How to prepare for a Year Abroad as a Language Assistant

How to prepare for a Year Abroad as a Language Assistant by tambako

This article was written by Rosemary Maher from The University of Leeds, published on 26th January 2015 and has been read 6922 times.

Rosie Maher studies French at the University of Leeds and is spending her year abroad as a language assistant in Colmar, France. Keep up with her adventures by following her blog

It’s undeniable that the road to becoming a Language Assistant is a long one. Applications are sent off in November; you won’t have a clue where you’ll be spending your year abroad until late April. Or later.

The British Council Language Assistant programme is a popular choice for a year abroad: it’s not difficult to see why. The benefits are numerous: invaluable experience for your CV – regardless of whether or not you actually want to pursue a career in teaching in the future, it will be valued by employers – whilst being immersed in the culture of your host country and (possibly the biggest deal-breaker for most students), getting paid.

Here are my top tips to guide you through the process:

1. Keep all your admin in order

This application process involves a lot of paperwork. Buy a folder, label it ‘Year Abroad Paperwork’ and put everything in there! It may seem like a lot of effort, but when someone says “Avez-vous votre [insert important document here]?” and you can provide the sheet almost instantaneously, you’ll be thanking yourself. Keeping your paperwork in order will, in the long run, save you time. After all, in the notoriously bureaucratic country known as France, nobody wants to spend ages in a queue only to realise they have forgotten that essential piece of paperwork and therefore have to return (and re-queue) another day.

2. Expect the unexpected

“When you have expectations, you are setting yourself up for disappointment” – Ryan Reynolds.

An eternity ago, you will have filled out application forms listing your preferred region, school age group and environment. I was exceptionally lucky: I got the region I wanted – and the exact town I mentioned on my application form – and a secondary school. Unfortunately, not everyone will be in the same position as I was.

Although you put down your preferences, you should be aware that you may not get them. Where possible, every effort is made to try and accommodate preferences, but the reality is that there are not enough cities, schools on the south coast or Paris’ for everyone. Hope for what you wanted, but be prepared to receive an offer that wasn’t quite what you anticipated. Expect the unexpected; that way you won’t be disappointed. Above all, remember: wherever you end up for your year abroad, make the most of every opportunity and you’ll have an unforgettable year.

3. Contact your school

When you (finally!) receive the details of your school, contact them as soon as possible. There will be some paperwork that you will need to send by post to your school; you should also email them. Corresponding by post is tediously slow – and in many cases the schools don’t always respond. On the other hand, sending an email is likely to have a relatively speedy response.

When you contact your school, you should ask for the contact details of the former assistant – they are a great source of information! You should also enquire about whether or not the school provides accommodation; if they do, this will save you a stressful house-hunt in a foreign country!

4. Collect postcards/ leaflets/ memorabilia from your home town/ country

Typically, your first week will involve presenting yourself to every class. I brought some postcards from home and leaflets for attractions near where I live; this helped give the students a feel for where I came from. Leaflets can also come in handy as authentic material for lessons later on. It also means students stay engaged and don’t get bored!

Be prepared to…

  • Work alongside teachers with a whole class 
  • Take groups of 10-12 students alone 
  • Work on a one-to-one basis with some students

At the initial training day (read: admin day) we were told that we shouldn’t:

  • Take BTS classes; for the uninitiated, BTS stands for ‘Brevet de Technicien Supérieur’. Students in these classes have already taken their baccalaréat (or le bac, as it’s known colloquially) and are now doing further studies. 
  • Take a whole class alone.

Ultimately, your colleagues will decide what they think is most beneficial for the students. I have experienced all of the above!

My timetable also includes four BTS classes – at first I was a little apprehensive: these students are almost the same age as me! However, the students I teach respect me and I’ve not had any problems. As they are older, some of the BTS students have a good level of English, which means I can do more interesting activities with them. Equally, there are some students who haven’t studied English in a long time and therefore have more limited abilities. A few times, I have had an entire class to myself; although in theory this is not allowed, I don’t have a problem with doing it occasionally.

5. Never turn up unprepared

While you may only have twelve hours of timetabled lessons each week, lessons don’t plan themselves. It will take a few weeks for you to gauge the level of English of each class; after this you should be able to plan lessons according to their abilities.

Some teachers will give you some guidance – for example, a topic they would like you to cover – whilst others will just let you decide what to do. You should be aware that not all schools have the same resources available: in my school almost all classrooms have projector screens, but not all schools are like this.

It is useful to have some extra activities or games to hand – just in case your lesson doesn’t take as long as you had anticipated! If you’re stuck for ideas, there are lots of really useful sites out there – all brimming with lesson ideas and activities!

These sites are really worth checking out:

The seemingly never ending stream of admin is worth it; this is an experience like no other, and is sure to give you lots of stories to tell people from back home! Bonne chance tout le monde!

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