After weighing up multiple options post-graduation, I eventually decided to work as an English Language Assistant in Castelló de la Plana. The ELA, known in Spanish as an auxiliar de conversación usually works for 12-16 hours a week helping the main teacher. In this position, you can be especially helpful leading speaking activities or giving cultural presentations, which the (usually) non-native teacher would find more difficult to teach.
Life’s a rollercoaster
Overall I had an incredible time in my three years as an English Language Assistant in Castelló. But there were plenty of difficult moments too, and I think it is important to talk about all aspects of living abroad. I find that living abroad heightens all my emotions and everything is just more intense. The awesome experiences were far more incredible than what I would have experienced staying in England. But I also faced more obstacles, and without such a wide support network, they felt more difficult.
So without further ado, here are some of the highest highs and lowest lows of my time in Castelló.
Working as an English language assistant
Lows: English Language Assistants normally work with a maximum of two or three teachers. But for my first year, we only realised this after we had organised my timetable… with 13 teachers! This made coordination difficult and resulted in too much last-minute planning. I wasn’t always able to make the most of my time in class. In my final year, with the excuse of COVID, my coordinator only allowed me to teach from the textbook. That’s not really an ELA’s job, and I wasn’t able to share much of my culture or do fun speaking activities. I felt useless and frustrated, and sorry for the children.
Highs: I want to be a teacher in the future, so I definitely enjoyed the job. But it wouldn’t feature in my most outstanding memories. However, outside my main job, I taught private lessons. In these lessons, I had more flexibility and was really able to share my culture. The joy of carving pumpkins and cooking gingerbread men with excited children in English is one highlight I’ll always treasure. Another is the weekly classes that almost became therapy sessions with one of my adult students. We developed a special bond that I didn’t have with other students.
Lows: I moved to Spain to practise speaking Spanish and Catalan/Valencian. But the language barrier was, and still is, one of my greatest frustrations. I have a very good level of both languages now, but I still can’t express myself in the same nuanced manner that I can in English. I also still struggle to understand everything in group conversations or noisy situations. I feel I can’t be fully myself, or I feel that the version of me that people know isn’t everything I really am.
Highs: Valencian is, sadly, a minority language in many places it is spoken. Lots of locals can’t (or don’t) speak it. So being an English person who speaks Valencian is uncommon and appreciated. Along with the fact that I got very involved in the local culture, this turned me into a mini-celebrity in the Valencian-speaking community of Castelló. I definitely met more people because of this and was welcomed more into the local culture.
Lows: Making friends, especially as you get older, is always a challenge. Making friends in a foreign language and foreign culture is even more difficult. And in Castelló, the majority of people were born there and have lived there all their life (or left briefly but returned). This makes it even more difficult to become part of friendship groups that have been stable in many cases since primary school! I noticed this especially keenly because with my job I had lots of free time. I missed having my university friends with me to share my adventures.
Highs: Slowly, I began to make more friends. I didn’t ever get to the point where I felt completely happy with how many close friends I had. But I was incredibly lucky to have many people who welcomed me and shared their time and passions with me. With them, apart from my regular hobbies, I went paddleboarding at sunrise, surfing, snorkelling, rollerblading, cycling, and learnt to play paddle tennis. They lent me equipment, drove me to suitable places, and shared the fun with me! I was also lucky to have a coordinator who became my best friend. She was my confidante, inspiring me with her passion for teaching and life. We shared Christmas meals and pizza nights. We went hiking and olive picking, and I was welcomed like another member of the family.
Lows: Luckily COVID isn’t an integral part of the English Language Assistant experience! But it understandably had such a big impact on my life in Castelló that I have to mention it. Unsurprisingly, it was a low point! In Spain, we had two months where we were only allowed out of the house for essential shopping, not even for exercise, and I was not in the best flat for this (dark, few windows, introverted flatmates…). Throughout my whole final year, there were also still varying levels of restrictions. In many ways, I found it even harder when the restrictions eased because I still felt a personal sense of responsibility. But I had to enforce my own boundaries, I couldn’t fall back on the law.
Highs: It may seem strange to have a “highs” section under COVID. But although I would never choose for it to happen, the sense of togetherness was so strong, even though we were physically apart. Having more free time was also a bonus, which allowed me to get back in regular contact with many friends. But the most positive thing to come out of the COVID situation was, surprisingly, flamenco.
During the strictest lockdown, my flamenco teacher began to offer classes online. I didn’t have much else to do, and they gave me a sense of purpose, so I signed up for all of them! Even once restrictions relaxed, there were still many things we couldn’t do. But dance classes, either socially distanced and with masks, or back online, were always possible. So I directed more energy to flamenco, and it became a passion that led to me moving to Seville this year to learn more!
Lows: I really don’t think there are any highs for this. And I had it easier than many people I know! But I’ve still been on wild goose chases around different government buildings, being turned away at each one. I’ve nearly cried with frustration and humiliation (and I know people who have actually cried). I’ve waited longer than you should have to for a simple document. I have struggled to make a cita previa (appointment) which I needed urgently. But it is all manageable eventually, especially if you take someone with you for emotional support!
Highs: But here is something which only has highs! The Valencia region has such a rich culture, and there is so much I could talk about. But I’m going to focus on two of my favourite parts.
Fire: There is no way that Valencia’s fire-related traditions could happen in England due to health and safety restrictions! So I made the most of them while I could. I have three favourite fire-related memories. The first one was the Nit Màgica in the Magdalena celebrations. People with fire danced around me, sparks rained down from above, wheelbarrows with flaming bull-like “horns” whooshed past, and fireworks set the palm trees on fire. Not everyone’s cup of tea but I loved it! Secondly, the square full of people wielding fire in the Salt de Plens at the Patum festival. Never have I been more scared for my life, nor more exhilarated and amazed! And thirdly, going under and inside a massive bonfire to celebrate Sant Antoni as the clock struck midnight on my 25th birthday. If you like fire, the Valencia region is the place to be!
Muixeranga: I knew I wanted to join the muixeranga group before I even arrived in Spain. These human towers perfectly combine my love of acrobatics and climbing, with the desire to experience the local traditions. Right from the beginning, I felt welcome in their group. I especially love the mix of ages, from little children to retired people. Everyone has their space in the Conlloga (my muixeranga group). The highlight of everything I got to do with this group was the figuereta. It’s a figure where someone (me!) gets to do a headstand on top of two levels of people! It’s visually impressive, fun to perform, and came to represent my involvement in Valencian culture.
A final high: Castelló is a 20-minute cycle from both the sea and the mountains. I loved going to either of those places for sunrise and sunset. It is also surrounded by stunning villages, and I made sure to visit as many of them as possible (even better when you can go with local people to show you their secrets!)
I certainly struggled at times during my three years in Castelló, with problems I wouldn’t have faced had I stayed in England. But the highs fully outweighed the lows, and I had an incredibly immersive experience with so many amazing memories. Cliché as it sounds, the difficulties have made me a stronger person, and the high points have given me an experience that will forever be a part of me. I would 100% recommend being an English Language Assistant in Castelló!