Confessions of a Bulgarian English major teaching the French German (Part II)

The numerous new acquaintances made during a semester abroad require a concise answer to the recurring question “So what are you doing here?” During the first month of my Erasmus stay, compressing my résumé to one phrase was a piece of cake. However, when I was hired as a Language Assistant in German as a foreign language, and my self-introduction would resemble a Syntax exam task, I realised that the following six months would be full of unconventional experiences.

In July 2016, a job offer for students from German-speaking countries was shared by my Erasmus coordinator in Poitiers. I became extremely excited with the idea of exploring the French work and school environments, so I did not hesitate to apply. Little did I know that three months later, I would be scheduling my first classes. This was the perfect student job for me, since I managed to distribute the required 12 hours’ work a week through the three state schools, and to fit the classes around my university schedule. The position of an assistant is different from that of a trainee in that it does not require a teaching qualification, and neither does it entail passive classroom observation. During the regular classes, the assistant is occupied with a smaller group of students practising mainly presentation and communication skills such as oral expression, articulation and rhetoric.

Nevertheless, the exact responsibilities of the assistant are to be agreed with the German teachers, and they thus vary in each school and class. For instance, in the middle school, I would work at the same classroom as my colleague, but in the high schools, where the emphasis was on preparation for the BAC (Abitur/ A-levels), I would work separately, conducting individual or group oral exam simulations. One of the challenges that I constantly faced during this work placement was to adapt to the different approaches and vocabulary levels appropriate for each group. My students were aged 12 to 19, which encompassed a wide range of German proficiency levels from Beginner (A1) to Upper-Intermediate (B2). In one day, I would thus switch from topics such as “Repercussions of the fall of the Berlin Wall” to “Do you have pets?”, and if I was lucky, they would then smoothly transition from “What is your dream travel destination?” to “Migration”.

Yet this variety allowed me to observe the astonishing development during the adolescent years – the way perspectives are widened and expression is elaborated. I noticed how students would slowly give up the comfort of translating from their mother language and start using German structures. Of course, I also encountered treasures such as “Schlaftkäse”[1] and “Justizgaumen”[2] to remind me of the blessing of working with foreign languages.

Students of Lycée Aliénor d’Aquitaine dream of a bubble-shaped school made of glass (Foto: Marina Ivanova)

For a novice in education like me, teenagers would create new and often controversial situations which require swift reaction, and at times fluent French. My work with beginners in German often required me to switch to French immediately, especially when it came to maintaining discipline in the classroom. The swinging moods of puberty can make some students rather reluctant towards school-related material, which places a burden on the assistant – having to hook and drag words from the reluctant speaker’s mouth. Still, the majority of those I encountered were keen to practice.  Hence, after witnessing many an interesting incident, I have gained much insight into learning and into life in general from this experience.

My colleagues would also contribute to my well-being by counselling me, encouraging me in moments of hesitation and revealing intriguing aspects of the German and French cultures. Mingling with academicians in the staff room has made me familiar with the various responsibilities of state education. Even outside work, my German-teaching colleagues have proved to be open-minded, welcoming and sympathetic, and they have always supported me through the stumbling blocks of life abroad.

My work placement as a German language assistant has given my half year in France a sense of purpose. Although it does not entirely complement my career prospects as an English major, the job set me off to a strong start as a public speaker and an educator.

That is the final “Au revoir!” from me. See you next month with fresh impressions from Chemnitz!


Marina Ivanova

(Bachelor English & American Studies, 5th semester)


[1] Schafskäse (sheep milk cheese) is misspelled as a hybrid of “sleep/sleeps cheese“.

[2] “Palate of justice” – describing his favourite buildings, a student confuses the meanings of the French “palais” (palate) with “palais” (palace) as in “Palais de justice” (courthouse).

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