favorite parts of my job this year. I get to talk to the kids one-on-one or in small groups about a variety of different topics and get to know them a little better. I’m constantly amazed by how thoughtful and insightful they can be with their answers (and how good their English is), and I always look forward to the speaking practice classes.

A science fair at the school where I worked as a language assistant in Spain.
Science fair at my school this year in Córdoba.

Living situation

Year 1: It wasn’t easy to find people my own age to live with in a small, non-college town. I ended up spending the year living by myself in a 3-bedroom, 2-bathroom apartment in Albox. While there were times I wished there was someone else around, I loved living by myself for the most part. It really made me feel more independent and helped me learn how to take responsibility for things. The only negative was the fact that the entire rent payment (250€ a month—half of my share of rent at my college apartment in the US the year before) and all the bills were on me.

Year 2: I’m on my third apartment in Córdoba and plan to move into a fourth with my boyfriend as soon as my current lease ends and we find something that works for both of us logistically (affordable, furnished, with someplace he can park his car and where I can easily catch buses to get to work). My first place here was a summer sublease with several Erasmus students, all of whom were super nice, but there was just way too many of us living there (I believe at one point there were 8 people living in the apartment). The second was a shared apartment with three girls who we’ll call Karen, Gretchen, and Regina, which I left in December after spending months being talked down to, accused of things I didn’t do, and yelled at over the smallest mistakes (exhibit A: The Great Toilet Screaming Incident of 2016). After coming back from spending Christmas in the US, I moved into my current place, which is well worth the 40€ more I pay per month. I see it as an investment in my sanity.

A view from the balcony of my first apartment in Cordoba, Spain.
View from the balcony of my first apartment in Córdoba

Local lifestyle

Year 1: Although on the surface there wasn’t much to do in my town, I had the greatest stroke of luck just a few weeks after I arrived and met a group of españoles who would soon become my closest friends. I also became good friends with the other handful of auxiliares who lived in Albox and the surrounding villages. I still felt a little stir-crazy in my small town, but I was much less bored than I thought I would be.

Mojácar, Spain
Mojácar, Almería – a beautiful little hidden gem of a seaside town just 40 minutes from Albox and one of my favorite places in Spain.

Year 2: I feel like I’m caught in limbo—despite considering Spain my home, I’ll never fully fit in with the Spaniards (see: whenever someone is reading a list of names out loud and comes to one that doesn’t quite fit with all the Marías and Josés and María Josés so there’s just this sudden pause – I’m always like “yup, that’s gotta be me”). At the same time, most other expats I know are fellow auxiliares who are living in a given Spanish city for no more than a year or two. It’s been surprisingly harder to form meaningful friendships this year, despite living in a bigger city and more active environment.

Eating Chipotle in Paris
Level of American: got Chipotle in Paris. (Boyfriend had it for the first time and is now officially a guacaholic as well.)

$pending mon€y

Year 1: Between my 250€ monthly rent (upwards of 300 with bills), having to pay for taxis and buses to get to bigger cities, and the fact that people freaked out any time I tried to charge more than 8€ for private classes, small town life wasn’t the best for my wallet. Despite the lower overall cost of living, it was harder for me to save money while living in Albox.

Year 2: Out of the 3 apartments I’ve lived in here in Córdoba, the highest share of rent I’ve paid has been 230€ a month. Even with bills, it’s less than what I was paying in Albox. I’m also able to charge more for private classes, which certainly helps as well. I’m putting more money in the bank every month, which isn’t something I expected when moving to a bigger city.

Spanish monopoly money
I WISH this was what I had in my wallet.

Overall thoughts

Despite certain aspects which are out of our control, I truly believe that the auxiliar program is what you make of it. You might not get the exact type of city/school/environment you requested on your initial application. Actually, you probably won’t. And that’s okay. Grin and bear it, put on your big kid pants, and give it a try—you never know if this experience could open a brand new door and set you off on a path you’d never even considered.

On the other hand, you might realize after a year in the program and realize that it’s not for you—and that’s okay, too. Just like any job in your home country, it might be a good fit and it might not. The important thing is knowing that you’ve stepped out of your comfort zone and given it a try, which is plenty to be proud of.

As I start my last month in the program, I feel very bittersweet—I won’t miss some of the more inconsistent aspects of the program’s organization, but I’ll miss the (mostly) fun, easy, and enriching work itself (okay, and the 12-hour work week and 3 day weekends, too). I’ve been very lucky to have worked at two incredible schools and come in contact with hundreds of students who have made this a truly eye-opening experience for me.

But for now…onwards and upwards. Hasta luego, auxiliares!

Selfie with some of my students in Spain
Selfie with some of 3ESO (freshmen) in Cantoria.
Cards from some of my students in Spain

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Small town vs city life in Spain - Auxiliares de Conversacion 2 year review

Author: lindseyzimmerman

I'm a marketing pro, writer and cat person from Columbus, Ohio living in southern Spain since 2015. Usually drinking manzanilla, reading Lorca, or attempting to dance flamenco (not all at once).

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