Life as a language assistant:  Expectations and differences among schools

Life as a language assistant: Expectations and differences among schools

So you’ve just moved to Madrid and it’s your first year as a language assistant.  You’re not really sure what to expect on that first day of school.  A million thoughts are probably running through your head: “What do I wear?” “Should I have something prepared?” “What will my schedule be like?” “Will I be any good at this?”  If you’re like me, you’re thinking, “O.K. so my job will be somewhat of a teacher’s assistant in the classroom with the constant supervision of a head teacher.  I’ll also have a month or so worth of observation time before I actually teach.”  This may very likely be the case in some schools, however in others, the expectations are far different.

I will never forget my first day as a language assistant in Navalcarnero, a small town on the outskirts of Madrid.  The day started out with the typical greetings, countless introductions, and “dos besos”.  After being given a tour of the school by a repeating language assistant, I was given my schedule and “thrown to the wolves”, so to speak.  I showed up to the wrong class and after introducing myself to the twenty-five four-year-old students, the teacher basically expected me to start teaching.  Good thing I had eight years of camp experience to help me get through the day.

The school at which I was teaching definitely expects a lot from the language assistants.  In addition to teaching regular English classes, I taught Science, Arts and Crafts, Physical Education, extracurricular English classes and looked after the playground.  Along with the other language assistants, I also had to plan out a Halloween party, cultural days, and Sports Day. Some teachers were a true help with planning classes, providing suggestions on how best to approach the topic, giving me worksheets, posters and materials to utilize in the classroom.  However, other teachers just assumed I was an experienced teacher and expected me to have every day planned out.  Some days I even found myself alone in the classroom.

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The contract for a language assistant states that you will be working twenty-five hours.  So naturally assumed I would be only at work for those hours.  However, as a new language assistant, your schedule may not necessarily be coordinated in your favor.  As in my case, you may be expected to be at school Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., but with plenty of breaks in between.  During those breaks I usually planned my classes, worked on my homework or thesis, or just went out for a coffee.

I talked to several friends of mine who were also language assistants with the Instituto Franklin program about my experience, hoping for some advice.  The conversations varied.  Some could relate to my situation while others had it easy, or at least easier.  One friend told me about the scenario at her school.  She had a great schedule which allowed for Mondays or Fridays off.  She worked longer blocks of hours the other days, but then got to enjoy a free day.  She also almost never had to prepare a lesson and she was never left alone in the classroom.  She had to give PowerPoint presentations about once a month based upon the lesson that the students were learning.  Most of the time, however, she just arrived in the classroom and the teacher handed her the textbook and explained the topic on which they were working and had her explain it in English. 

Generally speaking, in most schools the students will view you as any other teacher so you can expect the same level of respect from them.  You may be expected to discipline the students if they are not behaving properly.  For example, having them stand up, leave the class, or sending them to the principal’s office.  However, you should receive assistance with discipline and it is the head teacher’s responsibility.  For the most part, the language assistant program within the schools in Madrid is open to initiative.  So, if you have ideas for projects, culture activities, or the like be sure to let the staff know.  Unless the school at which you are working is strictly bilingual, don’t expect the teachers to speak English.  This may be difficult at times to communicate about lesson planning, classroom organization and just teaching in general.  Nevertheless, the school staff is usually pretty willing to help out the new language assistants.  However, don’t expect help to just appear, be sure to ask for help if you are struggling.

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When it comes to teaching English in Madrid, it’s important to keep an open mind. Each school is different.  You may be expected to act as real teacher in the classroom, like in my case, or you may act solely a language assistant.  Either way, remember that the effort you put in is what you will get out of this experience, so make the most of it and be sure to have fun! By having a challenging start, it forced me to do more research, more preparing, more planning however, in turn this extra effort only enhanced my teaching experience.  Currently, I am still working at the same school, in the same small town and I am grateful that I had to take on many classes, prepare lessons, and struggle at time because those experiences made me a better teacher today.

Author

Olivia Krolik
Olivia Krolik grew up in Cortlandt Manor, NY. (New York state – not the city). She graduated from the University at Albany with Bachelor’s degrees in Criminal Justice and Spanish. While at Albany, she studied abroad in Valencia, Spain and absolutely fell in love with the culture, language, people, and lifestyle and only knew one thing for certain – that when she graduated she only wanted to come back to Spain. Her dream became a reality in 2013 when she moved to Madrid and enrolled in the University of Alcalá Instituto Franklin’s Teach and Learn Program. She graduated in 2014, with a Master’s degree in Teaching and Learning of Spanish as a Foreign Language. For the past three years, Olivia has been working as a language assistant in Navalcarnero, Spain just on the outskirts of Madrid. She now heads the bicultural program at the school, teaches English classes, and mentors the new language assistants. Her hobbies include reading, writing, arts and crafts, hiking, and travelling the world with her husband.

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