I want to start this post by saying that I fully appreciate how easy my job as a teaching assistant in Spain really is. I only work 12 hours per week, I’m not required to teach anything beyond proper pronunciation, and expectations for my performance are relatively low. This post is not meant to be a list of complaints.
However, I would like to talk about the most common challenges I’ve faced in the classroom this year. I imagine these are things that teachers at all levels might deal with.
Challenge #1: Blank Stares and Unenthusiastic Learners
Here’s the scenario:
You’re asked to bring in a presentation about some aspect of American culture for the next class. The goal of the presentation is not necessarily to teach students about America, but to help them practice listening to and speaking English. That means the presentation should be as interactive as possible.
You stay up all night crafting your presentation. It’s on an interesting topic, there are plenty of engaging pictures and videos, and you’ve also prepared quite a few questions to encourage further discussion. You put the finishing touches on it and think to yourself, “they are going to love this!”
As you break into your presentation the next morning, you’re met with the usual awkward silence that most classes begin with. That’s OK. You know that it usually takes a little bit of effort to get the conversation flowing at first. But ten minutes in, and after a few simple questions to break the ice, all you see is the blank stares of 20 teenagers, or maybe even a few of them blatantly ignoring you.
Your mind races for a solution. Am I speaking too fast? Is my topic boring? Why doesn’t the professor seem at all concerned that this is happening? How can I possibly fix this???
This is a scenario I’ve faced quite a bit in the last two years, but even moreso this year.
There are classes that just seem to flow, almost as if the teaching gods are smiling upon me. Students are awake and engaged, asking and answering questions with hardly any prompting. There’s learning, there’s laughter, and most importantly, there’s lots of English being spoken.
Then there are classes like the scenario I described above. The students either don’t understand what I’m saying or don’t seem to care enough to listen. Sometimes it’s a mix of both.
Over time, I’ve gotten used to this variation in student engagement. I’ve even had the same presentation evoke both types of reactions depending on what students I was giving it to. I guess it’s just part of the classroom experience.
Challenge #2: Adjusting for Different Age Groups and English Levels on the Fly
This challenge is closely related to the first one.
This year I am working with 10 different teachers across almost as many subjects. The ages of my students range from 12 to 17 years old, depending on the class. So I might go from a class of 16-year-olds who are proficient in English to a class of 12-year-olds who are just starting. Sometimes it’s the opposite, with the younger students having a higher level of English than the older ones.
This means I always need to be conscious of how I’m speaking to students. There are some classes where I can speak how I would to a native English speaker, but there are others where I can only use one or two different verb tenses to explain things.
I struggle with this challenge less and less as I get more experience in the classroom, but it’s something I still need to be very conscious of.
Challenge #3: Knowing How and When to Correct Students
My main responsibility as a teaching assistant is to help students with their pronunciation. The difficulty with this really comes down to one key fact: English is NOT a phonetic language, while Spanish is. This means that English pronunciation is very difficult for most of my students, especially ones who haven’t spent a lot of time listening to English.
Maybe I’m weird, but correcting my students makes me a little uncomfortable. Speaking English in front of the class already seems like such a nerve-wracking experience for many of them. The last thing I want to do is discourage them by pointing out their mistakes in front of their fellow classmates.
Things would be easier if I could work with students in a one-on-one setting, but unfortunately, that’s not an option at my school. Each class has about 30 students and the hour we have is rarely enough time to get through the lesson, let alone work with students individually. Still, that’s my main job description, so correcting students is what I have to do.
Since last year I’ve been trying to figure out the best way to correct a student’s pronunciation without singling him or her out in front of everyone. Each class is a new learning experience for me, but some of the methods I’ve tried so far are:
- If a student is struggling a lot, only pointing out the one or two pronunciation mistakes that I think are critical.
- Identifying common words that students might struggle with before the class starts, and then working on them with the whole class.
- Taking notes on pronunciation mistakes during the class, and going over them with the whole class at the end. This means letting students make mistakes in the moment without correcting them.
I’m still not sure which of these methods is most effective. I guess only time and experience will show me.
The tone of this post might seem negative, but I don’t necessarily view these challenges as bad. Every challenge I faced in the classroom last year, while not always comfortable in the moment, helped me grow as an individual and a leader. I know that dealing with these current challenges will do the same.