How to be an awesome language assistant

So you’ve been accepted into a language assistant program and you’ve likely been placed in a middle of nowhere town and CAN’T WAIT TO GO TO SPAIN. But maybe you don’t speak Spanish, maybe you’ve never been to Spain before, maybe you’ve never been a teacher, and your excitement is quickly overshadowed by *anxiety*. Or perhaps its your second year but this year you want to really be that language assistant that has the school remembering you for years.  After three years as an auxiliar,  and five more as an English teacher in private schools, here are my best tips for how to be a great language assistant and make your year one to remember–for all the right reasons.


1. Don’t be shy

I say this coming from someone who has ALWAYS been shy. It takes a lot for me to show my true personality to someone–let alone in a different language and completely out of my comfort zone. But in most parts of Spain, people are very friendly and open, and expect you to be too, especially since you’re already seen as “different”. If this seems hard for you, take baby steps. Share your breakfast at recess, take your coworker up on a coffee, ask about someone’s weekend, even just smile.  You’ll be surprised how big of a difference it makes. 

2. Learn Spanish

This isn’t necessarily a prerequisite to do the program, but nothing shows more respect to someone’s culture than doing your best to try to learn their language. Sign up for classes and use other teachers to your advantage. If you are teaching in the Basque country, Galicia, or Catalonia, even if Spanish is your main goal, it is nice to learn just a few catch phrases in the local language, too. The first year I was an auxiliar, I learned more Spanish than I had in four years of high school, a college degree, and four months abroad. 

3. Take a step out of your comfort zone

It is natural that if there are other native speakers or language assistants at your school, you will likely attach yourself to them, and that’s fine. It can be really nice to have someone who speaks your language and likely shares your culture and you can rant about all those “wtf Spain” moments together. But don’t close yourself off entirely, especially at the beginning. The rapport you establish from day one is the one you’re likely to stick to and be stuck with, so try to be the one who at least makes an effort to talk to everyone, not just the other assistant from England.

4. Take advantage of recess

Spanish schools normally have a “patio/recreo” or recess time sometime between 10 and 11. Some teachers will have recess duty, but the others are likely to stay in the teacher’s room and have (their second) breakfast–a small sandwich, yogurt, or fruit–and chat about classes or their weekends. Use this time to integrate. Even if you are just listening, nodding, and smiling, that’s okay. This was me for the first two years I was there. Every once in awhile someone will ask you a question, and one day you’ll even get up the courage to interject in a conversation. Oh, and if its your birthday, bring treats.

5. Be flexible

Being an auxiliar a lot of times means being ready for anything. In three years and four different schools, I had a lot of different expectations from teachers as far as what my job “meant” in each school. In theory, you should never have an entire class to yourself, and the teacher is responsible for telling you what kind of activities or lesson they would like your help preparing. The key word is you are a language ASSISTANT. However, this is not always the case. In some schools I have barely been used for more than laminating materials and making copies, and in others I was expected to substitute entire classes. Neither of these are what your job is supposed to look like, but there is a wide range of what it can be. Maybe you take small groups of students to do conversation practice, maybe the teacher asks you to prepare a lesson that he/she will help with, or maybe you have conversation hours with the teachers. Realize that somedays teachers will cancel on you, school events will come up, classes change. Go with it.

6. …but firm.

On the flip side of this coin, I recommend being totally NOT like me, because six years ago I was terrible at standing up for myself, and some people you will work with will have “mucha cara” and have no problem using you to do their job. If you are ever put in a classroom situation that you aren’t comfortable with, tell them. Know your rights and know what they can and can’t ask you to do. If you’ve never had teaching experience before, ask to sit in on an English class to get a feel for how the teachers speak to and discipline the kids and their teaching style. On the other hand, if you DO have teaching experience and would like to lead activities on your own, ask your co-teachers if you can do a class once a week or something. I’m sure they’ll be thrilled.

7. Gain authority quickly

Spanish kids are not always adorable, quiet angels. In fact, I hate to generalize but “quiet” isn’t an adjective I would use to describe many Spanish people in general. (*****totally a sweeping generalization*****) Don’t get me wrong! I love the carefree passion and boisterous voices and laughter that they bring everywhere they go…just not always in my classroom. Since you are an assistant, it is sometimes difficult to know your place, discipline-wise. In many cases you may expect the teacher to scold children or tell them to quiet down and…they don’t. This is a line you’ll have to test out, but if you are ever alone with a group, you need to make sure they understand you are just as much in charge as their teacher, and sometimes that means being the bad guy.  This is especially effective if you start this way in the beginning and ease up later on. This doesn’t mean you need to be mean and serious all the time at all, but showing them where the line is and what happens when you cross it is essential. Try making an “English class contract” that you all agree on and sign as a class, if you’re with kids 12 and under.

8. Share your home

Pictures, memorabilia and souvenirs, candy, pencils, and your favorite children’s books are all awesome things you can pack along or bring back with you at Christmas. Kids love seeing where you come from and how it is different, (or even the same), as where they come from.

9. Make holidays come alive

Many holidays different or at least celebrated differently all over the world. What better way to teach kids about a holiday in your  country than with pictures of your family and friends from the year before? (My Thanksgiving presentation is always a HIT.)

9. Be creative and be prepared

While holding a TEFL or similar ESL teaching degree or certificate isn’t necessary for most programs, a little bit a research and prep can go a long way. Especially if you are working in a public school, you might notice that teachers can be reluctant to inject a little bit of Pinterest or technological creativity into their lessons. Don’t let that deter you, and embrace the internet and the technology-obsessed millennial (or gen z-er) that you (we) are. Even if you aren’t a trained teacher and just want to get through auxiliares alive, I promise you’ll have way more fun if you are excited by your lessons. Check out these websites and tricks I love when I teach, and please comment with any new ones you guys find below!

10. Disfrútalo!

More than anything, get out there and enjoy it, guys. Yes, of course take your job seriously, be on time, and do your best, but don’t forget to explore the community that surrounds you. Spend your pay check on a trip to eat pinxos in the Basque Country, stay an extra hour out to have one more caña in the town square, take a chance on a food you’d never eat at home. Spain has so much to offer, and you’re almost there!





3 thoughts on “How to be an awesome language assistant

  1. Excellent tips Emily!

    I have yet to get (back) to Espana but am looking forward to it soon! :–) Mi Corazon es Espana :):)

    Tu eres La Leche!!


    Davi en California


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