Being a Language Assistant in Gran Canaria

Being a Language Assistant in Gran Canaria Valle Agaete Gran Canaria by Thomas Borstner

This article was written by Ross Clarke, published on 10th September 2012 and has been read 11907 times.

Imagine Britney Spears tapping a pencil against a book, staring at the clock, bored of study and itching for class to end. That was me. Only, I was a boy, not famous, in university and didn’t have pigtails or a number 1 hit single! After studying Spanish for several years and opting to take it as part of my degree (Linguistics, Spanish and Business) I had known that the question of a year abroad was going to arise sooner or later. Here it was; study, work or teach? I’d always fancied myself as a bit of a know-all and thought it would be a more real experience if I was teaching English in a Spanish school than studying in a university, so I opted to do the British Council Assistantship Scheme.

British Council English Language Assistants

The scheme enables those with a native speaker level of English to be a Language Assistant in a school in one of 15 different countries worldwide. There are different requisites for each country but most of them will need you to be able to speak the host country’s language to at least AS-level standard or higher. The scheme places 550 assistants each year in Spain alone to teach and promote English language and culture. The application is very simple; the standard personal details section and a few extended questions to find out why you want to go. Then you choose 3 regions of a country in which you would like to be located and you can also specify the type of place and school, e.g. City, secondary school. After a few signatures and a reference etc, you are set!

My application was accepted and eventually a thick manila envelope landed on my doormat from the Spanish Ministry for Education and Science. I was to be posted to a secondary school in a town in Gran Canaria!

Arriving in Gran Canaria

I contacted the school using my still fairly limited Spanish and received a reply from the Head of English. All was arranged that there would be someone to meet me at Las Palmas Airport and that one of the other English teachers owned a holiday flat that I could stay in until I found somewhere more permanent. The only problem now was that I had no clue how to be an assistant! Thankfully, the British Council and the Spanish Ministry lay on an induction course in Madrid before the start of your contract to let you know exactly what you’ll be doing as an assistant and also how to survive the bureaucracy of living and working in Spain.

Being welcomed to Spain

It was late September and Bristol Airport was awash with Language Assistants all praying that they had made their weight allowance. With my friends who had also gained posts all over Spain, I headed for Madrid for the 3-day event. The conference was very informative even if a little Spanish heavy. On the last night, however, we were all invited to dine with the British Ambassador to Spain at the British Council Offices in Madrid. We turned up to a magnificent building with guards on the gates. As we nonchalantly approached, the guards waved us through into the grounds where tables of food and dinner-suited waiters were serving drinks. All that was missing was a pyramid of Ferrero Rochet although we did enjoy caviar and as much champagne, wine, beer etc as we could drink. What a way to be welcomed to Spain!

I arrived from Madrid understanding almost all the Spanish I heard. Little did I know that the Canary Islands have their own dialect! I waited at the airport until I was approached by a crazy looking woman who kissed and hugged me before I’d even had chance to stand up. Her name was Paqui and she was the Head of English... thank God! She took me to see the flat where I would be staying and it was there I met another English teacher and her husband. They insisted that I was far too skinny and that they must feed me instantly. So, we ventured to a restaurant on the harbour of a seaside village called Arinaga and I was introduced to Canarian life and cuisine including “pulpo”... octopus! I was full of questions but felt overwhelmed by the generosity of my new friends, how fast they spoke in Spanish and how when you swallow octopus you can feel the tentacle suckers all the way down.

Teaching in a Spanish School

My first day at school was great fun. I was picked up by yet another English teacher and given my timetable: Monday to Thursday, 10 until 2 working a total of 12 hours. What happened next I could never have anticipated. The bell rang and as well as the noise from 300 plus teenagers pushing and shoving through the corridor outside the department office, a swarm of teachers came into the room and I was kissed, hugged, slapped, hit, bumped and poked all in the name of Spanish greetings. Just as well I don’t bruise easily!

Accommodation in Las Palmas

After a few weeks of searching, calling, viewing and rejecting flats, I answered an ad for a flatmate to share with 3 Canarian students near to the main bus station, right in Las Palmas city centre. It was ideal, and after a quick informal interview, I was offered the room. From the outside the flat looked old and from the ageing facade of the building it was probably passed its prime. However, inside it was young, modern and stylish and why wouldn’t it be with one of my new flatmates being an interior design student!

Before I knew it, it was November and I had settled in to the laid back way of life. The Canary Islands are on the same time zone as the UK; GMT. I found out later that this in fact means Gran Canaria Maybe Time and if you are planning lunch for 2 o’clock, nobody is likely to turn up until 3! I also found out that someone else from my university was posted in Las Palmas and we scoured the list supplied by the British council for other assistants in our area. We were lucky in the fact that Las Palmas has a university and welcomes many Erasmus students every year, so there was no lack of English conversation if needed.

The teaching experience

The school was brilliant. My school recently became part of a new bilingual project where other curriculum subjects were also taught through the medium of English. This meant that I had to help out those subject teachers as well as the English department. My timetable ensured that I was in a variety of classes with a range of teachers who all used me in different ways. Some would like me in the class just to help out with vocabulary whilst others were happy for me to take the lesson or take small groups for conversation activities. The teachers would supply me with activities or give me a subject to prepare something on or would welcome any ideas that I had. My teaching experience was so varied and often I found that in the morning I would be teaching “Head, shoulders, knees and toes” to a group of 12 year olds and then later I was having a conversation class with 16 year olds on issues such as graffiti or popular culture. We had a ‘Cultural Week’ at school, where I taught the students traditional English customs: how to lay a table for dinner, how to make a perfect cup of tea, how to tie a tie in four different ways and how to greet the Queen. The students loved it and the Head of Studies said that she had never seen them so well behaved. My mentor also arranged for me to sit in some Spanish classes to improve my own language skills.

The Spanish education system

The education system is Spain is slightly different to that of the UK and all of my classes were mixed ability. This made bad behaviour a big problem for the teachers. Thankfully, being fairly young, the older students saw me as more of a friend than a teacher and the younger ones were a little intimidated by my foreign-ness to be that naughty. You learn as you go along though, how to keep their attention and when they need a firm hand. The advantage of being an assistant is that you are not responsible for behaviour or marking, so my time outside the school was my own, minus a tiny amount for lesson prep.

Travel in the Canary Islands

Travelling is one of the things I like most and due to the hours I worked and the relatively cheap costs of living (I paid €200 (£140) a month for my rent including all bills) I was able to travel around the islands easily. Once you are resident in the Canary Islands you can get cheaper travel and entry into tourist attractions. I visited Lanzarote for a weekend and spent £150 including return flights, a 5 star apartment and car hire.

My contract (1st October – 31st May) was over all too quickly and I returned home to complete my last year of university.

After graduation - back to the Canary Islands!

After graduating I did several jobs until my mentor from the high school contacted me to say they were looking for a new assistant only for the now region wide bilingual project. I would be split between the high school and one day a week in a primary school a bit further up the coast. I jumped at the chance. After speaking to the coordinator on the phone I was accepted on the reference and experience from my year abroad. I was now contracted to work for the Canarian Government. I quit my graduate job, packed by suitcase and moved back to the Canary Islands within the space of two weeks!

Living in the Canary Islands as a graduate teacher

Living with the teacher and her family whilst I found a flat (here we go again!) I started work in the school. The teachers were glad to see me back and the new ones a little unsure of me. It’s funny, some of the non-English teachers look at you a bit strange to begin with and feel that they cannot speak to you because they don’t know English, however as soon as you start to speak to them or catch them of guard with a bit of Spanish (usually saying how your Spanish is dreadful and you want to improve) they warm to you a lot. One of my favourite parts of my day is to go to the cafe over the road from the school at break time with all the teachers and swamp myself in Spanish, coffee and smoke. As a non-smoker and coming from the UK with its smoking ban, this took a bit of time to get used to again but I find it doesn’t bother me now and in Spain, as with many European countries, it is their way of life. Did you know that in most cafes in Spain there are 72 different ways to ask for coffee? They range from a “solo” (single shot of coffee) to a “cortado largo” (literally a long short, a shot of coffee topped up with hot milk) and each of them can be served in a glass or a cup!

Back at my friend’s house I got used to having a three course meal for lunch at around 3 o’clock, then a nice relax or a siesta (a habit way too easy to get into) and then a small dinner at around 10 at night. I was lucky this time that I knew people in Gran Canaria and in fact my university friend from the time before was already living back there. She was also looking for a flat so we hunted and found a 4 bedroom flat with swimming pool for €500 a month in the up-and-coming area of Las Palmas.

Life in Las Palmas - Nightlife and shopping

Las Palmas is said to be the city with the best climate in the world and the Canarians make the most of it. Endless cafes and “tavernas” line the streets, ideal for sipping a coffee or sampling some tapas and a spot of people watching. A typical Canarian night out starts at around midnight when you have some drinks with friends, then you head out to bars at about 1am and finally to a club at around 3 or 4am to get home just before you need to get ready for work at about 6am or later. No wonder they have a dedicated siesta in the afternoons! This does mean, however, that the shops are closed from 2 until 5 during the day but re-open until around 9 at night so there is plenty of time for shopping. The sales are not to be missed in Spain. They have “rebajas” where most items will be reduced by half price and then towards the end of January/August they will have the “segundas rebajas” where all the items are slashed by half price again. Plus, lots of famous high street brands are cheaper in Spain as they are Spanish in origin, so Zara and Mango for example are less expensive and have wider ranges than they do in the UK.

Living in Spain and the Canaries is less expensive than in the UK and only earning slightly less than I did in my graduate job in the UK; I find my money goes a lot further. One great thing about food here is it is inexpensive and fresh. There are loads of markets and stalls for buying fruit and veg, fresh fish and meat. The north of the island is mostly Spanish, although you can find some British delicacies in some shops. In fact a Marks and Spencer Simply Food has just opened allowing me to buy those treats that I love in the UK. If you do want more British produce, you can obviously head into the tourist areas of the south however you will be hard pushed to find (love it or hate it) Marmite! Definitely worth packing in your suitcase if you are a marmite fiend.

The benefits of being a Language Assistant

So you wanna be a Language Assistant? Well, it is a great way to get some real experience, learn a new language whilst learning all about how English works and enjoy a laid back life as well as saving some money or travelling. I have been on school trips to the mountains and even to Tenerife! As you are staff you don’t have to pay which is a great way of travelling and sightseeing. One of the best parts of my job is seeing the difference you make to the students. At the end of the year you will notice a huge difference in their ability and they will have picked up on some quirk of yours that will allow them to do an impression of you! “Easy peasy” seems to be a favourite of mine at the moment.

Career Opportunities

Obviously, I really enjoy my job but I know that it is not what I want to do forever. I am open to trying many jobs and would like to pursue journalism as a career but know that I now have valuable skills and life experience that I can bring to any other job that I do in the future. Moving abroad can be a bit daunting at first, especially when English is not the spoken language but that is all part of the adventure. Experiencing a different way of life is really enriching and exhilarating and I would encourage anyone who has the slightest feeling that they might want to try something new to consider being a language assistant. There are opportunities all over the world for teaching English as a foreign language and you don’t necessarily need that essential TEFL qualification that everyone seems to go on about.

Looking for more information? Try these websites:

British Council Assistantship SchemeCanarian Government’s CLIL Project (ESP/EN)

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