Having a native English language assistant at school can be beneficial for students and teachers alike. This month we asked Gwendolyn Martin, who is working at a school in Galicia, and Rachael Bernstein, who is based in Madrid, to share their thoughts and experiences on being English language assistants.
Gwendolyn Martin
graduated from Bard College in 2010 with a B.A. in Spanish and Latin American Iberian Studies. She loves being outdoors, really enjoys travelling, dabbles in dance and other artistic activities, and is currently exploring a newfound passion for working with young people. Currently, Gwen works as an English language assistant in the secondary school in Mugardos, Spain.
Rachael Bernstein
is a recent graduate from the University of Pittsburgh, with a major in Communications and minors in Western European and Latin American studies. She’s currently working as an Auxiliar de Conversación at the Ministry of Education in Madrid (North American Culture and Language Assistants in Spain 2011 – 2012) Rachael enjoys traveling, exposure to new cultures, reading, photography, working with young students.


How did you find out about/get involved in the Language Assistants program?

RACHAEL: My friend’s older brother participated in the program two years ago, and encouraged me to apply due to his incredible experience.

GWENDOLYN: I first heard about the Auxiliares de Conversacion grant in 2009 while I was studying in Seville, Spain. A friend of mine was working in Madrid at the time and had met people who were participating in the program. While talking about future plans one day he sent me the link and I saved it in my bookmarks folder. A few years later, after graduated, I revisited the site and applied for the 2011- 2012 academic year!

What subjects/classes are you helping out with? What sort of things do you do in class to provide support for teachers/students?

RACHAEL: I work with three separate 4th grade classes, assisting in English, Art, and Science- all taught in English.
At the end of their 4th year, students at el Colegio de Gabiela Mistral and other public schools in Madrid must take a Cambridge examination, therefore twice I week I take the students out two by two and work with them on oral and written exercises in preparation. Additionally, I run activities in the classroom out of the practice exam packet that include written, listening, and oral sections.
In general, my other responsibilities vary between each class, depending on the needs and methods of the specific teachers. I frequently run classroom activities, especially those requiring oral instructions, verbal communication, and vocabulary practice, as the teachers appreciate my authentic accent. I also help with homework and test corrections, material preparation, and work with the teachers to plan future lessons.

GWENDOLYN: I currently work as an English language tutor in the secondary school in Mugardos, Spain. I have around thirteen teaching hours a week. I aid the PE teacher with the first and second level PE classes, and am also responsible for assisting with the speaking and listening classes of the other levels. My role is to serve as an oral language tutor as well as a cultural “ambassador.” I meet with some of the teachers once a week to plan lessons and activities; other teachers simply outline the textbook lessons I am to facilitate. Every couple of weeks I will give a presentation in English concerning United States’ culture, history, or traditions as they correspond to the lesson unit or time of year. For other classes I might play a game or lead a speaking or listening exercise. I have also taken the initiative to implement a weekly “English Club” so students can practice English free of classroom pressure!


Have you found the experience rewarding?

RACHAEL: Completely! I have only been working with my 8 and 9 year olds for two months now and can already see improvement in many of them. It excites me to see the light of new understanding in their eyes, and to know that this is only the beginning of a huge transformation in those that try their hardest this year. I also am really enjoying my private lessons that I have four days a week after school (some with students from my school, some with others that I found on various websites such as Lingobongo.com and tusclasesparticulares.com). Working with students one-on-one gives me the ability to spot specific issues and correct them, and form a personal relationship with the children- which has been one of the most rewarding things of all!

GWENDOLYN: One of the reasons I wanted to participate in the program was to experiment with being a teacher. I thought that it would be an excellent way to try on the teacher hat as well as gain experience. I am two months into the program and couldn’t be more pleased! The relationship I have with the fellow English teachers is positive and constructive. They impart their teacher’s knowledge with me, but also leave room for me to try out my own ideas. It is also very rewarding to work with young people as they struggle with and advance in learning English. Moreover, the cultural element of the program allows for a deeper social dialogue between students and teachers!


What are some of the challenges you think teachers face?

RACHAEL: Unlike what I am used to in the United States, students of all levels are put into the same class, creating a large stress on the teachers; some of whom have to create entirely different course syllabuses for those that are behind or extremely advanced. I am glad I can be of assistance to them by taking struggling students out of the class to push them to improve. Teachers also face the issue of habitually mischievous and misbehaving students. I am able to be a set of eyes and an additional authority to keep total order and control in the classroom.

Do you think it’s beneficial for schools to have language assistants?
RACHAEL: Absolutely. As previously stated, I lend a helping hand to those students in need, assist in material and classroom activity preparation, and additionally am able to help the teachers in their presentation of the English language. Frequently they will turn to me during an explanation and ask if they conjugated a verb correctly, used the correct pronunciation and/or accentuation, or explained something adequately enough.

GWENDOLYN: Because knowing English is proving essential to communication in our global society, having a native speaker in the classroom is extremely beneficial. A language assistant gives students firsthand experience with native accents. I also think that having a native English speaker in the classroom can spark new interest in learning the language – it takes English out of the books and puts it in a real life context! Through conversation and interaction with the language assistant, students can see more clearly where they need to improve in order to communicate successfully in English. Also, I believe that a great deal of creativity, energy and real life engagement are essential elements of the learning process. The collaboration between teachers and language assistants can be a source of new and inspiring ways of teaching the language! However, this isn’t to say that every student is successful or even interested in learning English. Balancing the pressure to successfully teach English to every student with the fact that some people just aren’t interested in learning the language is difficult for both students and teachers.


Are there any activities/resources you have found particularly useful?
RACHAEL: Although my program does not require me to be TEFL certified to teach English, I am, and I have found this to be a huge advantage. I have print outs of all my grammar/classroom management units, and frequently will turn to them for ideas and reference. I also am a huge advocate of group work and verbal communication in class, as I feel this is the best way to learn a language.


Would you recommend this experience to other native English speakers?

RACHAEL: 100 %. I would recommend going to teach English abroad to everyone, It is an experience I think everyone with enough financial support should partake in. Living somewhere else and immersing yourself in the culture of another country is the best way to learn another language and open your mind to all the world has to offer! Specifically, I believe my program is the best option for Americans. Although I have an EU passport (my mother is British, and this has made my experience thus far much easier) it is not required, and neither is TEFL certification. I am planning on partaking in the program again next year, I love it!

Language_and_Culture_Assistants_in_Spain_Survival_Guide – North_American_Candidates


Here are a couple of links about my program in case you wanted to know more. I’M A HUGE ADVOCATE!!!

Many thanks to Gwendolyn and Rachael for sharing their experiences with us!

Do you have language assistants at your school? What sort of activities do they take part in? If you’d like to share your ideas, send us an e-mail to: primarymagazine@oup.es or leave a comment below.


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