Between If and Falls – My Experience as a Teaching Assistant in German London

By Michelle Zanivan

Cows and Deer in London

When I think of London, I no longer hear the bells of Big Ben ringing. 

Richmond is a borough of London south-west of London City. When I told my friends I would be going to Richmond, London, all of them looked at me with a puzzled look – all but one. “That’s where the rich people live”, he had exclaimed and he was not wrong. Richmond, the main city of the borough of Richmond upon Thames, is a wealthy borough. It is not too large, spreads on both sides of the Thames, which is quite extraordinary, and has well-kept meadows, greens, and gardens. During spring and summer time, there would be cows next to the river, I was told. I have not seen them yet. Instead, I have seen plenty of deer which, in my opinion, was far more exciting than seeing cows. The town is also close to Heathrow Airport, both a plus and a minus – planes have never been more visible and audible before. Sometimes, I felt like they were heading right for my window.

 In this British city, I was going to live for the next few months, starting January 6th 2020. As an intern and teaching assistant at the German School London, I was going to learn more about the teaching lifestyle.

The deer in Richmond Park

The Facts

The German School London is the official German school for Great Britain. Consequently, it not only offers the international baccalaureate but also, and mainly, the Abitur. On my first day, I was not sure what to expect. Would they teach in English or in German? What kind of children attend this school? I was shown around and introduced to different classes. In the end, after visiting every Grundschule class, as they call it, for two weeks, I was finally made teaching assistant in a Year-Four-class and in a Year-One-class. And this could not have been any better.

Year 1 were children aged six to seven, the smallest and, if I dare say so, the cutest ones. Most students in my class had been raised bilingual; there were only two students who could not speak English. This was somewhat different to higher years. Students of higher years often came from families only speaking German. Of course, there were some exceptions, but the trend was the younger the student, the higher the probability of them coming from a German-English-speaking family. 

Year 4 were children aged nine to eleven. Almost every student in my class was a native German speaker, having lived at least once in Germany. There were, as might be expected, also some exceptions to this rule but far less than in Year 1. 

Emotions Are Hard to Be Tamed – Year 1

After the big break on a sunny day, a Year-1 boy was really upset. He had been outside for messing with his classmates and it was my job to talk to him. I sat next to the 6-year-old and asked him what had happened between him and his friends. The boy who, notably, was trilingual and more fluent in English than in German, started explaining to me in German. “My friend hit me first, he did not want to play the same as I did, my special stone was taken away” – the usual problems. However, as he got more upset, his sentences became less coherent and he often started switching to English. Firstly, he changed German verbs into English ones (geschlagen – hit) and then, as he got more and more upset, changed whole sentences into English, until he was fully speaking in English and not in German anymore. When I asked him in German to repeat or clarify, he would again start speaking in German again, most often using the same words I had employed in my question before. In my opinion, it showed that the little boy’s concentration shifted from merely speaking to expressing emotions, a way of speaking which seemed to be more led by impulse as the seemingly easier language was chosen in that kind of situation and circumstances. Eventually, the argument between the boy and his friends was resolved and they were happy to be friends again. Although these problems always seemed so silly viewed from an adult’s point of view, they made the children always extremely sad. It was then even more heart-warming when I could help to solve the problem and make the children involved hug and smile again. 

This example illustrates my main work in Year 1 quite well. Most of the times, I would support the children on an emotional level as well as on an educational level. Of course, there were many times I would show a child how to correctly write the word Mouse or explain why 7+5 equals 12, but most of the time, I helped to resolve arguments or helped children to stay concentrated by simply sitting next to them and talking to them from time to time or, if necessary, taking them outside so they could stay focused and not disturb others. There were good days where all children were motivated and learning eagerly and there were, naturally, as they are children, worse days when some children were running around in class refusing to listen to anything you said. Then, there was a very specific day when, I still remember this moment vividly, another boy from my first grade had asked me in all seriousness the following question: “Warum existiert der Mensch, wenn er sich nur selbst zerstört?”. I was so taken aback and at the same time impressed by this question the 6-year-old boy had asked that I remained silent for a few seconds. The answer I responded with (“Der Mensch erschafft doch aber auch viel Neues.”) did not satisfy him at all and made him go back to class with his stuffed animal in his arms. After all, it is the mixture of the good and more challenging days which kept and keeps me motivated, no day and no child is alike. On a last note, one of my highlights was filling out the numerous friendship books. Vegetables are of course my favourite food. 

Playing with Year 1

Am I Even Cool? – Year 4

Year 4 were no small children anymore, Year 4 meant business. On my first day in Year 4, I was asked various questions: “How old are you? Where are you from? What’s your favourite food?”. As soon as I said “Hörnli und Gehacktes mit Apfelkompott”, a loud “mhhhhhm, das ist toll” was audible. The class had just established that I was a “cool” new teaching assistant.

Monday afternoon, it was windy. Like every week, I was holding my homework lesson. This meant that I, as the sole teacher in the room, was the supervisor of the class while they were doing their homework. As usual, I answered a lot of questions, most of them concerning maths and German. One boy in particular kept, and to this day keeps asking so many questions about his homework that I am not sure whether he really needs help or is asking because he is just too clever and lazy at the same time. His grin while asking me makes me favour the second option. Anyway, the main task was, similar to Year 1, keeping them concentrated. One might think that this is done easily but it is surprising how much those children always have to tell each other. After a few lessons, I had established a traffic light-based system. Exceptionally well-behaving children would be permitted to leave one minute early, children behaving well would leave on time, children disturbing others would, after two warnings, need to stay in for one or two minutes. This worked well. However, on that specific afternoon, something extraordinary had happened. A tree had blown over and fallen into the football pitch with a loud bang. The children all witnessed this and rushed to the window, talking excitedly. I let them observe the spectacle for some minutes and then slowly tried to re-establish a concentrated atmosphere. This took me at least ten minutes but was finally done by remembering them that their head teacher would be disappointed if only little homework was done after this lesson. Slowly, they started working again until the lesson had ended. I expected everyone to leave as fast as possible but instead, they started bombarding me with questions about the fallen tree: “Is it possible to still play football on the field? What happens to the tree? Is it safe?” and so on. I told them my thoughts and we had a long discussion about the wind in England, one student assured to me that I “will get used to it”, which was quite cute. On the next day in class, the students had excitedly told their head teacher that I was “so cool” I had allowed them to watch the tree fall. I had to laugh a little, it had certainly made my day. 

Teaching Equals Teaching?

After those first three months, the school is closed at the moment but there is still work to be done, and my position as a teaching assistant is needed more than I could have ever expected. Having never worked with children before, I expected to only support them on an educational level regarding specific subjects, e.g. German, English, maths and so on. Of course, I did often support them in such fields, but what turned out to be increasingly more important to the children and me was communication. We had tons of chats about the most various topics, books and movies, their families, my Swiss accent while speaking German. They would come to me when they had problems and were sad, when it was their birthday and they had a piece of cake for me, or when they wanted to play with me. After all, they were my teacher as much as I was theirs.

So far, my stay abroad has been a pleasant change from the well-known UZH-lifestyle. Living in a different country and starting an entirely new job without any experience has shown me that almost anything can be managed and achieved somehow. I managed to repair my room door which had locked me out (on two occasions – don’t ask), opened a bank account, and travelled far to get my insurance number. However, I must admit I have still not mastered the craft of knowing the times of low tide and high tide, resulting in numerous walks into a flooded Thames. 

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