Occasionally, in my inner-city adult ESL classroom, volunteers from the neighborhood or paid assistants from the district would come to my classroom to help.
Usually they would just show up one day and say, “Hi, I’m Tracie, and I’m here to help.” Sometimes they were bilingual, speaking both English and some of the students’ first language. Sometimes they were truly volunteer, retired people or stay-at-home moms, with some free time that they wanted to fill by serving. Other times they were paid by the school district and had some college credits in being a teaching assistant.
So what’s the problem? Sounds great, right—assistants who want to help you at your job, especially when you have a large class? Well—yes and no. In fact, most of the assistants were fine, and I would welcome them back. However, not all teachers are like this and don’t enjoy sharing the autonomy of their own classroom and instruction, and that is legitimate. In addition, some teaching assistants or volunteers are definitely more challenging than others to work with.
So what are the top concerns with volunteers and teaching assistants?
Lack of Knowledge
Most teaching assistants and volunteers don’t have the knowledge base of a teacher—they may indeed have a strong base of life knowledge but don’t have the training in English or in teaching it that a teacher does. (Once a volunteer in my class pointed out as I was writing on the board that I had “forgotten” the apostrophe before the “s” in word—a plural, not possessive, word.) It might be best to limit these assistants to noninstructional duties, such as making copies, or light instruction, such as participating in a discussion group.
Lack of Cultural Understanding
One of my more memorable moments in dealing with an assistant was the one who, after I had set students up in mixed-language groups, exclaimed, “But that group is all Chinese!” In fact, none of the students in the group in question were “Chinese”—although the assistant was correct in noting they were all Asian. Someone who assumes anyone who looks Asian must be Chinese, however, probably requires some training in cross-cultural issues before assisting in an ESL class.
Tries to Take Control of the Class
Some assistants I have met have very domineering personalities and try to take over the classroom in deciding what should and shouldn’t be taught and how. This should be stopped as that is the teacher’s role, and for a reason—the teacher generally has more insight into curriculum and teaching strategies than the assistant.
Not Enough to Do
Sometimes, especially if it is a small class, there may not be enough for the assistant to do—the teacher has all the copies, grading, and instruction covered for a group of fifteen students as the school year trails to a close. The assistant becomes understandably bored. In this case, a reasonable solution might be to refer the assistant to another larger, or more difficult, class.
Wrong Reasons for Volunteering
Sometimes a potential assistant simply has the wrong reason for volunteering—it’s common for people outside the field, for example, to equate ESL education (where only English is used in instruction) with bilingual education (where two languages are used, typically Spanish and English in the United States). I have had assistants come to my classroom of multiple native languages because they wanted to “learn Spanish.” Some quick education here about the nature of ESL (Spanish is not used in instruction) might save the volunteer some time.
So there can be multiple difficulties with assistants in the classroom.
What are some ways to address them?
Methods to Deal with Teaching Assistants
List of guidelines and expectations
It’s helpful to have a set of volunteer/assistant guidelines ready for when assistants come to your room, whatever you would expect for helpers in your class. This will vary from teacher to teacher, of course. For example, I’m comfortable with the assistant who is eager to teach to try out his own mini-lessons as long as he has run them by me first; other teachers might not be so comfortable with this. That is the teacher’s decision and should be put in the guidelines. Likewise, it is in my guidelines that I’d prefer assistants not translate what I say into the students’ native language, and I explain why—it is contrary to the principles of ESL instruction as students tend to stop listening to the English at all and just listen for the translation and therefore defeat the purpose of ESL instruction. Other instructors may have less problem with this but would not let an assistant teach a lesson. However, whatever is important to the teacher should be communicated clearly in the guidelines.
Welcome the volunteer. Introduce her, and fit her in the classroom
When the volunteer first arrives in your class, welcome her warmly and introduce her to the class. As much as possible, make her a part of the class routine.
Set duties and options
One way to make an assistant a part of the routine is to give her set duties and options within those duties. Find out her reason for becoming an assistant. What does she hope to gain—teaching experience? Connections to people from other cultures? A social experience or an intellectual one? All of these are legitimate, but if the instructor knows the assistant’s goals, this can guide her into what duties should be assigned an assistant. Someone whose goals are simply cross cultural connections, for example, may be happier working in discussion groups than in assisting with lesson planning.
With assistants, as in most cases, direct communication is preferred. Most people fail at picking up subtle clues as to what others want. The list of guidelines helps here. In addition, as the term progresses, the teacher should clearly express what he likes and doesn’t like.
Keep in touch with your assistant—don’t just leave her hanging. Regularly, perhaps at the end of each day, take time to ask how things are going and if there are any concerns.
Teaching assistants can be a blessing in the classroom, but occasionally there may be concerns.
With clear communication and direction, however, your assistant can become a fine addition to your class.
Do you have assistants in your class? What are some ways you interact with them?