On being a teaching ASSISTANT

I started teaching in formal and informal settings probably as far back as junior high when I was helping the neighbor’s daughter with fractions and decimals. But the first time I walked into a classroom full of faces waiting for me, the teacher, was during college when I started teaching SAT prep courses. I was teaching high school students barely three years younger than I was. I was incredibly nervous, but I knew my material and knew that I wanted to help those kids. So I set my nerves aside and got straight to work.

I found that I fell right into place in front of a classroom, and it soon felt comfortable and natural, as it still does today. It’s a unique experience. All eyes are on you, and ears are tuned in to every your every word (in a world of perfect classroom management). You have information that they want, need, or someone else decided they should have. You, as the teacher, need to communicate this information to them and make sure they understand it. You orchestrate activities to make sure they learn, understand, and know how to use this knowledge. When behavior problems arise, you communicate firmly, but not harshly, that that will not be tolerated, and you put an end to it before it escalates. The classroom is your domain and you make all decisions about how it will operate.

Unfortunately my current job title is not “teacher,” per se. I’m a teaching assistant, meaning that someone else runs the classroom and I am there to help with certain activities. Fantastic! Less work for me, right? Yes, I do no grading and I seldom have to plan lessons in advance. Most of the time I just show up and learn at the same time as the students what we’re doing that day.

But I’ve learned a thing or two about being a teaching assistant this year. Every teacher has a slightly different teaching style, and as an assistant I have significantly less freedom to use my own. I have to mold and adapt mine to fit in to that of the lead teacher. If he or she says we’re doing this activity and we’re doing it this way, but I would prefer to do it a different way, there’s only so much I can do. Having said that, I have a great relationship with most of the teachers I work with. They respect me as a teacher and we can discuss which steps do do first, which to eliminate, which to modify, how to modify them, and which one of us should do which parts. We teach as a team, and it works well.

Other classes don’t go quite as smoothly. With one teacher in particular, the relationship is a bit rough. Her idea of teaching (to eight and nine year olds) is pretty much just talking at them and occasionally writing things on the board for them to copy. For her it works better than it sounds like it would, but for my lessons with her she expects me to do the same. So to teach children a foreign language I just stand there and speak in that language, and they listen? Does not compute.

If they really focus they will understand a few words here and there, but they’re eight years old, so I lose their attention after about ten seconds. I have explained to her time and time again that they need organized activities, but games don’t exist in her classroom. I have succumbed to completely disobeying her and making up my own games on the spot with whatever topic she gave to me to “talk to them” about. They love coming to the board to fill in gaps of sentences I’ve written and label pictures I’ve drawn. They ask at the end of every lesson if we can play hangman, but the scowl on their teacher’s face usually provides the answer.

Am I a good teaching assistant? I guess it depends on who you ask. I’d like to think that for good teachers, I’m a great assistant. Where the relationship is rocky I place my priority in using my time with the students efficiently, teaching them the way that I know how to get through to them.

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3 Responses to On being a teaching ASSISTANT

  1. James says:

    If you want to teach in Spain, be a teaching assistant for the UCETAM schools in Madrid. You work soooo much! But, it's really worthwhile for your career as a teacher.

  2. Kristen says:

    @James, have you worked for UCETAM? I am currently living in Madrid and am considering applying for next year. What are your thoughts on the program? Were you happy with it?

  3. Amy says:

    Kristen, I have a friend who's been doing UCETAM for two years. Email me (teach.learn.run@gmail.com) and I can put you in touch.

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