Started From The Bottom: One Year of Teaching English in Madrid
I fall in love with cities fairly often. I‘ve left a piece of myself in every city I’ve ever lived and Madrid is no exception. Even though I hope to be back in September for a second year of teaching English, as I spend the summer in the U.S., I can’t help but reflect on my first year in Madrid (and y’all know how sentimental I can be).
All I had when I came to Spain was a desire for a new adventure, challenge, and culture. I had no job, no apartment, no friends. Now I have all of that and more. I live in a neighborhood that I love. I’ve met friends that are like family. I can have a conversation in Spanish. I now pronounce Barcelona “Barthelona” and Zara “Thara.” Kidding.
I’m not writing this to brag about how amazing my life is because there’s already enough of that on the internet and nobody’s life is perfect. Moving abroad comes with its own set of cultural curveballs. Starting over in a new place wasn’t the easiest on my bank account. I was far from home when I lost my grandma.
However, this is all to say that changing your life is possible. Taking a risk can pay off. A time of pain or uncertainty can be followed by a kind of joy you didn’t even know was possible. If this all sounds like the cliche of traveling or moving abroad to find oneself, maybe it is. But I think the experience only solidified the strength I already knew I had.
Maybe that’s why leaving Madrid, even if only for a couple of months, is so damn hard; none of this was handed to me. My choices (and maybe a little luck) are what led me to this place, this moment. Life has a weird way of getting you to exactly where you need to be.
I started from the bottom, but how exactly did I get here? People frequently ask me, "Why Madrid?"
So, here is how I ended up teaching English in Madrid—plus tips on how you can, too.
(Yes Drake's new album just came out and yes the title and all of the subheadings are Drake songs, and no I'm not sorry.)
"Nothings Into Somethings"
After returning home to Houston from backpacking through Southeast Asia, I began job hunting in the U.S. But I couldn't shake the feeling that I would love to continue to travel while making money. On my trip I met a few people with stints teaching English abroad, so I reached out to them and started looking into my options.
Turns out, you can do this in just about every country in the world and there are a ton of different avenues—nonprofit organizations, government-sponsored programs, volunteering. In most cases, you also don't need any experience or special qualifications other than being a native speaker.
In an attempt to narrow down my search, I decided that I would like to learn Spanish. I began researching teaching options in South America. I soon realized that teaching in South America would entail either volunteering or earning a very minimal income, not to mention it's much harder to travel around the continent.
Where else could I go? I had visited Spain before and loved the laidback lifestyle and culture. Luckily, Spain also has a high demand for English teachers, as well as multiple programs that recruit native speakers.
Once I decided on Spain it was time to figure out how to get there. The problem was that applying in April meant I missed the fall deadlines for most of the programs, including the most popular one sponsored by the Spanish government, which places Americans in public schools. I didn't know at the time that I could have possibly gotten on a waitlist or started the school year late. I could still apply to a couple of private programs, like CIEE, but with a hefty application fee.
I then found the International TEFL Academy (ITA), which hosts certified courses for teaching English abroad. The organization provided a lot of information about Americans teaching in Spain without a visa or "under the table," as long as you had some sort of certification or qualifications. Instead of a school, you could find a job teaching at a language academy, which Madrid has hundreds of.
So I completed ITA's 170-hour online Teach English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) course and prepared to go rogue. (I also looked into getting a student visa and taking Spanish classes, but wanted to keep start-up costs to a minimum.)
I was still applying to jobs in the U.S., but it was July and nothing had panned out. ITA had prepped me by telling me that I would need to be on the ground in Madrid when language academies started recruiting in September for the October start of the school year. I wanted to get to Spain by late August to get a head start, so I took the leap and booked a flight.
So there I was in Madrid—no job, no apartment, no friends, and broken Spanish. I stayed at a hostel for about a week and a half while I began my apartment search, which was a great way to meet people. No one really told me that Madrid is an absolute ghost town in August since locals are on vacation fleeing from the hot temps.
The floodgates opened in September when university students, teachers, and pretty much everyone under the sun was looking for housing.
"Hold On, We're Going Home"
I looked for housing primarily on the Spanish website Idealista. I also combed through Facebook groups and looked out for "Alquiler" signs on balconies. I sent at least 100 WhatsApp messages reaching out about listings and viewed probably around 20 apartments. Sometimes one room would be shown to 10 people at the same time. Some were snatched up the same day, others had a roommate selection process.
I had certain requirements that I wasn't budging on, like an exterior room with a window and a double bed. After all, I'm well out of college and my standards are a bit higher.
I had remained calm during most of the process, certain I would find the right place. But after over a week of searching and traversing the city in the summer heat, I was on the verge of a breakdown. What if I was being too picky? What if I keep waiting and then everything is gone?
Just in time—this is where the aforementioned luck comes in—I stumbled upon a Facebook post about an available room in Malasaña, my top neighborhood. I scheduled a time to see it and arrived 10 minutes early. As soon as I saw the room I was in awe: in the center of Madrid's coolest neighborhood was this humongous corner room with three—THREE—balconies, for a reasonable price. Since I arrived before everyone else, I called the landlady and locked it down immediately.
"Get It Together"
I put up advertisements on a couple of well-known Spanish websites for private English lessons. I used online databases to find language academies and emailed my resume out. I also walked into places I found while wandering the city. A lot of academies were automatically out since they required proper working papers.
Eventually I found an academy that was happy to hire me for good pay and close to home. Rather than a classroom setting, this academy gave in-home private lessons to kids and in-company classes to adults. I worked in the evenings giving classes after school and work. It took a couple of months to accumulate enough hours, so I also started teaching online classes to Chinese kids through DaDaABC.
With an academy job, I enjoyed waking up later, the variation in my days, and the range in student ages. The downside is that its less stable, and without a visa I don't get health care or paid leave.
If my visa application process goes smoothly, in September I will return to Madrid with the government program, North American Language and Culture Assistants in Spain, better known as the Auxiliares de conversación. This way I'll have health care, a monthly stipend, and a visa that allows me to legally live in Spain and freely travel around Europe. (More info on the program below.)
"Best I Ever Had"
I met my two best friends in Madrid through Facebook. We were all a part of the ITA Alumni Facebook page and decided to meet up. Then, they joined an expat club soccer league where I met the majority of my friend group, and the rest is history.
It can be daunting and potentially isolating moving to a big city where you don't know anyone. I'm a weirdo who finds that kind of thing exhilarating. There are so many opportunities to make friends in Madrid and the key is to just throw yourself into all of it.
Don't be afraid to reach out to others on social media (there are tons of city-specific expat groups) or go have a drink somewhere alone. Join sports leagues, fitness studios or Meetup groups. Go on a pub crawl or to one of the many language exchanges hosted at bars around town. Madrid has an incredibly vibrant expat community, so once you meet one person chances are they'll introduce you to their friends.
It's easy to look at my filtered Instagram life in Madrid and think it's some unattainable fantasy, a vacation from the real 9 to 5 working world. Sure, it has been a welcome break from the expected career path, one that has helped me reevaluate what I want to do when my teaching years come to an end, but anyone can do it.
Applying for the Spanish ministry program is free and requires no teaching experience. The application is open from January-April and you can apply to teach anywhere in the country. Other programs like BEDA and Meddeas offer slightly different experiences.
You can also find opportunities to teach English around the world. The research process can be a bit daunting, so here are some helpful links to help you get started.
Leave a comment below or feel free to message me if you have any questions or would like to share your own experience teaching abroad!