Being an English Language Assistant
Erin is studying French and Spanish with Catalan at Lancaster University and is currently on her year abroad in Barcelona, working as an English Language Assistant in a primary school with 5-12 year olds. Here are her top tips for being an ELA, the plus and minus points, things to take with you, the career benefits and useful online resources to help anyone interested in being a language assistant on their year abroad.
1. My Top Ten Tips
1. Learn the students’ names.
Try your best to learn the kids' names, my students are always amazed that I know them by name, it's an easy way to win popularity.
2. Be prepared but flexible.
You have to accept that sometimes your lesson plan is going to completely fail so you need to be able to think on your feet and improvise; it really is easier than it sounds!
As an ELA I only work 12 hours a week and have Thursdays and Fridays off (I'm sure at the ELA meeting here in Catalonia they said that everyone gets either Monday or Friday off.) Therefore use your grant to travel Spain with other ELA's, with Spaniards or to visit friends you have in other parts of the country.
4. Take part in a language exchange.
Language exchanges are held in libraries, bars, parks, wherever you can think. It´s not only a good way to practice the language of the country where you are working, but any other foreign languages you speak as well.
5. Don’t ring home too often.
In the first few weeks, rather than ringing people in England I threw myself into activities being organised through the language assistant’s Facebook group for Barcelona; everyone is in the same boat and it’s an easy way to meet people and combat any homesickness.
6. Book early.
Whether it is a flight, train ticket or a hostel, the earlier you book, the cheaper it will be.
7. Don't forget your student card.
Lots of discounts exist abroad for students too and I’ve had no problems using my English student card.
8. Try different types of food.
It may not look appetising, you may in fact hate it when you do try it (like I did when I tried pig’s ear). Or you may find you have a new favourite dish.
9. Be prepared for the stereotypes.
“It’s always cold and rainy in England”, “English people never wear warm clothes on nights out”, “Your skin is the colour of milk” etc. Don’t be offended, tell them their respective stereotype, the Spanish found it hilarious when I said that in England we refer to them as olive-skinned.
10. Join the local library.
It’s free and in cities it’s not only an easy way to access music/films/books in the language of the country but also, for when you want to relax, in English.
2. They say never work with children or animals....
It's very difficult to have a dull day when you work in a primary school; if you're feeling a little down then the kids will most definitely put a smile back on your face. I have one pupil in year four who sings LMFAO songs to me and does the shuffle, another who ever day says “Erin, estas muy guapa hoy” (Erin, you are very pretty today). It’s hard not to smile when things like this are happening around you. You also get some funny pronunciations of words or the completely wrong altogether; it can be hard not to giggle sometimes. One such example is “I like to eat parrots” (she meant carrots.) “I'm angry, let’s go to the restaurant” (he meant hungry)
3. How my experience has affected my career ideas
Before my year abroad I had done placements in both a primary and secondary school and I quite liked the idea of teaching. However during my year abroad as a Language Assistant I have changed my mind. Planning for only eleven hours of classes a week and my private classes can be difficult; and although I thoroughly enjoy teaching, I don't think it is the career for me. I would struggle to leave the problems that the students have at work when I went home for the evening. But it's still a great experience, I wouldn't change being an ELA during my year abroad, and working in a foreign country for nine month looks pretty good on your CV too.
4. Plus points
Teaching a foreign language in a primary school is very fun; I am constantly playing games and doing role plays, also as the children only have a basic language level, there is very little structured grammar teaching. Not being bogged down by the grammar and simply learning through play is a fun way to teach. I have a lot of free time to explore Barcelona and travel throughout Catalonia and Spain. An ELA works with small groups, this means that it is easy to control and also monitor progress. Private classes pay well; I earn €20 an hour for classes which are mainly conversation, my grant pays for rent, food etc. and the classes give me extra money to spend on socialising and travelling.
5. Minus points
As I am working with such young children, they sometimes struggle to comprehend as they don´t have a large vocabulary or knowledge of the language. This can become tiring and frustrating when trying to teach English as there are a limited number of gestures and pictures you can use. As I live in a big city, and in no way look Spanish, people often address me in English, especially in the touristy parts, this can get frustrating when I´m trying to improve my Spanish, but you simply have to respond in Spanish. Big cities are also known for petty crime, especially if you look like a foreigner (me), I’ve had no problems. You just need to use your common sense, like you would back home.
6. Top 5 things to take with you
1. English money.
The kids love looking and playing with foreign coins and notes. I also brought out some play money to leave at the school after I have left.
2. An English Grammar book.
I found a cheap one in an Oxfam Books store; it comes in really handy when planning lessons and activities for private classes.
3. Extension Cable.
This way you can plug all your English gadgets in at once and only need to use one travel adapter and plug.
4. Any English food you can’t live without.
Whether it is; salad cream, shortbread, tea bags, Cadbury's chocolate, you won’t find it abroad or you’ll have to pay through the roof to get it. I also brought shortbread and mince pies back with me after Christmas for my Spanish friends to try, they loved them.
They tend to be more expensive abroad so it’s a good idea to bring out a stash of Ibuprofen or Paracetamol with you.
7. Useful online resources
Here is a list of some of the different websites I have found useful for ideas and resources during the year: