I Want to Break Free (From TEFL Teaching): Finding Work in Spain

It’s no state secret: Becoming a TEFL teacher is a great opportunity for anyone who wants to live abroad. Of all the expats I met in Spain who found themselves on this career path, everyone could be more or less divided into two categories. For some people, TEFL teaching ended up being an incredibly rewarding career change—or at least one that they were happy enough with, because it allowed them to continue to have a fun and exciting life in a foreign country. For others (myself included), TEFL teaching became the bane of our existence, draining us of what made us us.

My flair for the dramatic aside, I want to be clear that this is unequivocally not a critique of TEFL teaching as a profession. It’s just not everyone’s cup of tea, and if you are someone who finds yourself yearning for a cup of coffee instead, there’s a limited amount of time you can keep drinking tea for. Roughly a year and half of the Language and Culture Assistant program and private classes is when I hit my personal breaking point. I knew I wanted to stay in Spain and find a fulfilling role that matched my interests and studies (and wasn’t teaching English), but how?

When it comes to Spanish residency and finding work, there are a handful of different scenarios for expats to pursue—and to varying degrees of difficulty. Before I rattle off the expat residency and work specials, though, let me tell you how, in just a few months’ time, I found myself with a great position in digital marketing for a travel startup in Seville. The steps are going to sound anything but conventional, despite being arguably the most common for Americans in Spain, so I would advise you to sit down, if you aren’t already, before you learn the route I took.

Did I just get married?

I mean, not technically, but kind of…I can explain. This is going to sound strange to anyone who isn’t an American expat in Spain, or at least friends with one. “Don’t fall in love abroad!” says probably every young person’s parents as they drive them to the airport to start their overseas adventure. And what does almost everyone do? Why, fall in love, of course. It’s not our fault that human nature is an unstoppable force, and love can always (at least temporarily) overthrow language barriers and cultural differences.

So, what does love have to do with European residency? Well, in my case and that of many of my American friends, everything. One way to legally stay in Europe is to do what is called pareja de hecho, which translates to unmarried partner or domestic partner, and is essentially the equivalent to a civil union. In going through this paperwork-heavy process with a citizen of the European Union, Spanish or otherwise, it gives you, the non-EU citizen, all of the same benefits as your partner—including healthcare, Social Security, and finding work. When you’re in a serious relationship, it also allows you to continue to live in the same country as your significant other and saves you the strife of a long-distance, intercontinental courtship.

It’s not our fault that human nature is an unstoppable force, and love can always (at least temporarily) overthrow language barriers and cultural differences.

The requirements for pareja de hecho vary across the country (like how long you must be living together at the same address), so it’s important to triple-check what paperwork you need and stipulations there are in both the city and province you live in. My boyfriend at the time and I were told by the town hall in Valverde del Camino, the small town where we lived, that it’d be both easier and faster for us to apply in the capital city of Huelva. It required my parents gathering paperwork for me in the U.S., such as my birth certificate and a certificate of my civil (marital) status, but there was also plenty of paperwork for my partner and I to do in Spain. We also had to go to an in-person appointment, which was more like an interview to prove we actually were dating and knew each other well. 

I’m 100% certain you’re weirded out right now, and frankly, I would be, too, if I didn’t know firsthand how commonplace this is for Americans living in Spain. Given that I was no stranger to excessive amounts of paperwork and government offices as an expat, the entire process was luckily no more frustrating or tiring than any other I had already gone through. Once approved, don’t put away your pen just yet—you still have to apply for your new residency card, as well as a social security number and card. Just as your hand is starting to cramp and your patience is wearing thin, that’s it! You’re done and can finally start to look for work outside of the Language and Culture Assistant program.

I’m 100% certain you’re weirded out right now, and frankly, I would be, too, if I didn’t know firsthand how commonplace this is for Americans living in Spain.

Time to whip out the family tree

Kind-of-sort-of getting married, however, is not the only way to go about obtaining a residency status that allows you to legally work. The next most frequent option among my fellow expats was dual citizenship, thanks to a parent’s or grandparent’s nationality. A select few are so lucky as to have a parent with a direct connection to another country; more often than not, it comes from the grandparents. While in Spain, I made some American friends, who were also expats living and working there like me, that fell into both categories and had passports from Finland, Ireland, Malta, and Poland. (My Australian best friend is another related example, as he had both Australian and British passports, which allowed him to be in Spain. While the U.K. has now formally left the European Union due to Brexit, we’ll see what happens with the current transition period through the end of the year.)

The most typical European countries for Americans to get dual citizenship from are Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Lithuania, Macedonia, Poland, and Spain. The requirements for each of these countries varies slightly: whether citizenship will come via your grandparents or great-grandparents, what paperwork is needed, whether or not you need to live there for a certain amount of time first, and more. Any bureaucratic hassle, however, is well worth the benefits of having dual citizenship, which goes far beyond just being able to work in an EU country.

Name a visa, any visa

Aside from a Spanish civil union or being blessed with a great lineage, there are still a handful of other options for Spanish residency:

Study Visa:A study visa, or student visa isn’t just for university students. You can apply for a student visa to study abroad through your U.S. university, get a degree at a Spanish university, or simply brush up on your Spanish at a local academy. With this type of visa, you are allowed to work up to 20 hours a week.Work Employment Visa:A standard work visa is arguably the hardest visa to come by, as the position typically must be on what is called a Shortage Occupation list (not enough local workers to fill the position) or proof that there are no qualified candidates from Spain or the EU to fill the role.There are some exceptions for seasonal work and au pairs.There is another exception, where individuals with at least five years of experience in their field, a Master’s Degree or higher, and a job offer/contract for “highly qualified employment” can apply for the EU Blue Card.Self-Employment Work Visa;For freelancers or individuals who can work remotely, or those looking to break into this domain, the self-employment visa is a viable option. Most Spaniards and expats who have become autónomo, or self-employed, will not hesitate to tell you it’s a complicated route to go, even once you’ve been approved, but it’s worth it for those who are ready to do what it takes to fulfill their dream of living abroad—and have the time and resources to gather and submit all of the paperwork and cover all of the fees.

There are also a few far-fetched options, such as the Residence Visa for Buyers of Real Estate in Spain, where you must invest in a property with a minimum value of 500,000 euros, and the a Residence Visa for Capital Investors, which has a few investment scenarios, none of which come in at less than 1 million euros.

Hi ho, hi ho, it’s off to look for work we go

A sunset view of the Metropol Parasol, or "Setas," in Seville, Spain.The square where the “Setas,” or mushrooms (more formally known as the Metropol Parasol), are is a great place for a life-contemplating stroll in Seville’s city center.

As for me? With my new residency status in hand, I happily finished out my second year at the elementary school while starting to look for a new job. Despite being holed up in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere, I knew deep down there had to be other expats in southern Spain that had found a job outside of the program and were thriving—and I needed to know how they did it. While perusing my favorite expat blog, Sunshine and Siestas, written by a fellow Midwestern gal, Cat, I came across a post about PINC International, “a professional women’s group, designed to mentor, inspire and connect English-speaking women.” 

Cat headed up the local chapter in Seville, which met once a month. Not only was I going to get to meet the woman whose blog both my mom and I had been reading religiously, but I’d also get to tap into this incredible network of gals who had been in my shoes. I couldn’t believe my luck. I started attending the monthly Friday evening meetings—getting the bus from Valverde del Camino to Seville after school, often booking a hostel to stay the night so I could network longer and counteract the less-than-adequate bus schedule back out to the pueblo.

After going to meetings for a few months, I met a lot of great women and gained some new friendships, including Cat herself, who I am now lucky enough to call a great friend, having celebrated baptisms, birthdays, and even Thanksgiving together. With school not in session in summertime, I was about to go home to Wisconsin for a month and a half to attend a middle school friend’s wedding and get some quality time in with my nearest and dearest—when one of the women from the group mentioned a fantastic job opportunity to me.

Oh, the timing of it all! The job was as a copywriter on the digital marketing team for a young start-up with an office that was en pleno centro de Sevilla (the city center of Seville)—a guiri’s (foreigner’s) dream. She had interviewed for the job herself but had decided to pass on it and immediately thought of me, so I polished up my resume and wrote a cover letter, explaining that I’d be gone for the next six weeks, but was incredibly willing to do whatever it took to stay in touch and do basically whatever they wanted. For the remainder of summer, I exchanged emails back and forth with the marketing team and two of the company’s co-founders, the CEO and the then-COO, anxiously awaiting the day of my return flight to finally get an in-person interview on the books.

An interview to remember

It was the Wednesday of the last week in August, and the day of my first interview was finally here. If you know anything about southern Spain, Seville, in particular, you know that the weather in summer is basically the equivalent of hell on earth—well over 100 degrees almost every day, a scorching dry heat. As a young woman in my early 20s (i.e., far less confident than I am now), whose right arm is covered in tattoos and desperately wanted to get out of the teaching world, I panicked at the thought that they wouldn’t hire me if they saw my tattoos.

So what did I do? Wear a long-sleeved cardigan in sweltering heat, of course. It gets better, though. I took an early bus from Valverde del Camino to make sure I wouldn’t be late, which left me with some time to kill before my interview. As a self-admitted coffee fiend, why not go have a coffee nearby? I was already nervous, so why not make it worse, right? (I clearly had no interest in self-preservation that day.) I ordered a coffee, sipping it outside underneath the characteristic awning with misters that most bars whip out once it gets hot. Before popping over to the office for my interview, I decided to pop into the bathroom and give my appearance one last onceover. 

As if I hadn’t made enough mistakes by that point, this was to be the worst. I got locked in the microscopic bathroom of the café for at least 10 minutes—in over-100-degree weather, with no air conditioning, in a long-sleeved cardigan. I was sweating from the heat, I was sweating from sheer panic, I was sweating from the sweater (which, if I couldn’t take it off before, I definitely couldn’t now). By all accounts, it was an absolute nightmare. Somehow I dabbed off enough sweat with the tissue paper-esque napkins found at all Spanish bars and restaurants to not look like I had just jumped in the pool. Thank goodness I had the sense to choose a black cardigan, at least.

Networking gives me anxiety, and I have no problem admitting it, but I was over 4,000 miles away from my safety net.

“I think I can. I think I can. I think I can. I know I can.”

A photo of the writer with a shot in hand after accepting a job offer at Glamping Hub in Seville, Spain.The moment I found out I got the job at Glamping Hub, my friend and I went out to lunch to celebrate—where she snapped this pic.

Beloved “The Little Engine That Could” mantra in mind, the first interview went well, I had a second interview the following Wednesday, I got offered the job, and I started my new job the Wednesday after that. After more than six weeks of worrying and wondering whether they’d wait for me, the amount of gratitude and joy I felt after getting the position was immeasurable. Not only did I finally have my ticket out of teaching, I was going to get paid to write again. Someone pinch me, please!

It probably sounds like I have the best luck in the world, and I wouldn’t disagree with you. I felt incredibly lucky, and I still do, but I’m not sure I could ever succinctly describe all of the ups and downs of dealing with residency in a foreign country. My residency status changed three times while I was in Spain, and even when it changed for the third and final time (the easiest one to renew moving forward), it still wasn’t “easy.” 

All of those phrases your parents would ever so kindly remind you of as a kid—like “Patience is a virtue,” “It will all pay off in the long run,” and “Good things come to those who wait”—apply here. I wish there was some big secret I could give you to finding work abroad, something that would streamline the entire process and ease all your worries. Do you know what the secret is, though? Motivation and networking. Just like it is when you’re looking for a job in the U.S., which is, in the end, no secret at all. You have to really want it, and you have to put yourself out there. Networking gives me anxiety, and I have no problem admitting it, but I was over 4,000 miles away from my safety net. I knew that if I didn’t meet people, attend events, and get involved in the community around me, I wasn’t going to get any closer to achieving my goal of getting out of teaching and back into doing something I really loved.

AUTHOR BIO: From Wisconsin to southern Spain. Bilingual writer, editor, and translator. Never not looking for a great cup of coffee. That friend who stops to pet every dog.

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