Life lessons #8: What I learned as a language assistant
Updated: Sep 18, 2019
For the most part of my year abroad I was working as an English language assistant on the British Council traineeship programme. I was based in the small town of Paterna, which was about 25 minutes away from the city centre via public transport. Whilst I greatly enjoyed my experience I would say that it had its peaks and troughs. Teaching is not something that you should go into half heartedly. It is an extremely challenging yet simultaneously rewarding profession.
Although I didn't have the responsibilities of a full time teacher, I was given a significant amount of autonomy; more than I was supposed to have. My contract was limited to 12 hours a week which seemed to be a sweet deal. What I didn't realise was all of the behind the scenes ** cough cough** hours- and I mean hours- per week of lesson planning. Thankfully I wasn't allowed to physically mark work but I was expected to help grade oral presentations and my opinion seemed to hold much gravity in the eyes of my colleagues.
So I'm going to talk you through the 8 things that I learned during my 8 months as an English Language assistant.
Different backgrounds and different experiences:
I had to learn very quickly that not everyone was going to have had the same opportunities and life experiences as me. For a little bit of background regarding my academics: I went to a grammar school , followed by a sixth form and now I am studying at a fairly prestigious British University. In terms of education I've had it good- not to say that it was given to me on a silver platter but I have worked hard to get to where I am. However, I (naively) assumed that everyone was just as academically driven as me. I've jumped from the bubble of a small grammar school to the even smaller Durham bubble. Everyone is academically able and gifted in some area and field. I grew up to believe that academics matter and they count- which I still do, but I held these values to my core. However I had a rude awakening when I was placed in my high school in the provencal town of `Paterna. A lot of my students didn't have expendable opportunities; the school had over 500 pupils as well as external students. There simply weren't enough resources for everyone. A lot of my kids came from challenging and different home lives- sometimes they would act out and the level of respect and behaviour was miles apart from what I was used to.
It took me a while to realise that I come from a place of privilege, a lot of these kids were falling through the cracks in the system, to them learning English wasn't a priority. Their primary goal was to make it through high school.
Patience (really) is a virtue
Very quickly I learned that I had to have a certain amount of patience with my students. Everyone had a different level of English: some had private tutors, others were enrolled in extra curricular english language schools and on the other end of the spectrum there were students who barely did their homework. There were a multitude of reasons as to why there was such disparity amongst my kids. Many were struggling academically- they had fallen so far behind in their language learning that they struggled with the basics. It took a while for some of the kids to open up to me and to even ask for help. I'm always willing to help people learn and if someone asks me for help I always try my best to give them the support that they need. Sometimes when my students didn't understand some of the material; at first I would feel a little frustrated but then I had to step back and reflect. I had to think- what am I doing wrong? How can I simplify this or explain it differently. I had to be patient not only with my students but with myself too.
Set the boundary
Now I have been told that I do have a baby face. At a height of 5ft 3" and a rounded face I am often asked for ID whenever I buy alcohol and people are often under the impression that I am still a teenager (which isn't always a bad thing). Nonetheless, I had to immediately establish the "teacher-student" boundary. Unlike my friends who were working in primary schools where it was obvious to see the difference in age, I was often mistaken for a student- even by other teachers. Since there was no dress code I would often wear jeans and trainers- which again made me look like my pupils. I will never forget the day I was shouted out down the corridor by one of the admin staff who chastised me for being late- despite the fact that I started at 9am on Tuesdays rather than 8:20. After this incident we were both embarrassed, however now I can look back and laugh. My pupils called me Natasha- which I didn't have a problem with, however the one thing I couldn't tolerate was a lack of respect. My mother always taught me to show respect to everyone- never accept anything less. Arguing back, swearing and sometimes even inappropriate questions about my love life were always off the cards. I liked to have a laugh and joke with my kids of course- in some cases there were only 5 years between us- nevertheless I always made it clear that I was their educator and they were a student.
Speak up for yourself
Making your voice heard can be difficult sometimes. I was the only native English speaker amongst my colleagues and for the first few months at work I was very shy and held back in engaging in conversations. I din't want to make mistakes in English or if I was interested in the topics I didn't want to dominate the conversation. Sometimes my teachers spoke for me on my behalf- something which didn't really bother me at the beginning. As time went on I learned that I need to speak up for myself- even if I make linguistic mistakes that is how will learn. I also learned to speak up when something was being taught incorrectly. I didn't want to seem as undermining the teacher, however I realised how important accuracy is- especially when teaching a language. Most of the time my comments and feedback was taken quite well and by the end of the year I felt really integrated into the English department, as well as the school.
Slow progress is still progress
I'm someone who likes to see results straightaway; however when you're teaching this isn't always the case. I have to admit it took a long time for some of my students to start engaging with me. I really had to put effort in to gain their trust and encouragement. At Christmas time I was worried that I'd never break through to some of the kids, however in time, I began to notice subtle yet significant changes in their engagement with me; a little smile here and there, asking me how my day was, giving me recommendations of things to do whilst I was in Valencia, as well as asking me for recommendations for English resources. Even though these were little actions, they were nonetheless significant to me. It took time to build a relationship with these kids and it was really hard at the end of the year, having to say goodbye.
There is no "one" way to learn
When I first started planning lessons I only had my own learning experience to use as a guideline. I'm a visual learner- bright colours and interactive resources keep me interested and I've found that I study better that way. Throughout my year in Paterna, I quickly noticed that my students had their own individual ways of learning. Some preferred copying notes directly and revising that way, others needed a video or animation to help explain points. Some preferred partner work. I had to learn that despite everyone having the same material, the way that my students processed this information was really different. Often, I would combine techniques- creating games and sometimes competitions to keep my kids interested.
Adaptability is your best asset
I've touched on adapting my materials briefly, but I want to talk about a specific student that I had. Let's call her Carmen for all intents and purposes. Carmen was in one of my more challenging classes- she was 13 years old and really wasn't interested in learning English. I think she found academics challenging, she was always a little bit behind with her work and because she was in a large class (again lack of resources) she often got left behind. I made it my mission that year to help her catch. Her indifference to work came across as a little arrogant at times so I can understand why the teacher was resistant to push her academically. Yet it pained me to think that she wasn't getting the support that she needed because she worked a little slower than her classmates. Initially I would sit and do the exercises with her, giving he prompts and hints- however she still seemed really disinterested. I tried creating scenario and games in order to explain grammar points, but this again didn't help either. In the end I was at a loss, I really didn't want to give up on her but I didn't think I was helping her. She told me that sometimes she couldn't concentrate when everything was written down. So we started to draw. We drew pictures and used colours and fonts- we created characters and made up our own little story. The creative element made her interested in the topics and she didn't feel over-whelmed. It took time and a lot of patience but towards the end of the year Carmen had a much better grasp on English and whist she wasn't the "best" in her class or gone up a level academically- she felt more confident and comfortable doing her work. We would never have got to that point had I kept using the same methods.
Take it with a pinch of salt
The final lesson that I learned whilst teaching was to take things with a pinch of salt- bad behaviour, bad attitudes and criticism- acknowledge it, feel the way you need to feel and then let it go. Every Thursday I ran a cultural class for a group of 15 year old girls; I wasn't supposed to be running the class alone but the teacher wanted me to gain confidence speaking aloud and teaching independently. At the end of each class he would write up a feedback sheet- mainly positives but always one or two things that I needed to improve on. During the first term I would always try and hit his targets for the next lesson- pushing myself to improve and make the classes better. It was only until second term- after a somewhat badly planned and disastrous class that I realised that I didn't have to go above and beyond- simply just try my best. I've mentioned numerous times that I'm a perfectionist; I love to get things done correctly first time round- even though I was listening to the criticism of my classes I wasn't really learning from them. I had to remind myself that I could only do the best that I can- I'm not a robot and I'm not perfect. I had to take his comments with a pinch of salt and not beat myself up about making mistakes. After all I wasn't a fully qualified english teacher with years of explaining- I was simply a 21 year old girl, who was supposed to be assisting the classes, not leading them.
So there you have it- the main 8 things i learned whilst teaching English in Spain. I loved my experience and whilst I know teaching is not my life's purpose, I'm grateful that I learned things too from this experience.