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!
My first semester assistant teaching was a fantastic experience, and one of the highlights was getting to know, observe, and collaborate with my lead teacher. But I have to admit, we got off to a slow start.
Neither of us had ever been an assistant teacher, and neither of us had ever worked with one, either. To complicate things, she had graciously taken on teaching the class at the last minute when the need came to her attention, and I wasn’t assigned to the class until the second week. This meant we not only felt like we started out by playing catch-up, but we had both missed the training for working with/as assistants. So we had a bit of a learning curve.
Even though the following semesters had less confusion and scurrying, there was (and is!) still plenty to learn while navigating different courses, lead teachers, students, and semester events.
Based on all of that, these are my top five suggestions for getting started:
- Introduce yourself to the teacher. Not just your name and contact info, but a really short summary of your qualifications, experience, and what you have to offer. At least at our school, assistant teachers only need a BA or significant writing experience. One semester when I wasn’t proactive about introducing myself, it turned out that one of my lead teachers got most of the way through the semester before learning that I was an experienced ESL instructor with an MA TESOL! Where did I think she would learn this about me, if not from me? Oops!
- Introduce yourself to the class. Sometimes I’ve been given the opportunity to introduce myself, and sometimes not. I drastically prefer introducing myself – I think it makes a huge difference with how students see me. My spiel to classes is similar to what I tell the teacher, mentioning that I’m a qualified teacher but not in charge of this class. I also emphasize that my job is to answer their questions, and that I really like this job!
- Attend the entire first class if possible. My assistant teaching gig starts the second hour of a two-hour class session, but ever since I began late in my first semester of assisting, I have asked to attend the entire first session of every class I could. I like that students see me there from the beginning, so I’m not extra. It also gives me some additional time to get a feel for my new lead teacher’s style.
- Find out if your lead teacher is accustomed to the assistant teacher model. The easiest way is to ask the lead teacher, though I think it would also be reasonable to ask the person who hired/assigned you. If your lead teacher is new to having an assistant teacher, be reasonably proactive with suggesting what you can do for him/her during class time. And when in doubt, circulate.
- Know your job description. At my college, assistants are specifically placed in classes to be an extra set of hands during class time. They are not to do subjective grading (e.g. major essays), preparation at home, etc. Particularly if your teacher is new to your department or new to having an assistant, be prepared for the possibility that you may have to decline tasks that are not within your job description. It does not feel good to say no, but I’m living proof that you can say it and still have a great relationship with your teacher. Focus on what you can do for them. If you find you’re saying “no” with any frequency, encourage them to speak to a head of your department if they have questions about your role.
It’s hard to believe that a few years ago, I’d only vaguely heard of assistant teaching at the college level, and I’m now it’s such an important part of my career and teaching perspective.
Here’s to a wonderful semester, everyone!