It's nearly 11.45 when I arrive at the high school. The city bus (my first experience riding one!) was an entire half-hour late, and so I had to rush, gearing myself up to apologize for my tardiness. Still not accustomed to the Mediterranean heat, I step inside the stifling building with sweat running down my temples.
"Hola, soy Sebastian, el auxiliar de inglés," I tell the first woman I see as I approach the counter. My Spanish is terrible, but her English is non-existent. All I understand out of what she says next is "inglés."
"Sí, sí," I say, smiling apologetically. The next few moments involve her rushing to find one of the teachers, who thankfully tells me she can speak to me in English. She mistakes me for the older brother of one of her students, but I quickly explain who I am, and show her the schedule I was sent over Whatsapp.
"Oh," she says, finally understanding. "You're the assistant!"
The next fifteen minutes or so are spent meeting several of the teachers, very few of whom speak English (though one proudly proclaims in a thick Spanish accent "My name is...!" which I graciously applaud). I only have two classes that day, one of which is already halfway through. The moment I step inside, I'm given the floor.
I wasn't expecting this. In fact, I hadn't even looked over my notes. I thought, perhaps foolishly, that my first few days would be spent sitting off to the side, or in the back, watching the teacher teach and getting accustomed to how things worked in the classroom. Thus far, my only experience had been the 20-hour practicum required in CIEE's TEFL certification program, which fortunately I had continued into the summer as a volunteer tutor. I assumed my job would be similar to what I had done back home with the foreign exchange students; I would help them with their work alongside the teacher's lesson, providing pronunciation help and homework guidance. But now, I was stood before roughly 25 fourteen year-olds and the teacher who had taken the opportunity to grade some papers in the back.
Suddenly I was thankful that I was so late.
While scrambling for ideas, I introduce myself and have the children tell me their names and one thing about themselves. Of course, I pronounce a lot of their names wrong, and they have to repeat some of them several times, but I reassure them that they can correct me. After all, I'm going to be learning just as much as they are.
After introductions, I ask the children if they have any questions for me. To my surprise, they have a lot! Anything from what do you like to do, or what is your favorite color? To do you watch Stranger Things? or have you heard of Sr Pelo? We talk about video games, and music, and sports--nearly all of the boys love football, and the girls love to dance or ride horses. One boy surprises me by telling me he loves to plant, and another loves maths (the UK pronunciation, for all you fellow Americans). At the end of class, I feel as if I've really gotten to know these kids, and a surge of confidence rushes through me.
I spend the next hour in the (air conditioned!) teacher's lounge, figuring out the Wifi password (another hassle due to the language barrier, but successful nonetheless) and doing a quick Google search of some games I can play with my next class. After all, I'm not late anymore, which means I'll have the full hour to fill up. As expected, the teacher sits in the back and hands the class over to me, but this time I'm prepared. We have introductions, and a few questions, but this time I have several games in mind as well. The teacher tells me that this class has a somewhat poor grasp of English, and that they need to practice speaking and comprehension, and so, feeling a little more ready, I proceed with the lesson. We play "two truths, one lie" as well as "deserted island", and as a bonus, I make each student repeat one thing they learned about their classmates at the end. The hour is filled completely, and by the end of it, much to my surprise, the teacher offers me a ride home.
As we walked to her car, I felt incredibly confident in myself (after all, these were my first official lessons...ever!) but I also felt a sense of trepidation. I had read online some horror stories of auxiliars being utilized improperly, either having nothing to do or having to do it all. The cultural ambassador program is fairly new after all, and people aren't even familiar with the term auxiliar let alone what they are supposed to do! Fortunately, before I could express my concerns, the teacher asked me what I preferred to do, either create lessons or just help out. With an inward sigh of thankfulness, I told her that I would be willing to do whatever she needed, that I would be there to help as much as I could but that I wouldn't mind creating lesson plans from time to time. We came to the agreement that should she need me to create a lesson for the next week, she would simply tell me and I could do whatever I wanted. She warned me that the other teachers might not work the same way, but in that moment, it was enough to put my mind at ease.
Now that I'm back in my apartment, and I finally have the chance to reflect, I want to give you, aspiring auxiliar, my tips for making this experience as stress-free as possible. First and foremost...
Sure, it isn't technically required to do this program, but had I not had my TEFL certification, I would have been completely overwhelmed by my first lesson. CIEE's TEFL program gave me the support I needed to feel confident standing in front of nearly thirty expectant teenagers for an hour. Each module (see my other article: Getting TEFL-Certified through CIEE: What To Expect) builds upon the last until, at the very end, you have a full resevoir of knowledge at your disposal to use for creative and effective lesson planning. It isn't just about knowing the right things to teach or the right games to play, it's about how those things go towards providing the best learning environment for your students.
Know what you're doing, because no one else does. You won't have your hand held in this program; your teachers might have only had one experience with an auxiliar before, or none at all. If they had, ask how things were done then, but don't feel confined (either by yourself or your colleagues) to teaching in the same way. Make limits for yourself and be assertive in them to avoid being over- or under-utilized. This is a fairly independent program, which can be incredibly freeing, but it can also overwhelm you if you're not careful. Know where you stand and stand your ground.
I had read online about many schools having a teacher's carpool, but I was still shocked that I was offered not only a ride home, but regular rides to and from school! Even before I arrived, I was asked over Whatsapp how far I lived from the school just to make sure I could arrive on time. In my experience, the people in Spain are incredibly hospitable and more likely than not you'll be asked about these things, but if you aren't make sure you ask yourself. Chances are you will be able to ride with some of your colleagues and save on bus fare!
With that being said, make sure you get an apartment close enough to your school that transportation isn't a hassle. Many of the schools are fairly rural and so finding a place nearby might be difficult. Bus lines are your friends--I pay a little extra to live right next to a main bus line which only takes 20 or so minutes to get to my school (and drops me off just one street over!), but some of the pisos I was looking at were nearly 2 hours away! If you don't plan on getting a car during your time here, make sure you have access to your school(s) to avoid excessively long rides.
Like previously mentioned, no one really knows what they're doing in this program, so make sure you have a plan (or several) to fall back on. Your teacher might have you sit and watch a lesson, or they might give you free reign of the classroom like mine did. I could have avoided the stress if I would have planned, but as they say, hindsight is 20/20! Hopefully by reading this you can learn from my mistakes and not find yourself in such an overwhelming situation.
Go with the flow
That being said, you shouldn't be afraid to relax a little and have fun. Especially when teaching children, nothing is ever going to go exactly as planned. When my teacher told me that her students needed conversation practice, I had to quickly change my original plan from a writing-based game to a speaking-based one. As a cultural auxiliar, you will need to be quick on your feet, so don't be too worried if things don't go the way you had hoped. Something that you thought would take five minutes might take fifteen, or a game you wanted to play might become impossible because your students haven't learned a key aspect. Don't be afraid to change things up a little, and adjust your lessons based on your students' needs. After all, their need to learn is more important than your want to teach!
In conclusion, this job can be incredibly rewarding. Working with children is a challenge enough, and when you don't know (nor anyone else) what you're doing, it can make it all the more frustrating, but I hope that through my experiences you will be able to learn and adapt to become the greatest teacher you can be. After all, that's why we're all here, isn't it?