This week, I finished up my last few classes as a first-year Auxiliar de Conversacíon in La Rioja, Spain. Overall, it was a great year. I liked it so much, in fact, that I’m renewing and doing a second year in Asturias.
As the year has wound down, I’ve found myself doing a lot of reflecting about the experience as a whole. There are a couple of points that stood out to me when I compared what I thought it would be like, versus what it was like in reality. Here they are:
1. The job description
When I quit my job at a marketing agency to move to Spain, a lot of my coworkers asked about my teaching experience, whether I knew how to teach or if I’d always wanted to be a teacher.
And my answer was always: “No. Guys this job isn’t to be a teacher. It’s a teacher’s assistant.” Duh.
Here’s what I genuinely thought my job as a ‘teaching assistant’ would be:
- Handing out papers
- Making photocopies in the teacher’s lounge
- Helping kids with their assignments
- Generally sitting off to the side and being a resource to the classroom. Ya know, like, answering questions about how to pronounce things
But in reality, here’s what my job as a ‘teaching assistant’ actually was:
Standing in front of the class to give presentations I’d created and trying to make them interesting enough so the students would pay attention. Sometimes, I’d be coaxing them to play a game I’d adapted in a civil manner. Or worst of all, I’d be doing a song and dance in a desperate attempt to get them to speak English, while they all sat in determined silence.
The teachers were almost always in the room, but I was center stage. I was in charge of the lesson for the day. It would be an understatement to say it was a lot more hands-on than I was expecting.
Before taking this job, I never thought I qualified to be a teacher. I am not much of a role model. I swear like a sailor. I hate yelling at people. I embarrass easily.
It turns out none of that matters. Well, it matters. You probably shouldn’t swear in front of the kids (even if they ask you to) and you have to yell at them to get them to listen some days. But you might be asked to run the classroom, even if you don’t have any teaching experience.
The good news? It’s not that bad.
I was worried about taking the assistant job because I thought it would be boring … and well, a little less demanding than the work I was used to doing as a Marketing Editor (i.e., I thought it was beneath me). So I guess you could say it was a pleasant surprise that the gig is nothing like that. It’s a much more challenging role that puts you in the driver’s seat and demands that you be ‘on’ most of the time.
However, there is no guarantee that other schools don’t use their ‘language assistants’ more like assistants. It’s possible that you will be helping students, reading from the textbook and handing out papers. But to be honest, that wouldn’t be so bad, either.
2. Being an English expert
English is not just my native language, but also what I chose to study in school. I was actively reviewing grammar well into college. And later, my job demanded that I have the vocabulary of a thesaurus and zero tolerance for dangling modifiers.
So I thought I was coming into this whole ESL thing pretty well prepared … WRONG.
You have to explain rules you can’t remember
Being that I know how to correctly use a semi-colon and check for parallelism in writing, I thought my grammar skills were top-notch. That was, until I took this job.
Teachers and students would ask me to explain simple things like:
- When to use the present simple versus the present continuous
- How to construct comparatives and superlatives
- When to use “have to” and when to use “must”
These are things I execute in real life all the time, but explaining them … clearly … on the spot? Hahahhaha. I learned these rules 20 years ago! How am I supposed to remember how it works? Or why?
Usually, I blush severely, and then go through a lot of use cases, hoping an ambush of examples will clear up any uncertainty. “You use the present simple to describe things that are permanent or habitual. I like basketball. I live in Spain. I walk to school. And you use the present continuous to describe an action that’s continuous … er. Yeah. He is playing basketball. You are talking during class. They are eating bananas. So I guess it’s more immediate. That makes sense right?”
Suffice it say that despite my English accolades, my explanations are lacking.
British vs. American English
Here in Spain, almost all schools teach British English. That’s no problem, you might think. They’re pretty much just the same. Only different curse words.
- In British English, you use “Have got” where you use “Have” in the U.S.
- The pink thing on the end of a pencil is a “rubber” in British English, not an “eraser.” (And it gets me every time a kid talks about needing a rubber. Gross. ;/)
- In British English, you say “I like [verb]ing” instead of “I like to [verb]”
- In British English, you do things “at the weekend” not “On the weekend” like in the U.S.
On more than one occasion, a teacher has stopped me to make a correction in front of the class and inform the students of these differences. Because they’re taught and tested on the British version, you have to be consistent. That means forcing yourself to say “Has she got blue eyes?” even if it feels unnatural.
As much as I tried not to take it personally, it was hard to hear the way I’ve spoken (presumably well) my whole life is wrong. It turns out that in the ESL classroom, I’m not the shining example of the English language I thought I would be.
Next year, I’ll know better!