Top Ten Tips for Surviving as a Language Assistant
by tim ellis
Kate is doing a French and Spanish degree at the University of Birmingham. She spent her year abroad as a British Council teaching assistantship in Laon, a small town in Picardie. She says "I didn't choose to go there at all, it wasn't even on my list of preferences, the British Council chose to send me there. Looking back, I'm so pleased that they did. My year abroad couldn't have been any better, and now that I'm in my final year I just can't wait to graduate so I can be back in France." Here are her top ten Language Assistant survival tactics...
- 1. Be flexible
- 2. Plan well but be willing to improvise
- 3. Avoid using the students’ native language.
- 4. Make your lessons fun
- 5. Use your colleagues
- 6. Make friends outside of your school
- 7. Keep appropriate assistant/student boundaries (but what this means could essentially be down to you)
- 8. Be aware of the way the school works
- 9. If a student does badly, don’t blame yourself
- 10. Enjoy yourself
1. Be flexibleI’m kind of a control freak but what working as an assistant taught me was that you have to be willing to let go or you will just drive yourself insane. Sometimes you will feel like you are bashing your head against a brick wall, covering the same topic for far too long, or like you don’t even have enough time to skim the surface of a topic you think would be great. The bottom line is: that’s not your problem. The teachers you work with will probably take your opinions into account, but they are the ones with the syllabus and you have to work around them. What also worked really well for me was that I felt 12 hours wasn’t enough so I worked extra hours for free. This meant that they let me have time off when I wanted it. Be flexible with them and they might return the favour.
2. Plan well but be willing to improviseMy controlling tendencies were quickly hammered out of me by various classes that didn’t go to plan. My first week was scary, amazing and one of those weeks where you do the same lesson over and over and over again, in this case an introductory lesson. So when, a few weeks later, a teacher asked me to go and do an introduction to a class she wanted me to work with, I thought I could do this lesson blindfolded and standing on my head, holding the board-pen between my toes. There was just one problem, which was only apparent when I arrived: I’d seen this class before. In fact I had done the exact same intro lesson with them in my first week. I told the teacher this. Her response was “Great!... So we’re doing giving directions, you take half the class…” I had 3 lesson plans on directions… On my laptop… In my room. When I tried to explain this, she cut me off with “Just improvise, they’ll love it.” Surprisingly, she was right. They did love it, more than the directions lessons I had actually planned which I did with them the following week. It’s also helpful to keep exercises that will calm down a class (usually tests do this brilliantly) or boost their energy levels (games) if the class isn’t going how you want. It only has to take five minutes but it can be a real lifesaver if you can feel the lesson is going downhill.
3. Avoid using the students’ native language.Unless you’re angry, in which case go for it! If you feel comfortable talking in their native language, it can be difficult not to rely on it for explanations, especially when the students don’t understand (or don’t want to understand) what you’re saying. There’s nothing worse than seeing their faces light up at “understanding” what you’ve said when they’ve actually got the wrong end of the stick. But you just smile and explain again. The only time you should revert to their language without trying everything else possible first, is when you are angry.
Once I tried to tell off a class in English. I didn’t get cross often, so they knew just by my tone of voice they had pushed it too far. I got to the end of my telling off and there was silence. Followed by giggles. Followed by laughter. Yes, they were actually laughing at me. Apparently, there is something hilarious about watching an assistant frowning, waving their arms about and half-shouting at you in a foreign language. It sort of worked because I was angry that they weren’t paying attention, and making them laugh obviously fixed that. But the few times I was angry after this, I made sure to make my meaning quite clear, in French.
4. Make your lessons funThis is one of the best things about being an assistant. You can get away with teaching lessons based entirely on games as long as the students are working in English. I played Cluedo, Taboo, Charades and did a treasure hunt around the school with my students and they LOVED it. Bring board games from home and make them fit your purpose. I found a blank snakes and ladders board online and filled in boxes with questions which they had to answer correctly to move on. It was such a hit and you can fit it to any theme because you make up the questions. Not only did the students love the games, the teachers did too! And happy students + happy teachers= happy assistant.
5. Use your colleaguesYour colleagues will be around in the staff room most of the time they aren’t in class (in France teachers mostly work 18 hour weeks so this adds up to a considerable amount of time). If you make the effort to get on with your colleagues they will become your friends, which is great. What’s even better is that they are all teachers and have experience and knowledge that you now have access to. They also live in the local area so can give you lots of useful information ranging from which tourist attractions are actually worth seeing to which restaurant does the cheapest lunch and which bar has the best student nights.
Best of all, if you make friends with your teachers and go out of your way to help them, they will do the same for you. I got free internet access on my laptop, thanks to one colleague having a word with the IT department, I was invited to join the staff socials and I got invited on school trips for free, sometimes with classes I didn’t even work with. In return, I was friendly, very flexible with my timetable, and worked a few extra hours here and there. This really was a win-win situation because it was a small town, and I couldn’t have done much with those extra hours anyway. The teachers were really pleased to have me and I got even more teaching experience.
6. Make friends outside of your schoolI was lucky; there were seven assistants in my little town. This meant that when I had a bad day I could go back and vent freely to any one of six people about “The cheek of [insert name of annoying class here]… You’ll never guess what [insert name of student here] did today! …”. By freely, I mean without any repercussions for the class (who often weren’t actually that bad) or any worries about looking unprofessional. You need to be able to do this.
Being friends with your colleagues is important but being friends with people who aren’t your colleagues is a necessity. Other assistants are a great place to start (often there are Facebook groups for assistants in certain areas). If you don’t have other assistants nearby, there are still lots of ways to make friends. You can advertise for a language exchange. Just as a sidenote, this isn’t “Echange de langues” in French. My friend put up posters asking for an “Echange de langues” in the local uni. Apparently this became a running joke with the students there, because what she was actually asking for was an “exchange of tongues”…obviously not quite the same thing unless you really like your language buddy. Apparently they prefer the word “convérsation”. And remember, anyone you do a language exchange with also has friends, so you might make lots of friends through just one exchange.
You could also sign up with couchsurfing to meet people who are travelling through. Couchsurfers sometimes have parties and events and if you are signed up, you might be invited. Joining clubs or evening classes is also a great idea; it helps you to meet locals who you can practise your language skills with. You can go the other way and give private lessons in English, I met one of my best friends in France this way and she took me to see all kinds of local touristy things that I wouldn’t even have known about otherwise. But basically, however you do it, make friends outside of work. It will help you to remain a sane and sociable human being.
7. Keep appropriate assistant/student boundaries (but what this means could essentially be down to you)I know assistants who have been on nights out with their students. I know assistants who haven’t gone that far, but have them as Facebook friends. I know assistants who can think of nothing worse than spending their free time with them and I know assistants who only really became friends with their students after their year abroad. I fit into the last category. Why? Because I didn’t feel comfortable with the idea of going out with my students then grading them on their work the next day, knowing full well just how hungover they were. This, however is just me.
On the other hand, I know of one assistant who went to a house party with his students and felt completely at ease about it. I have also been told that with a disruptive class, the threat of “if you can’t respect me in class, we’ll have to stop meeting up outside of class” works wonders. My general rule on this one would be if your school has certain rules, follow them. Otherwise, follow your instincts on what you would feel happy with, and go for it.
8. Be aware of the way the school worksFind out what kind of powers you have when you arrive. I didn’t know until 3 months in that I was allowed to give the high school students detention or write in their homework diaries (3 bad comments in there and they got a detention anyway). I didn’t know until after I had left that I could have given detention to the lycéens (sixth-formers) too. It took me weeks to work out the photocopier (and who I had to go to if the photocopier wasn’t working) and I was constantly confused about who I should bise (kisses on the cheeks) and whose hand I should shake (it seems like head teachers and deputy heads are hand-shakers, everyone else is bises). This is the kind of thing that, as a foreigner, you can get away with asking whenever, but you might be better to ask before you are in the situation rather than after. Trust me when I say that knowing some of these things sooner would have got me out of a few difficult situations, and it’s these kind of things that people don’t think to tell you, so ask, especially if photocopiers/computers have a tendency to break when you’re around like they do with me.
9. If a student does badly, don’t blame yourselfYou have to try not to take it personally when students you expect better of do badly or behave badly. This can be really hard, especially if you’ve had a rough day and you’re tired and the only thing keeping you going is the fact that you have one of your favourite classes next and, when you get there, all they want to do is mess around. Depending on the class (and their age) you could just be honest with them. I’ve told classes when I’m disappointed with them before. I’ve even walked into a class and said “I have the flu, my head is pounding, please, please, be nice to me today” (the response to which was “we’re always nice to you” which was mostly true and quite sweet.) Obviously this is not the case with all classes.
If you have one or two disruptive students, you can move them around or you could try the direct approach with them too. If you do this, remember, praise in public, criticise in private. That way, they can’t backchat you in front of the rest of the class and they will respect you for not taking them down a notch in front of their friends. It doesn’t always work, but it is worth a try.
If a student you think will do well does badly on a test, remember - if others did well, it can’t be your fault. If you want to talk to them about it, do. If you have students who struggle, you can always ask their teachers if it’s ok for you to spend more time with them. Or you can try to get them involved by asking them easy questions or having them write on the board. But be careful that the student is happy with this and that it isn’t perceived as favouritism by the others.