10 things I wish I had been told before being a Language Assistant
This article was written by Joanna Freeborough, published on 16th December 2016 and has been read 2000 times.
Joanna is a final year student at the University of Bath, studying Spanish and Italian with European Studies. She spent her year abroad in Bilbao, Genova and Cochabamba (Bolivia). While in Italy she did an 8 month assistantship at a secondary school, teaching English. Here is all of the best advice she has for those of you preparing to go...
A language assistantship is an amazing way to spend your Year Abroad; I did mine through the British Council and enjoyed the perks of a limited timetable and reasonable pay. However, there are many other ways you could find an assistantship role in your foreign country and if it’s something you’re interested in I’d definitely recommend you go for it!
An assistantship ticks so many boxes for language students looking to fill their Year Abroad, however it can be challenging. If you are lucky enough to have secured a position you’ll now be facing the looming possibility of spending 6-8 months surrounded by children every day, and if you, like me, are not really what could be called a kid person, then do not worry. Here is a list of things you should know to get the most out of being a Language Assistant.
1. Dress Smart.
There is absolutely no harm in turning up on your first day a little over dressed. In fact, I would argue that unless you’re pulling out a ball gown or polishing your boots, there really is no “over-dressed.” While you should always be comfortable and clean, I can speak from experience when saying that ripped jeans do not go down well with your colleagues, and dressing smart will avoid the inevitable moment when you are mistaken for a student who has wandered into the staffroom.
2. Learn about the Royal Family. Or London. Or football.
As a foreign language assistant, a big part of your role will be to bring a little piece of British culture into the classroom. This doesn’t just mean rich tea biscuits. Some of the most well-received lessons I ever gave were based on the London Underground network (great for teaching directions and imperatives) and the Royal Family (family vocab and history.)
Side note: Learn how to explain where you live in relation to London. Manchester? 4 hours north of London. Brighton? 2 hours south of London. Guildford? Just outside London. Everyone loves London!
3. Set your boundaries early.
You will be told that you are an assistant, and should therefore not be left to teach alone. This is true - it is also unrealistic. If you do not feel comfortable leading a class alone, say so, and don’t feel bad for saying it again if you have to. Whilst you might get some frustrated sighs from your mentors, it will save you some embarrassing experiences later down the line when you have to improvise an hour-long lesson at the drop of a hat. That said, if you want to do it – go for it! It will be a huge confidence boost!
4. Keep your social media private.
Does this one really need explaining? It might not be something you’ve worried about before, and maybe you don’t have any embarrassing photos of yourself from 5 years ago captioned with a depressing lyric from The Smiths. Maybe. But take my word for it; you don’t want details of your personal life, your teenage years, or your current adventures falling into the hands of anyone at school. When you’re disciplining a student and they pull up a picture of you in a bar, with wine eyes and a giddy smile, you will wish you had heeded this advice.
5. Don’t depend on a computer.
This is seriously something I wish I had known. When planning your lessons, don’t assume the classroom will have a computer, a projector or even a white board. Even if you know that it does have some equipment, don’t assume it will be working when you need it: always have a plan B.
6. Learn the swear words.
I’m not suggesting you use them in class! In fact, I’m specifically suggesting you do not use them in class, even when you really, really want to. But it is useful to know when you hear a curse word from a student, and to recognise that they might not be the rays of sunshine you once thought.
7. Learn the fine art of classroom management (aka bribery.)
Nothing will keep a class more attentive than the promise of a prize. It doesn’t matter what the age, nor the prize; just make it a competition! Who can count the highest? Who can remember the names of the most animals? Which team can create the best role play? Who wins the debate? This technique can be applied to any class, and any topic. It’s even better if you can secure a prize from Britain – my Cadbury’s selection tray went down a treat!
8. Buy a planner.
My academic planner became my Bible. It contained everything from lesson ideas and appointments to lists of students’ names and places I wanted to visit. Much like Nicholas Angel in Hot Fuzz, I would advise you to never underestimate the power of a notebook.
9. They might not like English.
For some unknown reason, this possibility just didn’t occur to me in the lead up to my assistantship. It came as quite a shock to discover that my teenage students didn’t await every English lesson with baited breath, or relish the feeling of grasping a brand new tense. To be honest, a lot of them simply didn’t see the use of learning English, and it can be hard to argue with them when you’re battling through the fourth lesson on the many uses of the verb ‘To Get.’ The important thing is not to take it personally. It’s (probably) not that they dislike you, or Britain as a whole, they just might not be interested in learning a language. This is obviously a huge shame, but the chances are, you are increasing their enjoyment of the English language just by bringing something different to the class. Don’t lose heart!
10. Make the most of the weekends!
There are many amazing, exciting aspects to being a language assistant, but nothing beats the freedom. Even when you hit your stride with the lessons, you finally feel like your language is improving and you can remember the names of all your students. There is nothing that can compare to the exciting journeys you will go on; the crazy plans and hours on a train just to reach another corner of a new country; the early starts and the late nights; the picturesque towns and villages. It will eventually feel like you know every nook and cranny of your adopted home town, and you will yearn for the weekends - and the next adventure!
11. Travel Aware
You can use the FCO travel advice website before going abroad to make sure you have everything you need; they have a great checklist and a section for those moving abroad as opposed to simply travelling. You can even use it to research all the adventures you are planning for your weekends – make sure you check out the advice on staying safe and observing local customs. No matter where you go, its important you do your research first, use sensible forms of transport and (sadly, again, talking from experience) keep an eye out for pickpockets! There are so many great celebrations and festivals to explore, so why not sign up for the gov.uk bulletin? They can be personalised to the country you are in, and are a great way to keep up to date on the best places to visit!
12. Most importantly, believe the hype!
This really will be one of the best years of your life!
For all of the latest foreign travel information, head to the FCO's Travel Advice website. Follow the FCO on Twitter @FCOtravel, watch their videos on YouTube and add them on Facebook to get instant access on all of the latest travel updates.