Anything to be of assistance

24th October 2003 at 01:00
Languages undergraduate Emily Troscianko describes her work experience as a classroom assistant in Dresden

In the nine months I spent as a foreign language assistant at a grammar school in Germany, the gap never narrowed between what I saw as my potential to assist and the teachers' willingness to be assisted.

Partly this was because the idea of assistance seemed to be alien to this Dresden grammar school; partly it was because to be assisted requires more effort than not to be.

I felt that if I'd had been given a better overview of the classes' aims and been perceived less as optional extra or disruption to age-old methods and schedules, I would have been able to help more.

Beginning as a mere substitute for cassette or pronunciation guide, I was gradually allowed to help more. I wove among work groups answering questions pupils would never have dared ask their teacher; provided more authentic materials than bland textbook comprehensions; and took a whole lesson alone, the teacher there only to keep the peace.

The one thing that every teacher wanted me to be was the essay-marker. My diligently profuse pencilling saved them time - though I think a single casually spoken word often made better use of mine.

Many of the language teachers in what was formerly East Germany are of the generation which had no opportunity to study abroad, and much of the lessons' style had an outdated rigidity.

Although I lacked the power to threaten a 6 (a grade F) in an atmosphere stifled by grade boundaries and class averages, which made maintaining discipline difficult, I found it made what I call "mouth-opening magic" easier.

In Dresden it took half a lesson to give back a test, and we had a termly Pedagogic Day that seemed like an eight-hour vacuum of Fragebogenauswertungen (questionnaire evaluationsanalyses)and Anspruchsniveauerhohung (the raising of standards) that left teachers and pupils ashen from a glut of theory. Yet simply using photos to chat about Liz Hurley PVC-clad on page three, or me on board a strawberry-laden punt one summer, went a long way with the pupils.

We shouldn't be afraid to go the British Government's way instead of puritanical pedagogy, in modern languages above all - because learning a language, unlike learning formulas, is a substitute for acquiring it naturally. Only here does simply being foreign make you qualified, indeed irreplaceable, as an assistant: only to you is the language not "foreign", not severed from its culture; so you can make it seem real. An assistant, having learned a language by instinctive imitation, is equipped not to teach it, but rather to reduce the artificiality by at least providing an "authentic" model for imitation (even while being returned the favour), and to make of the alienness a fascination. Put simply - to inspire to learn.

So I don't think the assistant undermines the teacher's knowledge and authority, but supplements them: the teacher will be able to keep on learning, and the pupils will want to.

Emily Troscianko will graduate in modern languages at St Hilda's, Oxford, next June

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