End of Semester

The semester is over!

I got to assistant teach two classes back to back: intermediate academic writing, and advanced academic writing. Two different lead teachers, two classes in the same sequence, two different sets of learners – it was a really rich, edifying experience.

I met my goal of sharing my energy and joy straight through finals, though I admit that one class as a whole seemed more receptive to it than the other. (And who knows what each individual was thinking? Certainly not me. So interesting!)

Next semester, my family has some plans that make it so that I can’t commit to assistant teaching. I’m going to miss being in the classroom. On the flip side, I’m interested to see how the next few months unfold, and I’m hopeful that I’ll be available whenever an assistant teacher needs a sub.

Signing off for the holidays! I’ll check back in in the new year about my blog plans.


Assisting The Teacher: In-Class Downtime, Part II

This is part of a series of posts called ESL Assistant Teaching Tips. I’m writing from the point of view of an assistant ESOL instructor in academic English classes at a community college. For background, here’s why I love assistant teaching, and here is what the basics of the set-up look like. I hope that other assistants will find this useful, and that this wonderful classroom model will spread!

Last week, I talked about the reality of assistant teachers’ down-time during some class sessions and suggested some in-the-moment strategies to make the most of that time.

This week is about what to do as soon as possible to prepare for the inevitable lulls.

Look Ahead

Are there any predictable days when your usual role of circulating, conferencing, etc. isn’t going to apply?

Take a look at the course schedule and find out. Keep an eye out for anything that doesn’t look like a “normal” class – quizzes, midterms, library visits, guest speakers, etc.

These are days you should have in mind.

Think of What You Can Do

There are lots of suggestions in last week’s post about what you can do when you’re not needed to be hands-on teaching during class. But it’s not an exhaustive list.

Think broadly: what can you do to help the teacher? The students? Yourself?

Think differently: what creative tasks could you do? What mundane tasks could you do?

Think ahead: what is coming up after these unusual class sessions? What would be useful prep that could be done during your class time?

Just remember to stay within your job description as defined by your school – you don’t want to step on any toes.

Talk To Your Teacher

After you’ve looked ahead and thought of some activities you can complete during in-class down-time, find a moment to speak with your teacher or email him/her.

Ask if you’ll be needed in your usual capacity on those special class days. You can also point out that in previous semesters, occasionally there were times when you weren’t needed in the moment, and that you like to have an alternative plan for how to spend the time.

Ask what you can do for the class during those lulls, planned and unplanned.

Then, communicate your top three or four suggestions. Chances are great that your lead teacher will be delighted to take you up on at least one of your ideas.

Working During Class

When the time arrives to get some things done for your teacher during class, it pays to expect interruptions and distractions.

Maybe you’ll be writing samples for the next unit during an in-class writing exam. Maybe you’ll be grading homework while the class listens to a guest speaker. Maybe you’ll just be reading ahead in the class’s novel while they go over homework. But in any case, you will be in the classroom and thus on-call.

There’s a chance you’ll end up being called over to help a student with the technology to submit their exam, or that you’ll find the guest speaker fascinating, or that students need your help in going over the homework.

If you’ll be writing samples, I recommend outlining first. It helps you get your ideas down quickly, and it gives you a road map to help you get back into your writing groove again efficiently after interruptions.

If you’ll be grading homework, use an answer key. If there isn’t one, make one. Label your piles of “to grade” and “graded” so they don’t get mixed up. This wouldn’t all be necessary if you were alone in a silent room, but in class, it’s different.

If you’ll be reading, pencil a quick summary or reaction note in the margin of every-other paragraph or so. Also have a simple bookmark handy. Yes, this will be slightly slower than just reading straight through. But you’re in class, so you will not be reading straight through anyway. These simple tweaks will help you quickly respond to interruptions and easily return your mind to the book again.


Planning ahead for down-time really takes your assistant teaching game to the next level. It’s satisfying, your lead teacher will love you, and the whole class will benefit from your well-considered work.


You’re reading Assisting the Teacher: In-Class Down Time, Part II, originally posted at LearningToTeachEnglish.com.

Assisting the Teacher: In-Class Down Time, Part I

This is part of a series of posts called ESL Assistant Teaching Tips. I’m writing from the point of view of an assistant ESOL instructor in academic English classes at a community college. For background, here’s why I love assistant teaching, and here is what the basics of the set-up look like. I hope that other assistants will find this useful, and that this wonderful classroom model will spread!

As an assistant teacher, I’m paid to come in for the second hour of a two-hour class. The idea is that this time in class should be set aside for group tasks, writing tasks, reading tasks, conferences, etc. that would all clearly benefit from having a second teacher in the room to work with small groups or individual students.

Second hour usually looks like this.

But it doesn’t always.

The first section of the class might run long, or an exam might take up the entire class session, or the needs of the students and curriculum might not fit that format every class period, or there might be a last-minute sub because the teacher’s car broke down and so the lesson got flipped up-side-down (true story).

It happens.

What I’m saying is, there will be occasions when you show up to class only to find that the teacher is working with the students in a way that does not remotely require a second teacher. You could literally play games on your phone – you’re that unnecessary.



Um, yeah, don’t play games on your phone.

You’re not necessary in that moment, but there’s the rest of the class period and the rest of the semester to consider.

And there are so many useful ways to fill the time.

In the past, I have used this type of class time to:

  • write answer keys,
  • evaluate particularly tricky-to-grade essays as a second opinion,
  • write sample paragraphs,
  • scribe as the teacher and class went over textbook answers
  • stand on the side, strategically near the most commonly confused students, so they could whisper questions to me,
  • take notes in my bullet journal of ideas and experiences to inform future semesters

You could also use the time to:

  • read the novel or article your class is working on,
  • reread the syllabus and schedule of assignments,
  • grade homework with objective answers

And there are certainly many more opportunities beyond these little lists.

What to Do If You’re Suddenly Idle

So you walk into class and the teacher shoots you an apologetic look as s/he leads an activity that clearly doesn’t include a second teacher. The agenda on the board shows more of the same.

You’re parked near the students who often need a boost, but they’re on their A-game today and they don’t need you.

My suggestion: see what preparation and grading help you can provide during those times. 

If appropriate, ask the teacher if there’s any homework to check or preparation you can do for next class.

If you can’t interrupt to ask, take a look at the syllabus and see if there are any samples you can prepare for future units.

If all else fails, take some notes for your own future use and be on the alert for anything you can do to help as the lesson continues.

How to Be Prepared

Even though it’s a pretty rare occurrence, there will be times when there’s nothing obvious for you to do as assistant teacher.

It’s not ideal for you or your lead teacher to be scrambling in the moment to find something to occupy you. I mean, it’s better than playing Candy crush or standing stock still against the wall, but better still would be if you already had a task in mind.

Specific tips coming up next week in Part II.


Photo Credit: Christian Hornick on Flickr

You’re reading Assisting the Teacher: In-Class Down Time I, originally posted at LearningToTeachEnglish.com.

A Small Victory

I’ve written a few draft posts lately about my misadventures giving feedback on essays. Unfortunately, I’m dissatisfied with all of the drafts I wrote about my dissatisfaction with essay feedback, so I haven’t published any.

My life just drips irony sometimes.

The point is that essay feedback is a part of teaching writing that I’m always trying to improve. I mean, academically, my feedback is great. It’s thorough and accurate, and if followed, would result in better writing.

Sadly, it only helps if it’s followed, and I have a deeply ingrained tendency to focus more on giving robust feedback than packaging it so that students might actually make use of it.


I’m not willing to let this tendency be the end of the story. And to this end, I had a small victory recently.

As an assistant teacher, I don’t grade essays. However, I do help students with their writing a lot. It’s most often in the form of circulating during class, but I also do some one-to-one conferences.

In the last couple of weeks, the advanced writing class had a conferencing day. The lead teacher and I both met with students individually to give them each 15 minutes of feedback.

And apparently, I sold it well at least once that day:

The paragraph in question is the 4th body paragraph of a student’s argument essay, which is supposed to contain a counter-argument, lukewarm concession, and strong rebuttal, in that order.

In the student’s draft, all three elements are present, but with significant problems. First, they don’t flow into each other 1, 2, 3. It’s more like, 1, 2, 1, 3, 2. Second, his concession is worded strongly enough to negate his whole essay. And third, the organization and wording also weaken a potentially compelling rebuttal. Overall, his weak structure undermines his intended arguments.

This student is extremely fluent in English, and came in as one of the stronger writers in the class. However, his skills are still not strong enough to serve him well in Freshman English, and they have not been improving as remarkably as so many others’ in the class. The kinds of errors he continues to make suggest that he has not been taking our feedback seriously.

Indeed, a few minutes into our 15-minute conference, he is politely pushing back about his paragraph being ineffective, since it has all three necessary elements.

So I ask as though in passing, “After you graduate college, you’re going to law school, right?” He looks at me in surprise. “You’re going to be a lawyer, right?” I say, deadpan matter-of-fact. I don’t know anything about his career plans, but I have his attention.

“People keep saying that to me!” he says.

“We can tell,” I reply. And I mean what I say; he’d be fantastic. “OK, so you’re the lawyer, you’ve got your suit on and your tie, you’re in the court room, and you’ve got to walk the jury step by step through your argument.”

We talk more about what this type of step-by-step argument looks like, about weaker concessions and stronger rebuttals. My 15-minute timer goes off, we smile and wish each other a great evening, and I welcome the next student.

Next class, as soon as I walk in, he grins at me and waves me over to read his revised paragraph. It is stunning in its clarity. It is strong, terse, and convincing. It should be framed and placed on the wall of every advanced academic ESL writing classroom, and perhaps the Freshman writing classes as well.

I am beyond thrilled: so happy for him to have stretched his skills to such a high level, excited for the lead teacher when she gets to give that paragraph full marks, and proud of myself for recognizing I could do better at giving feedback… and then doing better.


Photo Credit: Andrew Filer on Flickr

You’re reading A Small Victory, originally posted at LearningToTeachEnglish.com.


Thanksgiving week means that the semester is suddenly, inexplicably, unbelievably almost over!


This seemed like a good time to visit my goal for this semester: to not get sucked into everyone else’s stress, and to try to lighten their load just a bit since my own is so manageable.

Overall I’ve done an OK job of filling my own reservoir. But actually, the sleep and exercise part of this has been going sort of down-hill lately, so this is a timely reminder to get back on that.

My teachers and I were all referring people to the writing center pretty actively in October, but this month it has fallen out of my communication. So I followed that element of my plan a bit too literally – I needed to start early and keep it up throughout the semester. There’s still time!

I think I’m doing pretty well with listening, checking in after absences, and encouraging people overall. I can think of several interactions where I specifically noted the student’s progress, and often found myself saying that the essay I’d critiqued was quite good despite the dozen edits/suggestions I’d made.

That said, I’m thinking of a couple other interactions from the last month where I had to deliver some tough-love constructive criticism. I made an effort to be both kind and clear, but I erred on the side of clear. I know my intentions were in the right place and that the content of my advice was sound and warranted, but how could my delivery improve?

I think that in these final weeks of the semester, my role needs to shift just a bit. Assignments are piling up, time is running out, and even though excellent writing is a long-term pursuit, we’re really in short-term mode right now. My advice should be concise and concrete, and every interaction should include a micro pep-talk.

It’s going to be a great end-game!


Photo Credit: John Lodder on Flickr

You’re reading End-Game, originally posted at LearningToTeachEnglish.com.

Assisting the Teacher: Chiming In

I’ve decided to write a series of posts in a new category: ESL Assistant Teaching Tips. I’m writing from the point of view of an assistant ESOL instructor in academic English classes at a community college. For background, here’s why I love assistant teaching, and here is what the basics of the set-up look like. I hope that other assistants will find this useful, and that maybe this wonderful classroom model will spread!

As a fairly experienced ESOL teacher, complete with TEFL certification and an MA TESOL, it’s been a bit of a learning curve to know when I should chime in during class and when I shouldn’t.


Here in my third semester of assistant teaching in my particular setting, I err on the side of keeping my mouth shut.

I’ve found that I’m in a completely different mode when I’m assisting that doesn’t translate well into addressing the whole room. But even if I were in my leadership head-space, in my opinion there would still be costs to the overall class experience to any broken flow, minute discrepancies in what I say vs. what the lead teacher says, etc.

If I do have something to add or say, I seize opportunities to be inconspicuous. I usually speak to the teacher quietly while the students are working. Once or twice I’ve written a word on a board in the back of the room to communicate something simple during the teacher’s lesson presentation, like a word she’s trying to spell on the spot.

This is not to say I never chime in. I’m not a second lead-teacher, but I don’t think I should pretend I’m not there. I’ll  interrupt with quick but well-considered offers to scribe, hand out papers, and complete other such tasks. This is usual during procedural transitions and is minimally disruptive. But just last week I made the call to interrupt a lesson.

Here’s what happened: my lead teacher began a new topic, asking the class, “Who here is familiar with MLA?” Turns out that not many of them were… and that “MLA” sounds a whole lot like “Emily” – they kept turning around to look at me. I could see that many students were at clear risk of missing the fundamentals while they tried to figure out why the teacher kept talking about Miss Emily. From the back of the room, I raised my hand and suggested she write MLA on the board because “M-L-A” sounds a lot like “Em-i-ly.” She and the students laughed, we all got on the same page, and a great lesson continued.

This is pretty typical of my method of chiming in. In general, this is what I do:

  • consider carefully whether this is an immediate need that should be addressed in the moment.
  • raise my hand from the back of the classroom. This allows the lead teacher to maintain clear authority, and to manage the timing of my two cents. (I see this as especially important when I don’t appear clearly younger than the lead teacher.)
  • speak very briefly and with a smile, including a simple suggestion if applicable.

As always with this series on assistant teaching, what I’m describing is what I do now in my night classes with my particular students and teachers at a community college in Maryland. I hope it’s useful to you, at least as food for thought. I’d love to hear what works (or doesn’t work) for you in your assistant teaching situations!


Photo Credit: brando on Flickr

You’re reading Assisting the Teacher: Chiming In, originally posted at LearningToTeachEnglish.com.