Assisting the Teacher: Writing Conferences

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!


One way I have assisted my lead teachers is by conducting writing conferences with students.

With two different teachers meeting with students, but only one of them grading the students, this needs to be done with intention and good communication. What follows is what worked for us.

Clear Conferencing Goals

We had conferencing days for the express purpose of previewing students’ drafts of specific major writing assignments.

The lead teacher and I established before this class session that we would first check for topic and organization, and then move on to mechanics. We agreed on 15-minute conferences.

Time Slots

Students signed up for a time slot that worked for them. Students signed up to work with either her or me.

Full disclosure: I was last picked! I truly did not take this personally. Our students knew who would be grading them, and of course it seemed best to get advice from the grader herself.

Set a Timer (and expectations)

At the beginning of each conference, I welcomed the student and then used my cell phone’s voice commands to set a timer for 15 minutes.

Then I efficiently explained that I was going to skim their essay for structure. Then if there was time, we’d go back for details.

Start with Basics of Organization

I read their whole intro, identified their thesis out loud, then visibly checked that it matched up with topic sentences at the beginning of each paragraph. I then read their conclusion to make sure it restated the thesis and didn’t contain any surprises.

In their argument essay, the lead teacher and I also agreed that we should examine their 4th body paragraph pretty carefully. The counter-argument/concession/rebuttal can be tricky.

For a couple of students, we didn’t get much past this. Other students had this level of organization down no problem and we moved on to details.

Don’t Ignore What They’ve Done Well

It’s tempting, when you’re looking at a strict 15 minutes of one-to-one time, to pile all the advice you can onto each student.

However, having one’s writing critiqued feels personal. If the instructor speaks of literally only negatives, at best it becomes teacher talk and at worst it breaks hearts.

On the flip side, if the instructor is too timid to say what needs to change because s/he is afraid to hurt anyone’s feelings, that’s not really instruction.

Yes, address the problems. But also acknowledge some successes.

Touch Base After Conferences

After class, I quickly spoke to the lead teacher about the conferences: overall impression, overall organization, if they had a lot of major revision to do or just detail work, and if I practically begged them to go to the writing center for more help.

In the hour I was there, I could only meet with four students, so this was not an overwhelming amount of information.

However, in the future I think I should also quickly fill out a pre-made form with these basic comments so she could refer back to my notes. I do like notes!

Provide Input on Final Paper

When the final papers were completed and handed in, the lead teacher found class time where I could read through my four students’ final drafts and use the rubrics to share my thoughts about grading.

To be clear, I did not grade them. The assistant teacher is not in charge of grading. It was just input in case she was on the fence between one grade and another.


We just did these formal conferences a couple of times in the semester, but it made a big impact! It’s hard to beat one-to-one communication.

How do you do writing conferences?


Photo Credit: ASU Department of English on Flickr

You’re reading Assisting the Teacher: Writing Conferences, originally posted at


Assisting the Teacher: Getting Started

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:

  1. 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!
  2. 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!
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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!


Photo CreditChris Conway, Hilleary Osheroff on Flickr

You’re reading Assisting the Teacher: Getting Started, originally posted at

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

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

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

Assisting the Teacher: Actively Circulating

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 this wonderful classroom model will spread!


On Monday, I talked about the interruption conundrum: to interrupt, or not to interrupt?

Spoiler: interrupt!

In this post, I’ll break down how this not-very-extroverted person goes about circulating so actively so much that she thinks of it as “crowd surfing.”

The short version is: I don’t stand by and wait for more than a minute or so at a time. If I’m not being flagged down, I’m either quietly walking or verbally checking in.

Step 1: Greet Everyone and Check In

When I walk in in the second hour of class, everybody is usually working. In one classroom, I enter from the front, and I find this very uncomfortable. In the other classroom, the door is in the back, so people don’t know I’m there unless they turn around or I greet them.

Most days, I circulate around the room quietly and interrupt students individually or in pairs in order to greet them by name. It’s a quick hello and social question, asking about their weekend or something like that. I listen to their answers. If they’d been absent the class before, I ask if everything’s OK. They seem to respond well to that. I then remind them that I’m here to answer any questions or help however I can.

It’s important to me that we have this little connection. Honestly, I sometimes skip this step in the class with the door in the front. And it shows – I feel more connected to the other class. No more skipping the greeting, Emily!

Step 2: Walk Around Quietly

If nobody has any questions for me right away or they’ve just started working on something, I just walk around quietly. I look at their work, and I’m not shy about stopping to read and telling them that they’re on track… or making a suggestion to get them back on track.

I’ll sometimes ask how it’s going, especially if someone seems to have less done than the other students. Usually people nod or say “fine,” but occasionally I get a panicked “bad!” and then I talk that person through tackling the longest assignment they’ve ever written in English.

Step 3: Ask If I Can Check Anything

Once students have some work down, be it textbook work, an outline, or a draft essay, I ask each person if there’s anything I can check for them.

If it’s a small amount, I read and check it all. If there are errors, I point them out but I don’t give the answers.

If it’s a large amount, I ask if they have any specific questions.

If they seem to want me to spend 20 minutes checking all their work, I’m up front that I can’t. I encourage them to ask me only the most important couple of questions so I can check in with the other students, too.

I cycle between Step 2 and Step 3 for much of class, and I also get flagged down a lot.

Step 4: Build Up, Chat, Farewell

As class comes to a close, I make sure to point out to students what they’re doing well, to build up their confidence and their positive associations with writing.

I always stay a few minutes late in case people want to chat a bit – sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. I don’t chat a lot about my personal life, though I share a few bits about my family and other interests. I mostly just want everyone to finish class feeling  hopeful… and enthusiastically encouraged to utilize the college’s writing center!

I also make an effort to say good night to everyone and wish them a nice evening or weekend as appropriate. If they have a big assignment or exam coming up, I wish them luck. It’s a little thing, but like with the greeting, I think it just helps us feel connected.


It’s not rocket science!

But it is a lot of interrupting and a lot of initiating, both of which I’ve been a bit ambivalent about, especially as the mere assistant.

Over the last few semesters, I’ve decided that the interrupting is worth it and the initiating is definitely part of my role even though I’m not in charge.

Does crowd surfing come naturally to you?


You’re reading Assisting the Teacher: Actively Circulating, originally posted at




ESL Assistant Teaching Tips

I’ve decided to write a few posts in a new category: ESL Assistant Teaching Tips.


This is partly in hopes of sharing what I’ve learned in my last few semesters of assistant teaching.

It’s also partly in hopes of encouraging more programs to hire assistants for ESL writing and reading classes. Not all of my community colleges do this, but I wish they would. I think it would also be helpful in settings beyond EAP, though admittedly I’ve been pretty firmly embedded in adult EAP the past while.

The Basics

The way assistant teaching works at at least one community college I work for is as follows: academic reading and writing courses with a minimum number of students have an assigned lead teacher and an assigned assistant teacher. Classes meet for about two hours, twice a week.

Second hour of class only, the assistant teacher comes in.

The intention is for the first hour to be more about instruction, review, etc., and second hour to be reading and writing practice in class with two instructors available to lead small groups, circulate, check work, conference, etc.

Assistants are not hired to do preparation at home, including lesson planning or grading. They do not necessarily reduce the lead teacher’s workload; rather, they allow more to be accomplished during class, particularly in terms of interactions with students.


I will be periodically posting tips and ideas about how assistant teachers can support the classroom. I hope it’s helpful!