Now that you’ve survived your first week at your school, you probably have already gotten a feel for the staff, the students, the atmosphere, and the things you’re expected to do as an English teaching assistant.
However, you also know that you won’t start teaching right away, no not at all. Under your work contract, you’re expected to spend the first week or two doing observations at your school, as a way to get you familiarized with the school setting and also set up expectations on how you should try to run your classes. “Observations” is a very general term, which can mean a variety of responsibilities; here are just some things you might expect during your observation period:
1. Sit in on classes. When it comes down to it, observation period is going into different classes and, well, sitting in on them. Imagine that you’re just merely a fly on the wall, and just listening to how the teacher(s) typically run their classes on a typical day.
Of course, you won’t be treated as a fly on the wall with everyone, especially since you’ll be the “new teacher from outside France” who’s more of a thing than a person to ogle at. So be prepared for a lot of curious stares, whisperings about the new “assistant(e) anglais(e)” (which is not entirely accurate for Americans like me, who are, more accurately-speaking, assistante d’anglais), and them possibly asking you who you are and where you’re from. You won’t be entirely invisible, but do your best to stay out of the spotlight until you’re called to do so.
2. Take notes. Whether you decide to do so in a notebook or just mentally keep them for posterity, taking note of everything at your school will help you become more familiar with where things are placed, what’s offered in the school that you can use, and whom to refer to for help if you’re unsure about something. That said, here are some aspects to consider taking note of:
a. The classroom. Look around to see what the room is equipped with: a whiteboard? A computer? A projector for displaying Powerpoints? Perhaps it’s a computer lab that students can use to make presentations or maybe it has none of that. Don’t always expect the room to be technologically-equipped, let alone easy for you to set up (sometimes, you might need a password to log in to the computer); sometimes, you’ll only have a whiteboard (blackboard? Do those still exist?) to work with, and that’s it. By looking at the classroom set-up, you can have a better idea of how to plan your lessons accordingly.
b. Student-teacher ratio. Some schools (or classes) are smaller than others, and so sometimes you might see classes overfilled with students (a teacher-student ratio of 1:40) or super tiny (1:8). Under your work contract as an assistant(e), you shouldn’t be taking entire classes of students at once, but rather at most half of them (maximum 17 to 20 students). Considering that many of us don’t have teaching experience, it would be difficult, if not overwhelming, to take a room full of potentially rowdy students and have things run amok; if you’re ever in that position, do let your colleagues know, as it shouldn’t be the case.
c. Teaching style. Pay attention to the teacher’s mannerisms; do they use a lot of worksheets or do a lot of Powerpoint presentations? Is the whiteboard used a lot or is it more self-run with the students teaching each other and the professor is only there to mediate? While you might not necessarily run your classes like your colleagues’, taking them into account will help you understand what seems to work or not, in terms of how the students behave in class (well-mannered or not).
d. Buildings and location. This doesn’t necessarily have to do with classroom observations, but rather how to get around school and know where to go to teach, eat, and deal with administration from time to time (because it’s inevitable, of course). Familiarize yourself with the different buildings and departments, if there are any, and find the classrooms you’ll teach in beforehand so that you won’t be lost and late to class on your first day of teaching. If you’ll be taking half of a colleague’s students at a time, you’ll need to find another classroom nearby for it, so discuss with them about reserving rooms for you when teaching (I had that happen to me at both schools I taught at last year).
e. Atmosphere. Pretty vague term, but try to get a feel for how the school seems to operate: are the staff super close with each other, or is everyone doing their own thing? Do you feel a sense of strong community or not? Are the student-teacher dynamics pretty hierarchical (i.e. teacher is head, student is under) or is it more lax and casual? Knowing the subtleties among all of these aspects will give you a better idea of how you should carry yourself as a teacher, and how you should interact with students and staff.
The lycée pro I worked at last year was quite casual, as some of the staff were very close friends with one another, and they even were close with their students (to the point of having them as Facebook friends! In the States, that wouldn’t really be looked upon well, unless they’re your former students who’ve already graduated and whatnot). Always interesting to find out different relationship policies between teachers and students in other countries!
3. Introduce yourself. This point should actually be placed at the beginning of this list, since it should be one of the first things you do upon entering the school. Say hello to the staff- not only the colleagues you’ll be working with, but also everyone else. Do the same with the students as well. Overall, just be friendly and be willing to talk in French to them (not the students, of course), whether to discuss logistics of your contract or to just shoot the breeze in the staff room during breaks.
4. Try your hand at teaching. I’m not staying start teaching an entire lesson during your first and/or second week of observations; rather, just offer an introduction presentation about yourself, your country’s culture, and so forth. Just basic information, nothing else. Be careful not to get too carried away and start talking about the upcoming U.S. elections and the complications of the two-party system; you can save that for later!
*story time* During my observation periods last year, I was actually thrown into full-on teaching on my first week at the lycée pro; for some reason, my colleagues thought that it was fine to let me start teaching right away, and so I had to make a Powerpoint to do so. Thankfully, it wasn’t anything too stressful, because it was only an introduction on myself, my life in the United States, etc.- and the colleagues were in class as well, so it wasn’t as if I was teaching them on my own just yet! Some other assistant(e)s also taught right away, so I guess “observation period” is loosely defined depending on the school you’re in.
5. Start creating lessons. Now that you’ve survived your first week or so of observations, you’re ready to begin preparing lessons to teach! Again, keep in mind what kind of equipment you’ll have at your school, so you don’t waste your time making a Powerpoint when in fact the classroom doesn’t have a projector to project it onto. As for what kind of ideas for these lessons, the best thing is to start with something introductory, nothing too heavy, and hopefully casual and fun; the serious stuff can be done at a later time.
…so good luck with observations, and enjoy the two-week break that follows (les vacances de la Toussaint) before teaching *officially* begins!
How did your observation period(s) go? Have any interesting stories to share from then? I’d be glad to hear them!