It’s that time of year again – British Council, Comenius and TAPIF assistants from English-speaking countries around the world are preparing to enter classrooms full of French kids to help them improve their English.
If there’s one thing I learned in my 2 years as an English assistant in France, it’s that being able to speak English doesn’t mean I know how to teach English. I can’t count the number of times I ran out of ideas of how to explain something in English about English to teenagers who don’t know very much English.
I’d smile to hide my discomfort, frustration, and embarrassment, but I typically be panicking. They’re looking at me expectantly (for the ones who actually care) and I’m looking at them hoping to see the light flicker on in at least one of their heads.
Eventually, I’d just get angry because clearly they’re not trying hard enough, they obviously haven’t been doing their homework and don’t care. I would mumble things in English that I knew they wouldn’t understand to release some frustration. Just beware they do typically understand curse words. Thanks a lot, rap music.
To the brave teaching assistants who dare follow in the footsteps of those who have gone before you: Teaching English as a foreign language when you’ve never done it before is not easy. This isn’t a guide or a stack of lesson plans (though I have those too), it’s an eye into the mistakes you’re going to make:
1. You won’t be prepared.
Most teachers know you’ve never taught before and they will try to make your first time in their classroom a breeze: you introduce yourself and then get the students to ask you questions.
“Where are you from?”
“Do you speak French?”
And so on…
If you’re an assistant in Martinique, don’t be surprised if you end up with questions like this:
“Are you married?”
“How many children do you have?”
They know you’re in your twenties and will be genuinely surprised if/when you say “No,” and “None,” or some witty answer you’ve prepared because I told you they’re going to ask. It’s just a different culture and some of your students may even have children, so politely explain that it’s not an appropriate question to ask someone you’ve just met where you’re from.
If they’re not a curious bunch, then you may just spend the rest of the lesson asking them questions or sitting in for the rest of the class.
Except for that one time (I’m looking at you “Mme. Alison Hinds”) when a teacher will have you actually teach on the first day. I walked into the school, having never met the class before and five minutes before class was told that the class had been discussing social networks and she would like me to try getting them to talk about it. In the end, I had them do a word web. It actually wasn’t my worst lesson ever, but I went home and hid in my room for the rest of the day (I don’t like being put on the spot).
Just in case: Wear the right clothes. Prepare some talking points, maybe a simple activity, icebreakers and the like.
2. You’ll miss out on working with the teachers.
A lot of this responsibility falls on the teachers. They should make sure you’re aware of the lesson plans they’ve organized or what the themes are for the semester so you can plan accordingly. Just be aware that some teachers have about as much experience working with teaching assistants as you do working with French kids. You may even be in a situation where they don’t really want you there at all.
Just in case: Do your best to collaborate so that the students get the most out of your time in the classroom in a way that’s relevant to their classes. If you don’t feel like a teacher is using you to your full potential, make some suggestions. If all else fails, speak to your tuteur.
3. You’ll forget that they’re just kids.
I was a good student. I participated in class, I did my homework and even if I wasn’t interested, I would at least try to stay awake as so not to offend anyone.
When I was in Martinique, I always had trouble understanding why so few of the students I worked with gave a crap. I just couldn’t relate and I would take it really personally when I made an effort to plan something I thought was fun and the kids would just act up or fall asleep. Once, I even stopped a game and had all the kids put their heads down on their desk while I played Solitaire for 20 minutes.
And you know what? It didn’t work. They were good for one or two classes after, but they were back at it eventually. In the end, we did less conversation and oral activities and more silent crossword puzzles.
I was saner for it.
Just in case: It’s not your job to teach these kids, and luckily, how well they perform is not your responsibility. Teach the kids that care and encourage the ones that don’t (they often are just embarrassed because they don’t understand and act out for attention). But don’t rack your brain over it.
4. You’ll fail to account to disparity in language levels.
English levels vary in every class. Some students have no interest in learning the language, despite the fact they are surrounded by English-speaking islands (they say they get on fine with Créole in Dominica or St Lucia) and American popular culture. English is a requirement in school and a lot of students don’t take it very seriously.
I met a guy from Toulouse once, and he told me the only thing he remembers from English class is “Hello teacher, sorry I’m late,” because he said it every day… It’s a pretty good illustration of the general interest in English. I’m not saying this is unique to France or Martinique. I have friends – Canadian friends who live in a bilingual country – who can only say “Est-ce que je peux aller aux toilettes?” in French… so it happens.
In any case, some students will have an English-speaking parent or are from St Lucia or St Martin and they’ll speak fluent English. Be aware that kids who do speak English – especially St. Lucians – are often embarrassed about it or don’t want to be seen as sucking up so don’t single them out. Other kids just can’t wrap their heads around foreign languages.
Keep in mind that in Martinique many students are already bilingual – they speak Creole and for that reason, some sounds in English phonetics actually come easier to them than some students from mainland France. Help them to realize and take advantage of that and it may get them interested in what you have to say.
Just in case: Plan activities that are appropriate for different levels of English, like group work, competitive activities, filling out music lyrics and so on. Don’t get the one kid in your class who speaks English to explain to their classmates the activities in French.
5. You’ll get discouraged.
I’m actually pretty shy and standing in front of a group of students staring at me expectantly makes me feel intensely uncomfortable. It’s also really frustrating when they just don’t get it.
Live for the moments when you get past that and help them understand; the moment when the light switches on and you can relax again; the time when they get really excited about a game and don’t realize they’re learning something.
I had a class that stared at me blankly at the beginning of the school year – they were in Terminale (final year of secondary school) and couldn’t understand what country I was from. At my leaving party at the end of the year, they asked about me and we discussed what their plans were for the future – all in English!
Those experiences make it okay and make the job bearable, because you realize that you do make a difference. If you have to feel crappy when they don’t get something, you get to feel proud when they do.
Martinique will be nothing like you expect and you may, at some point, feel like your role doesn’t matter. It does; work hard and it can be a really rewarding experience for everyone.
Have a great year!
I’d love to hear from former teaching assistants: what did you learn about teaching? What could you have done better when you taught abroad? Leave your suggestions in the comments!
Feature & lead photo courtesy of gillyan9 – CC licensed at time of publication.