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

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


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

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


As an ESOL teacher in Maryland, I was pleased to attend the annual Maryland TESOL conference a couple days ago.

As always, it was a nice experience.

I’d say that the theme of my conference experience was a dearth of presentations that were applicable to higher education.

And the uncomfortable corollary: if I want something to be there, I need to consider providing it myself, even though I’m just me.


The keynote was about students with limited/interrupted formal education. It was well-considered and well-presented, and I thought she made several good points about literacy- and school-related cultural differences between many of our students’ home countries and the USA. But overall, her topic was not new to me and I don’t know that she added a whole lot to my schema. I also don’t know how relevant it was to higher education students and classes. I mean, we have SLIFE students, but I didn’t leave the presentation with ideas for how to work with them more effectively within the confines of the syllabus-led courses we teach. I was hoping for more than this from a keynote.

There were three breakout sessions, and I only attended one specifically relevant to higher education. This session dealt with a very specific study of a very specific group of international students, and though it was interesting, I didn’t feel like I walked out of that session with any insights that were actionable.

The other two sessions I attended were both interesting as well. The first session was about public schools. It was a stellar presentation – easily the best of the day. But since the public schools are peripheral to my professional life, the likelihood of my ever using information from this presentation is low. The second session was about corpus linguistics. The speaker’s energy for her topic was contagious and would have sparked anybody’s interest. However, I was already interested, and I was disappointed with how much time she spent on the mechanics of using the search functions on the corpus websites. She did give a couple of activity ideas which I might be able to adapt to my future classes, but I wished for many more ideas and much less of the assumption that my students had the time and/or inclination to play with the corpus tools in or out of class.

Though I had a great time and feel that it was a pleasant use of my personal money for my professional development, I was a little disappointed to walk out of the conference with nothing that was clearly actionable in my current work setting.

Feeling Disappointed? Get Busy!

Again, none of this is intended to be a complaint. I think it’s more just a long-winded justification for wondering if it’s time for me to step up and present. Not because I think I know more than the people around me (I’m pretty sure I don’t!), but because this is the kind of gap we ourselves need to step up and fill. And I think it was a gap. I can’t be the only person who was looking for more higher-education-related sessions – I’m just not that special!

So I’m trying to think through what I wish had been there. What would I have loved to have attended?

  • grammar anything (I’m a grammar geek), maybe particularly re: academic writing
  • advanced grammar review for teachers – clause types, non/restrictive commas, etc.
  • the color vowel chart (I’m a pronunciation geek, too)
  • tips on teaching/tutoring essay writing
  • academic activities based on corpus linguistics… that could fit into a syllabus class
  • cultural presentations (i.e. Cultures of West Africa 101)
  • how to run a small-scale study
  • how to run a large-scale study
  • grading essays efficiently
  • working with your college’s librarians
  • working with your college’s tutoring center

Many of these are enticing to me because they represent gaps in my knowledge and experience. I could not present on many of these topics, at least right now.

But several on my list are my interests/hobbies. I’d like to attend sessions on them in hopes of going deeper. Perhaps those would be subjects to consider presenting on next time, in case anyone else is interested too. And if nobody else is interested, that’s OK! I’ll go attend someone else’s and learn something new!

How do you figure out what to present on? And when you’re “good enough” to present?

You’re reading MD TESOL 2017, 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




The Interruption Conundrum

I love assistant teaching (and lead teaching for that matter), but in some ways, Emily as a teacher looks like a mismatch. For one, I’m not the most extroverted person in the world. For another, I dislike trying to get others to do what they don’t want to do. And lastly, I usually aim to avoid interruptions as much as possible.

Constant interruptions drive me a bit bonkers during the day with my young children, so I am loath to interrupt others in turn. Also, I’m quite aware of the cognitive burden of language learning and how unhelpful it is to have insufficient time and/or concentration to apply to related tasks.

The way second hour of class is usually run, my most common task as the assistant is to circulate and help as needed as the students work individually or in pairs.

But what does “as needed” mean? When they wave me over? When they make a confused face? When I look over their shoulder and see they’re having trouble? Or when I ask?

Where do I draw the line between taking the initiative and being a pest?

To interrupt, or not to interrupt?


I’ve come to a conclusion that works for me, but it’s not indisputable and wouldn’t work in every setting.

My conclusion is to go ahead and interrupt.

This is partly because when I tried out patiently waiting by the wall for someone to call me over, I did a whole lot more waiting than was probably ideal, especially at first. And when someone finally did ask me something, it was kind of awkward because they didn’t want to ask for help and it wasn’t really clear to them who I was or if I could help. Building rapport took a really long time.

When I felt strongly enough that the Wall Waiting method wasn’t working, I tried a different approach: I dove in. Down each row, interrupting each person to ask how I could help, multiple times each session.

Remember how I’m not the world’s most extroverted? I think of this in my head as “crowd surfing,” because every time, it feels like a big leap of faith.


It’s worth it. The results are that my students know and trust me, and that I catch problems before a lot of time is wasted. And because of that rapport and work experience together, they are willing to flag me down.

Philosophy of Interruption

Even though my practice of interrupting is working well in my current setting (in Maryland community college in night classes focused on academic writing), to me it’s very important to have a philosophical guideline to go by as well.

On the surface, it doesn’t make sense for an introverted person who values deep work and dislikes being interrupted to interrupt her students with zeal for hours every week.

But there’s more going on. Ages ago I wrote about the benefits of college writing courses, and I think I was right. Also, students are supposed to do a significant amount of work outside of class. I shouldn’t fall prey to the fallacy that just because that work is invisible to me, it doesn’t exist.

The fact is that class time is just one facet of their learning time, and it’s much better suited for interaction than for uninterrupted concentration regardless of me.

My current philosophy of interruption:

Working with each other and with teachers is one of the major benefits of face-to-face in-class time.

It’s more important for students to make the most of their limited time to interact with us during class than to concentrate deeply during class.

Students can and should work at home or at the library for uninterrupted study time.

It’s been a cycle of philosophy leading practice leading philosophy, and this is where I’ve ended up for now. Crowd surfing. There is some method to my madness – coming up on Thursday.

Photo Credit: musicisentropy on Flickr

You’re reading The Interruption Conundrum, 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!



Well, I’m pleased to say that my week randomly away from the blog had directly to do with some substitute lead teaching!

One of my lead teachers suddenly and unexpectedly needed to miss a week of class, and I was happy to step in to support her and our students.

I’m still a stay-at-home-mom to my very young children, and planning while parenting (and parenting while planning) just doesn’t produce quality results for me, my students, or my kids. Luckily, between my teacher’s routine planning ahead and support from our head of department who’s teaching the same course this semester, my prep duties were minimal.

I have to say that even when so well-supported and even with knowing the class well from assisting, taking the reins of the class stressed me out! I’m confident in my ability to teach well, but I’m not confident in my ability to lead the class in the exact way the real teacher wanted it led. Lack of mind-reading skills and all.

That said, it was cool to be back up in front of the class again. From that vantage point, I wondered:

  • How many of my students are too near-sighted to read the board? There was a lot of squinting, and not a lot of evidence that they had read the agenda I’d written there first thing.
  • What are students’ expectations of themselves and their instructors when they (the students) miss a class?
  • What support systems do they have as they juggle work, family, and classes?

It was a great week, but I’m very happy to be back on the sidelines and back on the blog again!