By Kirstie Baughan and Gina Wilson

29 January 2018 - 16:06

Words 'live music' painted by hand on a wooden surface
'I have played the piano and the flute since I was six and I sing in choirs. So, I incorporated different musical activities into some lessons.' Photo ©

Clem Onojeghuo used under licence and adapted from the original

Gina Wilson studies French at the University of Manchester and Kirstie Baughan is an experienced social worker. Last academic year, Gina spent a year abroad as an English language assistant at a French school, while Kirstie was placed at a school in Spain. They talk about how they approached teaching on the British Council programme.

Why did you initially think you’d never become a language assistant?

Gina: I didn’t think I was brave or authoritative enough to stand up in front of a large group of French teenagers and attempt to teach them English. In my view, I had never taught anything of value to anyone. I had no experience of working with teenagers, some of whom are only a couple of years younger than me. I’m also not a creative person, so I thought that creating lesson plans that were both interesting and constructive would be beyond my abilities.

Kirstie: After finishing my BA (Hons) degree in Social Work, I immediately landed my dream job as a social worker for children in care. When I started that job, with a team I had always wanted to work with, I thought that I would spend many years in that role. I was also studying for a master's degree, which I put on hold for my placement. 

Why did you decide to apply?

Gina: I wanted a challenge, and something that would push me out of my comfort zone during my year abroad. I was considering teaching as a future career, so by working as a language assistant, I thought I would gain insight as to whether it was something I could do long-term. Another big motivation was the ability to take a break from university exams.

Kirstie: I wanted to travel more, meet new people, develop my Spanish language skills and experience a different type of work and culture. I filled in the application and decided that I would take the opportunity if it was offered. It was scary to leave the job I had worked towards for so many years, but I am so glad I did. 

What surprises did you encounter when you started your language assistant placement?

Gina: I was able to manage all my classes – with varying degrees of success, I will admit – and gain mutual respect. I built a rapport with some of my pupils and was genuinely sad when we had our final class together. Since some of my pupils are 18 and I am 20, I decided to take a friendly approach. Sometimes I sat in the class with them and we would chat about anything and everything. However, when I tried that approach with a class of 15- and 16-year-old learners, they took advantage of the lack of discipline. So, I have adopted different ways of interacting with each class, depending on their level of maturity. The teachers were genuinely friendly and their desire to help me was really touching. They have all been in our shoes and know how nerve-wracking it can be.

Once I got into the swing of things, I came up with some original and entertaining lessons. The British Council website helped me in the first few weeks. For example, I used this lesson plan on charities before Christmas as a starting point for a lesson. I also read blogs by past language assistants, which gave me ideas for games and activities to fill those last ten minutes before the bell rings.

Kirstie: I found it difficult moving from a profession which is very emotionally demanding to a profession which is demanding in so many other ways. Classroom management and language barriers have been challenging. I love the challenges, and have been able to share approaches like group work, creative tasks and learning through interactive activities.

What experiences and skills did you bring to the placement?

Gina: My school had never hosted a Northern Irish language assistant in the past. Being from Northern Ireland, I think I was more knowledgeable about the four countries of the UK than past assistants in my school. Brexit is a hot topic in France, and people wanted to know about its potential impact on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. I was able to give a personal opinion.

Everyone, including the teachers, was interested in my accent and wanted to know about Northern Ireland as a country. A lot of the people I met had visited England but never Northern Ireland. After I showed them pictures of my hometown – Castlerock, a small village on the north coast – and told them about life there, many vowed to book plane tickets that night.

Music is also a big part of my life – I have played the piano and the flute since I was six and I sing in choirs. So, I incorporated different musical activities into some lessons. We sang a few of the learners' favourite pop songs in class after translating the lyrics. I have also taught them a bit about the British music scene. Young people who didn't respond to traditional learning methods engaged with music in class.

Kirstie: Much of my previous experience as a social worker was with children with disabilities. I ensured that children were accessing the English curriculum by adapting activities for children with additional needs. The children I work with love a game called ‘splat’. For some children, this involves listening to a word and ‘splatting’ the correct answer on the board. For others, I adapt the game so that they 'splat' the picture that matches the word.

What did you gain in return?

Gina: An enormous sense of achievement. It is euphoric when your learners complain when the bell rings at the end of class because they don’t want to leave. It makes any nerves you had beforehand disappear.

Kirstie: I have learned from the children. They taught me words that I didn’t know in Spanish, and it is rewarding to see them finding their English lessons fun and interesting – especially those who have difficulty concentrating in school. We celebrate every piece of progress and it is great to see the children be proud of themselves.

How can a person decide if a language assistant programme or other teaching placement abroad is right for them?

Gina: You need to be a confident, ambitious person, who will embrace a challenge and who also wants to get a lot out of their year abroad. A teaching placement in another country will come with some difficulties. Prepare to be terrified before every class for the first couple of weeks. But speaking from experience, it gets much easier and much more enjoyable.

Kirstie: Read about other people’s experiences, and if you are up for a challenge, then go for it. It is essential to surround yourself with people who you can have fun with while on the placement. It is also crucial to you enjoying the experience. Patience inside and outside the classroom is important – things can be very different to what you’re used to.

Apply to be an English language assistant by 12 February 2018.

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