The Pilgrimage (or The Mad Life of a Substitute Teacher in Spain)


We’re delighted to welcome back guest blogger, Ana Carro!

Last time around Ana introduced us to Marbella in southern Spain, where she lives and works as an English teacher in a secondary school.

This time we asked Ana to tell us something about her life in education, and in this hilarious article she reveals the lunacy of the Spanish system she and all other substitute teachers are subjected to each year. You may conclude that you don’t have to be mad to be a substitute teacher in Spain, but it helps!

Over to you, Ana…

The Pilgrimage

Before you get too excited about an article on the famous pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, I must warn you that this has nothing to do with it. I am going to talk about my own pilgrimage, the one I have to go through every new school year. Yes, you have it right, I´m a teacher. But not any teacher. I am a substitute teacher for State Schools (1). What you are about to learn can scare the bejesus out of you, so this article is only for the strong-minded. Let´s start by classifying Substitute Teachers into two broad categories:


First class Substitute Teachers know where they are going to work (that means school and location) about a month before school starts. In addition, they know that they are going to be there for a whole school year. Once this happens one year, it´s likely to happen again every year after that. However, you can easily be downgraded to tourist any time. First class members are admired, respected, privileged, la crème de la crème. They can look down at you and all you can do is accept their supremacy with humility.


I am glad that I have chosen the travelling metaphor because if you are a positive person, you can think of this as a means to get to know a lot of different places and you get paid for it! Only you don´t get to choose where to go. Or when. Or for how long. Yes! You start figuring out a few days in advance what province you are most likely to end up in (provided you have chosen more than one, which is what people usually do when they start work and before they classify for first class). However, the tension is well maintained until the very last minute. Exciting, isn´t it?

Well … no! Especially if you work in Andalucía, but you are originally from León (at least 650 kms away from the closest point). Right, this is how it goes. You are in a list and you know how many people there are before you. That means that if you are number 5 in the list, you need 5 teachers to get sick, go on maternity leave or retire and in you go. But that is all you know. If you happen to be number 5 and somewhere between 800 and 1000 kms from your potential destination, you´d better pack, load the car (again) and phone a friend offering your company for a few days till you get ´THE CALL´. Just to be closer.


At some point, you are number 1 in the list. THE CALL may happen any minute, or any day in the next day or two. Or seven. THE CALL is obnoxious. It likes to make itself wanted, desired, longed for… It makes you want to staple your mobile phone to your ear. You consider very seriously not even taking a shower, playing music too loud, going to the shops or the loo, basically, anything that might prevent you from hearing  THE CALL, like , I don´t know… living? Friendships and families have been broken because someone has had the guts to call you at working hours. Seriously, your entire life revolves around that bloody CALL. We are not a bunch of hysterical morons, trust me. It´s just that the slightest mistake can cause a lot of damage. It hasn´t happened to me yet, but I presume that if you don´t answer THE CALL, they´ll leave a message, but to be honest, I´d rather not take any chances.  Failing to respond to it means an immediate drop from the list, which results in not working back again. EVER. Unless you go for the exams again and you can get back in the list but starting from scratch. (See [1]). However, you really don´t want that. And I know what I´m talking about. Saying that they have you grabbed by the balls, is putting it in a very nice and polite way.

So, you answer THE CALL. I´m tempted to create a Facebook group called ´What were you doing when they phoned you?´I´m really sure you can read the juiciest anecdotes there. I´ve been called while I was still in bed, pretending I was wide awake, because you don´t want to give the impression that you are relaxed or having a normal life while waiting for it. I´ve been called while I was in the shower. Also hard to put a poker face when the soap is getting in your eyes, you are naked and you have no idea how in hell you are going to get a piece of paper and pen to write down the details of the school where you are starting TOMORROW!! I´ve been called in the middle of getting dressed, knickers half way up (I made a bet I could use the word knickers in this context). I´m pretty sure that THE CALL has prevented more than one child to be conceived. I wonder how many times toilet paper has been used in the place of a post-it.  How many people have pulled over to the hard shoulder to get it? How many women have left their mobiles in the hands of a dad-to-be in case THE CALL arrived while she was giving birth? Name the most ludicrous situation and I am sure that somebody has gone through it.

The day you receive THE CALL must be the best and the worst day of your life. You get work, possibly for maybe just a couple of weeks, but you get work. However, hell starts from then on. Packing is the next step. In my case, it means everything I own, but considering that for a few days you´ll be living in a cheap hotel or a friend´s house if you are very lucky, you must get a second packing with the essentials for a few days. The following day you get up, and drive to school after getting lost (remember it is very likely you have never been there).

Sometimes you just go there, introduce yourself, get your timetable and a few instructions, maybe a guided tour and off you go. Some other times, you do actually have to work.

After the classes, tired, stressed and overwhelmed by all the events, you go out in the streets and discover that you are alone, hungry and homeless. It´s not a big deal when you pull yourself together, but for a few minutes, you couldn´t feel any more miserable. And remember, this happens every year, sometimes more than once. Luckily, you can end up in a city you´ve already been to. On a more positive note, you make friends from different places that can come in handy and you get an extraordinary ability to make your way around a new city, find an apartment and eat lunch at the same time.

Please note that substitute teachers from the tourist category get paid one month in arrears. For example, if you work 10 days in September, which is obviously less money than a full month, you get paid for it at the end of October. Considering you don´t get any per diem while you settle in a new city, going to work costs a lot of money. Depending on where you happen to end up, you must have something between 1500 to 2000 euros minimum to live while you get paid. My current job is in Marbella, where accommodation is not very cheap. This year I´ve decided to live in a really nice apartment in the city centre. I pay 600 euros a month. When I first moved, I had to pay two months deposit and the current month. You make the calculations.

I wonder if it could be done any other way, and I feel lucky to have an opportunity to work in this rewarding profession, but it is hard to get across the message of how important education is if the Public Administration does not give teachers the appropriate recognition. I have to admit that at the moment, I enjoy the excitement of not knowing what is going to happen next and I keep a positive mind, being grateful for the experiences that I get to live, but I never forget the tears, the feeling of hopelessness when you are in a new place, your car packed with all your belongings, nowhere to stay for the night, eating alone and wondering will you be ok in that school, in that god forsaken land. Although this year, the god forsaken land is Marbella, I´ve upgraded to First Class for the first time since 2010 [2] and I couldn´t be any happier.

1 – To work for a State School you need, apart from your degree and a couple more basic requirements, to sit at an exam that is usually held every two years. This is how it works, broadly, with some variations. The region (Andalusia, for example), offers a number of positions distributed into different specialities. Last year, they offered 250 in total, 45 for English. About 3000 people compete for these 45 positions. You need to be extremely good, but that´s not enough, because the rest of your marks result from a second phase called Concurso (literally ´contest´) where you have a number of points obtained from courses, publications, working experience, etc. The people who haven´t managed to get one of these posts, are organised in a list, and when a school is in need of a teacher, they call whomever is on top. This is where the pilgrimage starts. Things may be different in other regions, but the sense of insecurity, the inability to organize your life, the drama when families separate, the endless hours driving to your working place, and so on is quite the same everywhere, and almost for every sector, if you are just a substitute.

2 – My first call took place on 22nd January 2010. It was Friday. I was very lucky because I had a full weekend to move from León to Jaén (about 700 kms). Since then, I have worked in Málaga, Marbella, Loja, Marbella, Cómpeta, Jerez, Marbella and Marbella again. Not too bad, considering we are talking about 4 school years only.

Thank you Ana! You have not only told us something we didn’t know about Spain’s education system, you have written about it with the humour it surely deserves!

See you next time readers,


Jim Porter is a co-founder of Speekee, home of the most comprehensive Spanish learning program for children ever to appear online

Jim began his Spanish learning journey in 1990. He has been a language teacher since 1994 and he lives in sunny southern Spain with his two bilingual children. Loves it! More…

You may also like...

%d bloggers like this: