Twice now I’ve come to Germany under the auspices of the German Kulturministerkonferenz and its Pädagogischer Austauschdienst (PAD – Pedagogical Exchange Service). The PAD brings some 500 FremdsprachenassistInnen (FSAs – Foreign Language Assistants) from Britain, America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the Republic of Ireland every year to Germany to support English language education in German schools. FSAs can find themselves typically at one of three levels of what we’d call secondary schools in Canada: the Hauptschule, the Realschule, and the Gymnasium. Both times with the program I worked at the same school here in Trier, an academically-oriented Gymnasium.
Many assistants who I’ve talked to admit to feeling unprepared for their assistantships. I myself had no idea what to expect my first time. I’ve wanted to write a guide of sorts on being an assistant for awhile now. Other former assistants or Year Abroad bloggers have posted great guides full of recommendations for making the most out of your Year Abroad, tending to focus on social opportunities. Indeed, your typical Year Abroad blog ends with understandingly glowing and sentimental reflections on the author’s past year, usually with recommendations coming from their own very real experience. While I’d encourage everyone to take full advantage of their assistantship or Year Abroad, I still think there’s room for some discussion on what being an assistant actually means.
What follows is an adaptation of a presentation I gave in a Teaching Methodology class I took last winter at the University in Trier. The instructor (a teacher at my Gymnasium and, quite honestly, one of my teaching role models) gave us a final assignment where-in we had to present on an aspect of educational theory we found important but under represented. Naturally I turned to my own experience and frustrations, and reflected on the role of “native speakers” in English language education in Germany as facilitated by FSAs. In deference to academic due-diligence I even consulted many (a few) diverse (limited) secondary sources, all of which were frustratingly lacking in any meaningful analysis or recommendations for Best Practices.
A caveat: I am no pedagogical expert, just an interested individual with a slapped together “apprenticeship” of random theoretical courses and practical experienced limited to a total of 18 months as an FSA and another 16 months as a Teaching Assistant during my time as a Masters student in Canada. Nevertheless, with the self-assurance characteristic of my generation when it comes to the online dissemination of information, I feel capable enough to make a few reflective statements. I will structure my reflections into four sections: Assumption; Intention; Execution; and Reflection.
I’d like to begin by establishing the assumption upon which the whole idea of FSAs rest: namely, that exposure to native speakers provides an invaluable and essential experience during foreign language acquisition. No one would deny this, least of all me.
But how do we get this experience? I’ve observed four common practices for achieving this exposure:
- Exchange – students, either on their own or in groups, travel to a new country and live with host families while attending classes at the local school in their target language;
- City Questionnaires – often implemented during school trips, where instructors give students a questionnaire to be filled out by asking locals for information, their opinions, etc.;
- Pen Pals – instructor or someone else coordinates the exchange of letters with students in a parallel class in a country with the target language. The exchange partners are often in the process of learning the local language of your students;
- FSAs – chipper, young native speakers come to your class to give students consistent and authentic experience with the target language.
While this list isn’t meant to be exhaustive, it does help highlight the difficulty in exposing students to native speakers. Some practices are so expensive as to prohibit some students from participating: not every student can afford to go on the class excursion to London, or to go on exchange for a number of months to the West (best) Coast of Canada. Besides, these options require extensive logistical planning, and I wouldn’t hold it against any teacher who shied away from taking a class of Grade 9 students on a weekend trip to London. Instituting a pen pal program where your students exchange letters with a class in a country where your target language is spoken may seem like less preparation, but it won’t work. Sorry. Nothing will come of the arrangement but disappointment.
With the first three practices thus compromised we come to the fourth, to the implementation of an FSA. But how do you use an FSA?
When discussing the intentions behind FSAs, we can turn to two bodies: the school and the assistant themselves. For the school the intentions are fairly clear: following the assumption outlined above, by introducing a native speaker into the foreign language instruction/classroom students will gain experience in real, authentic language use. I’ll discuss how this might play out in the classroom below in my discussion of “Execution”.
Among the actual FSAs however we find more diverse intentions. Why have they applied for the program? By what process do university students or recent university graduates become FSAs in Germany?
German schools tend to focus either on “British” English or “American” English, though some thankfully don’t focus on either. As I referred to above, FSAs can come from several English-speaking countries, namely the United Kingdom, the United States of America, the Republic of Ireland, and some of the more prominent Commonwealth countries (Canada, Australia, New Zealand). Some of you may notice a preference emerging here as to whose English the German education system accepts as valid and authentic, and while I’d love to go on about the absence of many other countries with English as an official language who don’t get to take part in the program, that tediously academic discussion will have to wait for some other time. I wouldn’t want to bore you.
We can separate these assistants then into two categories based on admission to the program. British university students studying German as part of a Modern Languages Degree can take part in the PAD to fulfill their Year Abroad requirement. The Americans, Canadians, Aussies, and Kiwis however have to be in possession of a degree. This distinction effectively leads to British FSAs being at least two to three years younger than their American and Commonwealth colleagues.
Perhaps as a result of this however I’ve heard a few rumours that some schools actually prefer American and Commonwealth assistants for a maturity that may be imagined, or may actually result in the assistantship sometimes being seen as a post-graduation job rather than a Year Abroad or Gap Year vacation in the midst of their degree programs. I’d be the first though to argue that this is a silly distinction: British assistants can take the position as seriously as Americans and Commonwealthers can shirk their responsibilities.
The Brits, Americans, and Commonwealth FSAs all tend to have two things in common: firstly, they’re likely students of the German language. Ostensibly then we might assume that the PAD program and the life of an FSA offer the attractive opportunity for (former) language students to spend a year in Germany filled with chances to employ and improve their German; indeed, cultural exchange is an important part of the program, both outside of and within your school.
Secondly and more problematically, FSAs arrive in Germany without any pedagogical training whatsoever. Well, for the most part. Sure, most FSAs have been in education for some time and have had countless opportunities to observe both successful and less so successful language instruction methodology. Sadly however there is a persistent fallacy in academia, namely the idea that academic training outside of the pedagogical sciences will somehow qualify an individual to teach. Presumably individuals are expected to pick up pedagogical methodology through an osmosis-like absorbing of educational techniques employed by professors. Excuse me while I barf.
So how does this all play out on the ground? It comes back to that assumption I discussed earlier: that exposure to a native speaker will augment students’ foreign language acquisition. As far as I can tell, most schools and many teachers don’t get any farther than the idea that you can shove a native speaker at a bunch of students and the untrained monkey will dance and the students will come out the wiser. If only it were that simple. This is where things quickly break down. Teachers – even the very good ones – have limited training on the integration of native speakers into the foreign language classroom. Remember when I said I did secondary research for this presentation? Yeah, there aren’t any guides or much theory at all as far as I can tell.
I’m not blaming teachers here. This puts teachers into a difficult position. I can understand why some teachers will even ignore the FSA, as painful an experience as that can be (we just all want to be accepted!). Integrating an FSA into your lesson plans is extremely difficult and a massive gamble. How do you know if they’re going to be any good or not, or if they’re game? As far as I can tell, there are four types of assistants you’ll see:
- Vetretungslehrer – The Vetretungslehrer (German for substitute or supply teacher) usually gets roped into taking on lessons from teachers who are ill or otherwise away for the day. According to your contract with the PAD you don’t actually have to do this unless you want to. Many assistants however seem to get bullied into taking on classes despite not being comfortable with situation, something which the school shouldn’t do. Besides, whatever your school might mistakenly think, you are not a Referendar (a student-teacher going through their last hellish year and a half of becoming a full-fledged teacher);
- Living Dictionary – The Living Dictionary is at the opposite end of the spectrum. Teachers hardly ever ask the LD to do anything, and more often than not the LD finds themselves sitting in the corner. Occasionally the teacher might ask for clarification of a word or expression, so long as the English you speak happens to be the same as your school teaches;
- Small Group Leader – These FSAs receive more responsibility than LDs, with teachers tending to send the FSA out of the classroom with small groups of students. The FSA leads the students through reading aloud, or maybe makes a pointless attempt at generating conversation. This can be really frustrating. One of my assistant friends finally broke the silence one day when she asked the kids what video games they played, but it was a double-edged sword as thereafter all they wanted to talk about was weapons from Halo;
- Team-Teacher – The Team-Teacher is an exceedingly difficult arrangement whereby the class instructor (Klassenlehrer) and the FSA team up to teach a lesson. This can take different forms, though usually it involves the FSA stepping in and taking over a certain agreed upon portion of the lesson. Given that FSAs have almost no pedagogical training things like timing often pose a difficulty. Unless the teacher is excited as you are about your 5-minute exercise and they don’t mind you stretching it through an entire 45 minute lesson, you might not find yourself asked back again.
I’ve been in each of these roles. I also wouldn’t put any more value on one over the other, as they all have their benefits and downsides. Whatever role(s) you find yourself in, being an FSA can be a daunting task. A person can only stand in front of so many dead-eyed Year 13 classes before one starts questioning their own worth as a human being, let alone as an effective language assistant. This happens far more often than you’d think: Klassenlehrer often drastically misjudge in my experience the novelty of a chipper young native speaker for a class of 19 year olds who are just absolutely done with this school business. And you can forget the Year 9s. They’re awful and they stink.
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. Older classes – the Oberstufe in the Gymnasium system – can get excited. I think it mostly comes down to luck, though. I always found the Mittelstufe, the Years 6s, 7s, and 8s, an absolute joy to work with. Your experiences may differ, though.
One thing seems pretty standard however: students have no idea what you’re doing there. I suppose this is fair enough – it’s not like your school has any better of an idea. Be prepared to be asked the following questions:
“What are you doing here?”
“Why did you come to Germany?”
“Are you a teacher/student/pupil?”
“No, really, why did you come to Germany?”
These questions won’t be asked out of interest, but more so out of disgust at why you’d choose Germany. Hope then that this disdain towards their homeland translates into a love for your homeland – it’ll make your job easier. Also, they will be probably be very interested in whether you have a boyfriend/girlfriend. They like to know this for reasons. To all the Canadians out there, if you’re really lucky they’ll ask you if it’s dangerous in Canada because of the bears. I advise you to say yes.
Anyways, it’s not like you have any better of an idea why you’re there. No one really gives you a heads up of what to expect. One of my friends from Canada spent the summer before her assistantship telling people she was “going to do a lot of photocopying” at a school in Germany. You might therefore think of looking for guidebooks on how to settle in, and what to expect. There are definitely guides out there – the PAD themselves even publishes one and gives it to you at your orientation. Other guides are far less helpful, often focusing more on fitting in to a new culture rather than proscribing any actions or techniques for working in the language classroom.
As FSAs in Germany however you do get to take part in a multi-day Einführungstagung or orientation seminar in Altenberg, outside of Cologne. Here you’ll feel like you’re at Hogwarts, running to lessons with papers tucked under your arm through the halls of an old monastery. The seminar offers a very expedited crash-course in pedagogical theory complete with a rushed practice lesson to be given to your fellow FSAs in your group. You will pick up some loose lesson planning principles in the seminar if you pay attention. A major downside to the seminar however is that it privileges the Gymnasium and especially high-level literature classes at the expense of the Realschule and Hauptschule. You’ll see what I mean. Another downside is that if you’re from overseas you might very well be recovering from brutal jet lag at the seminar. If you’re not, you’re probably recovering from a hangover from partying with the other FSAs the night before.
Whew, that’s an awful lot of words and thinking. What are we to do with it all, eh? It’s hard to say. I know this all comes off as very negative, but I wish it wasn’t. Your time as an FSA can and very likely will be great. Most people I know end up having very positive experiences in their school placements; as to those who don’t, well, I believe their positions often might have been improved had their schools and they themselves had a better idea of what the FSA/school relationship entailed.
The temporary nature of the assistantships – usually 9 months here in Germany I believe – might explain the lack of theory. Furthermore, for schools each assistant is a new experience, as there is no real pedagogical consistency. It might be that that’s a benefit of the system, serving to keep the exposure to native speakers new and fresh, reflective of actual authentic daily interactions with language. It wouldn’t make sense to limit applicants based on their own pedagogical competency, as each partner country has its own standards of language education. Besides, I bet Germany has enough trouble filling their quota of FSAs given the relative lack of native English speakers who can also speak German.
If you’ve gotten this far, I applaud your stamina. Hopefully all this rambling has been somewhat interesting, and perhaps even helpful to you. I don’t have any answers to some of these broader issues in the use of FSAs in English language acquisition, but I still feel that exposure to native speakers is crucial to fostering English language competency in students. Despite its flaws, the PAD’s FSA program goes a long way to exposing students to that language while giving FSAs an unforgettable and indeed enviable opportunity to live and work in Germany.