The Highs and Lows of Being an English Language Assistant

The Highs and Lows of Being an English Language Assistant

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. 

A sunrise from the Castello mountains

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. 

Language

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. 

Friends

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. 

COVID

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! 

Paperwork

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! 

Culture

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. 

Location

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!)

Conclusion

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!

47 thoughts on “The Highs and Lows of Being an English Language Assistant

  1. I’m sorry about the lows – I can see where it would be frustrating having 13 teachers when there were supposed to be only 1-2. The highs do look very eventful and beautiful as well.

    1. Yes, it was complicated that’s for sure, but even though professionally it wasn’t ideal, it did let me become more socially involved with the department which was a benefit. And I know people who have been in even more complicated positions (for example having a timetable that changes every week with different teachers and classes!) Eventful is definitely a good work to describe my time in Castelló!

  2. Ohh this is lovely post to read. I really enjoyed reading your experiences as an English Language Assistant. Yes it is a bit difficult to stay in a country with different language but I guess you nailed it.

    1. Thank you for your comment! I’m really glad you enjoyed reading this post. I’m not sure anyone fully nails something like living abroad, but I certainly did my best to make the most of it!

  3. Being an assistant language teacher is rewarding but it definitely has low points. You get to learn more about the culture and speak their language since you are immersed in the culture. The good thing about it is you get to share your own culture. Although, I always thought it was lonely since I am the only foreigner in my school.

    1. Yes, you’re so right, it’s also a great opportunity to share not only my culture but also my love of travelling and how important I think it is. That’s something I really got to share with ym secondary classes. I’m sorry you’ve felt lonely being the only foreigner in your school. I personally found I was very welcome in my school, but felt more lonely outside of school. Either way, it’s one of the challenges you have to go through when living abroad.

  4. Very interesting. What a skill to have!? I can’t speak any other language well, only broken bits of Finnish, Spanish, French, and some German. But nothing is beyond the basics. Well done to you!

    1. “Only some Finnish, Spanish, French and German” – even if it’s only a little bit of those languages then that’s still a lot! And don’t forget, I studied languages at university – so many people are an expert in their field of study AND they speak multiple other languages! But how interesting you also know some Finnish – so do I! Not a common language to learn. Se on mahtava! Hauska tutustua!

  5. I have a cousin who is working as an English Language Assistant in Japan and i honestly envy her job because i am really eager to visit that country haha but yeah i guess living and working abroad can be a roller coaster experience.. there are ups and downs here and there.. especially if you need to adjust a lot, the culture shock and more… also the covid makes it more though right? But i’m sure you are having a great time to as you explore this chapter of your life.. cheers!!

    1. Wow, in Japan your cousin must be experiencing a much more different culture, with all those incredibly enriching opportunities but with things being even more different that can often be harder – I hope your cousin is doing well!

    1. Covid has changed everything, of course. But there are still ways to travel – hopefully international travel will keep getting easier again, but even travel around your own country or area can be awesome and transformative if you have the right mindset.

  6. This would certainly be an interesting and rewarding experience. I would imagine many teaching positions have a lot of these issues as well.

    1. Yes, some of these reasons are specific to my experiences but many would be shared with other teaching assistants, and some with normal teaching positions too. I guess everything in life has its challenges and its opportunities, and I like to try to find those opportunities even if they’re a bit hidden.

    1. I like how many comments use the word rewarding, because it definitely is. But I think as with many things in life to a certain extent you get out what you put in, and it can be more or less rewarding depending on how you live it.

  7. I can see that it has high and low times being a teacher in a foreign country. Thanks for sharing your story. We can learn a lot from it.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I do hope people can learn from it, realising that it’s not just a long holiday, but that it is so much more worthwhile than if it *were* just a long a holiday!

  8. Working as an assistant language teacher in another country would be fun but I understand it’s not always glamour. There are some challenges too.

    1. Exactly. I often felt that people I knew back in my home country of England thought it was all just fun, but it’s definitely not. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it – in fact it means it’s even more important to do something like this because you learn a lot.

    1. Thanks for the understanding, there were definitely difficult times. But I always try to find the opportunities in the challenges in life, and there is usually an opportunity hiding there somewhere, even if it’s a bit smaller than the current challenge, it’s still worth finding!

  9. Thank you for sharing your experience with us!!! I actually have a cousin in Spain who does the same thing. We think that he’s all good times, but of course it comes with bad times as well. More power to you!

    1. Hi, thanks for sharing about your cousin! I hope that this post can help people who aren’t living abroad to remember that it can also be difficult as well as the awesome moments you often see on social media. Good luck to your cousin!

  10. Above all COVID had to be a huge issue. I love how you structured your post with the highs and lows. I am sorry you were not able to express yourself like you wanted to with the language issues. Overall it sounds like your time was well spent and valued.

    1. Yes, covid didn’t leave anyone’s life unaffected, that’s for sure!! But some of the struggles it gave me are some of my proudest moments from my time in Castelló!

  11. Sounds like it would be really interesting being an assistant. I think it would be a wonderful experience, but I can see the lows of it too.

    1. Yes, it’s an experience that gives you so many opportunities to experience another culture without too much work!

    1. I certainly tried to make the most of it and I’m happy of how I faced the challenges it presented me with and made some amazing memories!

  12. Sounds like you had quite an adventure and sorry for the lows. At least the wonderful experiences are good memories.

    1. Yes, it was definitely an adventure! And do you know what? I’m not even sorry for the lows. They made it the adventure it was and many of them provided opportunities for positive things to come out of the challenges I was faced with!

  13. What an amazing experience it must have been! I’m glad the highs outweighed the lows for you and you continue to do what you love.

    1. Yes overall it was certainly worth it. Never too late though, many teaching assistant programmes don’t have an upper age limit! There are different challenges involved doing it later in life, but it can be just as awesome!

  14. Great article! It looks like you had a fantastic time living in Castello. In my opinion, your lows are not uncommon problems of living abroad, and they have been outweighed by all the beautiful memories you made there. I love how you used the pandemic to learn flamenco. I did the same with salsa 🙂

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