It was 2011. As I twisted around the corner jutting out into the narrow street, I let out a sigh of relief that the driver of the old, battered Clio didn’t run me over, and put the incessant honking of his car horn down to the fiery, Spanish temperament. I released the handles of the two suitcases that had been bucking behind me since I exited the dilapidated bus station, and took a moment to compose myself. The town was deathly quiet. Like the bus station, the empty, winding streets belied their purpose. The stone houses were white-washed, weary, and seemed as if they kept hidden inside a trove of secrets. Between the gaps in the terraced streets, lances of the sun’s molten-gold rays splashed down onto the cobble stones.
According to Google Maps, I was nearing my destination – my new home for the next 8 months. I was to live in the Extremaduran region of Spain – a rural impoverished province – , while teaching English to children as part of a Language Assistant Scheme. A batch of intense but not unfamiliar emotions surged through me as I negotiated my way over the hump in the cobbled road; a large serving of blind fear, a sprinkle of palpable anxiety, all topped off with a luscious dollop of adrenaline. If you told me then that these states of emotion would burden my existence at any given time throughout the next 8 months, I would have run for the (Spanish) hills, suitcases jerking behind me.
The Irish Department of Education and Skills describes the Language Assistant Scheme as a way of “helping pupils to see the foreign language as a living language of millions of people rather than as a ‘school’ language.” The scheme operates between Ireland and five other countries: Germany, France, Italy, Austria, and Spain. Each country is responsible for funding its own assistants as well as setting their own conditions, but all programs insist an applicant is in college or has a degree. The salary for a 13-hour teaching contract in Austria rests at a healthy 1000 euros per week, but criteria demanding the applicants be under 30 years old greatly reduces the amount of those who can apply. Largely, its aim is to cultivate a transnational, interconnected English-speaking Europe.
For Spain, the English Language Assistant Scheme succeeded the abolition of their national currency; an event apparently without careful deliberation beforehand, considering the effects of the transition between peseta and euro. A state that has been submerged in a sea of red tape since its birth, Spain can thank a generation of long-term loans and the building market crash including the bankruptcy of major companies for its economic downturn.
According to many English Language Assistants, the collapse of economic growth left a lasting imprint that was felt especially within the confines of Spanish education. They say that a lack of staff, along with sluggish bureaucratic administration at the top, has an inevitable ‘drip-down’ effect which results in officials being misinformed about their role. Claims of late payment by the many thousands of Language Assistants that venture to the Iberian Peninsula each year also compound the bad reputation the government has been cultivating for itself recently.
Alison Carroll, a native New Yorker, took part in the “Language and Cultural Assistant Program”, which is a scheme dedicated to strengthening relations between North America and Spain, but is similar to the traditional ELA Scheme in practice. Stipulations are stringent, however, and applicants must hold a BA and undergo a background check by the FBI in order to be cleared for a visa.
Ms Carroll claims that when she lived in Mérida in 2012-13 she wasn’t paid until 14th January despite being contracted to work since the previous October. “Our contract stipulated that we were to work 12 hours a week and be paid €700 a month as a stipend from October 1st to May 31st. They also told us to come with around €1000 saved up, so we could live off it for the first month until we got paid at the end of November. However, it wasn’t until January 14th that I and many of the other assistants were paid,” Alison, 26, explains.
After sending countless emails about her lack of payment to government officials and co-ordinators at the Ministry of Education, Alison was met with radio silence. It was then that she decided to present herself at her region’s Consular office, demanding a meeting with the Program Director. However, after she was finally granted an appointment, Alison said she left just one hour later in floods of tears. “I left the meeting not knowing any more than I did going in. Not only were they really rude and unhelpful, but they somehow managed to make me feel that it was my fault for not being okay with not being paid.”
Alison blames a lot of this inaction on that fact that most funcionarios (civil servants) are not well informed themselves, perhaps due to a lack of funding for training, and time. Dee McMahon, 29, from Dublin, maintains that governmental apathy and bureaucratic administration within the Language Assistantship is down to one thing: lack of money. Although Dee was always paid on time, she states that many of the teachers she worked alongside were misinformed or unaware of what role they should take in the classroom. “I guess one of the problems was that I seemed to have a different role in each classroom. Some teachers seemed to want to me to take the entire English class for 40 minutes, which I found a bit daunting. One teacher in particular seemed to really take advantage of me being in the classroom and took the time to correct homework and do other work, and this was a class of particularly difficult students,” says Dee.
Dee claims that out of all classes at her allocated primary school, she had just one teacher who set out a lesson plan with her. “In his class, I had a set task every week of certain vocabulary to drill or grammar to do, and I liked that I had a specific job and I knew what I was doing.”
However, in other classes she was expected to take control of the entire lesson for 40 minutes, despite not having any teacher training. “Once, during an art class, I completely lost control of them and the teacher just sat there and ignored the whole thing while they ran riot – as if it were just my problem and there was nothing she could do about it! I found that very upsetting.”
Vague objectives that include “giving students an insight into Irish life” and “assisting the regular staff of the school” perhaps allow each teacher to use the assistants at their own disposal. The lack of definitive guidelines from the Program Directors at the top only amasses more confusion. According to Dee, this led to her having nothing to do at times – “It made me feel quiet redundant, like it was pointless me being there.”
So what of the future for the English Language Assistant Scheme? Will consistent bad press in both Europe and the U.S shame the Spanish government into enforcing a range of stringent guidelines for everyone to adhere to? Or, will the evolution of the Scheme depend on Spain rising from the cavernous depths of financial Hell? Only time will tell.
When I contacted the Ministry of Education for comment I was told that one of their officials would contact me as soon as possible. Let’s not hedge our bets on when that may be.