If I remember rightly, it was around this time last year that I received confirmation that I had been accepted to be a language assistant. Admittedly, one of the biggest pulls of the programme is the pay: 800€ a month for twelve or so hours a week. If you want to be a teacher in future, it’s invaluable experience, but you don’t even need any teaching qualifications or experience: you’re an English language assistant, so your fluency will suffice. Personally, I had worked before in a school – but not in a teaching role – and others have volunteered with youth groups or tutored. The experience is helpful, but not required. Yet even after six months I don’t claim to be a teacher, or anywhere near one, in fact. Regardless, here are some tips from Yours Truly about doing a half-decent job of it.
1) O R G A N I S A T I O N
Perhaps I’m a bit biased on this front, because I have to write everything I do down before I forget, but organisation is key. Know what classes you have at what time; where; with what year group. You’re entitled to ask for an ‘observation period’, in which you can sit in the full class to observe how the teacher works with the students, what their level of English is, if there’s anything in particular that you think you should focus on. I didn’t do this and regretted it, honestly, because even different classes in the same year group can vary wildly by level. Make sure you have saved the phone number for your school, if not your teachers, and give your colleagues your email address so they can contact you. It’s better to over-check if you’re meant to be somewhere at 11am on Friday instead of finding out afterwards via a strongly worded email!
2) Everything is a resource
Think about what you’ve used in your number of language learning years. YouTube? News websites? A map in your target language instead of your own? Use them in school. Depending on the age group you’re working with, you can sing nursery rhymes or ask them to fill the gaps in lyrics to pop songs. Even resources without text – photos, postcards – can be valuable. ‘What can you see in this image?’ is a discussion starter. When you’re introducing yourself at the start of the year – which you will: prepare the PowerPoint now – postcards can be passed around the class with images of your hometown. I’m not saying take everything with you that have English words on, but remember how useful seemingly un-useful things can be.
3) Don’t be scared to reach out
Your greatest resource of all will be people in the same situation as you. If you’re somewhere remote like me, your social circle will be mostly other language assistants in nearby towns: make friends, of course, but also support each other as people in the same boat. Topics studied at high schools are pretty much universal – if you’re struggling for inspiration, ask other language assistants what they have done already, or what they would do. You might end up onto something really good.
(On another note: don’t be afraid of making friends with non-Francophones, namely, other language assistants. Yes, you’re in France – or whatever country – to improve your language skills, but staying sane with good friends matters more than a one-track mission to fluency.)
Being a language assistant can be trying at times, but equally can be so, so rewarding. In my case, the students hadn’t had the chance to practise their language skills outside of the classroom, with a select few going on a trip to London each year. If you’ve studied a language yourself, you know how useful it can be – you can be that person for someone else! The role is difficult – especially when you’re sat in silence with students who can’t string two words together – but immeasurably helps both you and the pupils. Not bad for a wee job on your year abroad.
[Amy Shimmin – @amylfc]