Studentische Monatszeitung für Duisburg, Essen und das Ruhrgebiet


Being a Foreign Language Assistant in England

The English countryside around Ratcliffe College
[photos: Jonas Bielawa]

18.11.2019 16:41 - Gastautor*in

Text by Jonas Bielawa

It is mandatory for students at the University of Duisburg-Essen to go abroad for a total of three months.

Despite having the option to divide my stay into two six-week visits or three four-week visits, I decided that I wanted to stay for at least six months, maybe even make it a full year. The obvious options were to get a Work and Travel Visa or to take part in the Erasmus programme. Yet, both options didn’t exactly appeal to me, since from everything I had heard they were more of a fun-and-games kind of thing, rather than the sort of education I was looking for. It wasn’t until January 2017 that a friend of mine told me about the opportunity of getting a position as a Foreign Language Assistant. These positions are offered by the Pädagogischer Austauschdienst (PAD) in cooperation with their partners in various target countries, such as Great Britain, Belgium and France, the USA and Canada, and even China. Lucky for me, the period for applications had been extended to the end of January, so I still had a chance to apply for a post starting in 2017. 

The Application

The first step was digging through a lot of information on the website. It must be said, though, that the website was well-structured, and, with a fair bit of reading, it wasn’t a massive challenge to gather all the information and forms needed. Most of the things you need are standard for every application. The exceptions were the medical forms, which means that you need a doctor’s approval, and the letter of recommendation. For the latter, you must find a tutor at your university who is willing to recommend you. It is a very simple form to fill out, but concerning the letter of recommendation, you should probably ask someone with whom you have taken some seminars already and whom you left a good impression on. The most important aspect to me was where I would be working. You can list three preferences of where you want to go.

I would lie by saying that I wasn’t a bit disappointed when I didn’t get to go to London.

It was the obvious choice to put London in the number one spot. Second was Essex, close to the English capital. It is recommended, though, to list “XX” as your number three, so that it will be easier for the PAD and the British Council to find a place for you. 

With the first step of the process having been successful, I was invited for an interview. I had to go to Münster. I cannot remember many of the questions – it’s been two and a half years since then after all. What I can say, however, is that I was asked about how I would try to ‘spark the joy of language learning’ within the students and how I would deal with examples of potential in-class situations. To be able to answer these questions satisfactorily, my advice for you is to talk to someone who teaches didactics and/or second language acquisition, so that you can work out a few scenarios and how to react, should they ever occur. Following the interview, I received a positive answer around March or April, informing me about my successful application and that I was offered a position at Ratcliffe College, a Catholic independent school in Ratcliffe on the Wreake, Leicestershire, England. I would lie by saying that I wasn’t a bit disappointed when I didn’t get to go to London, but to the East Midlands instead, somewhere pretty much in the centre of England, roughly two hours away from both London and Manchester. However, surprisingly, looking back to the year I spent there, I cannot deny that it was one of the best times of my life. 

Ratcliffe College

Working in the language department was fun. The major part of my job was to assist in the German lessons with Peter, who not only showed much enthusiasm for German beer, obviously, but also for the German language and his job as a teacher. The classes were microscopic, compared to the standards at German schools. While I teach up to 32 students now, the largest group at Ratcliffe consisted of 14 students only in Year 10, and only 10 pupils in Year 11. With two boys in Year 12 and five girls in Year 13, I spent half an hour with each of them once a week, mainly to further their speaking skills, but also to assist with any other problems they encountered. While assisting in class was easy, because Peter did a fantastic job at getting the students engaged with his enthusiasm, teaching Years 12 and 13 was more of a challenge. The boys were quite advanced, and they enjoyed our lessons a lot, the girls on the other hand didn’t enjoy them quite as much.


Yet, after six months of experience of teaching English at a German school, I must say that the difficulties with regards to language teaching in Germany and England are pretty much alike. Getting teenagers to speak a foreign language is a tough nut to crack and grammar certainly is a problem of its own kind. Yet, the small groups and, in all honesty, the almost non-existent disciplinary issues in England made the job much easier. You have more time to support and correct individual mistakes, answer questions, and to provide spiritual guidance as well. The highlights, however, were the exchange trips to Koblenz with the German group and, because of a shortage on male staff, I was asked to join the French group on their trip to Nice and Monaco the week before Easter. Getting to know your students in a more casual setting is fantastic, which also became clear when I worked in boarding. 

British Education

Part of the post I had at Ratcliffe was to work in Boys’ Boarding in addition to the job in the language department. Since Ratcliffe is a Catholic school, Boys’ and Girls’ Boarding are separated not only by location but also by staff. While in terms of education we had to ensure the students used their study periods well, the aspect of spiritual guidance was the most important. Living together with about 120 people is a massive challenge at times. Especially because the students are from a multitude of countries such as China, Thailand, Spain and Scotland. Even more so, however, because Ratcliffe College is a 30-minute walk from the next village, there is little chance to get off site for a while. Yet, the relationship you establish with the kids over time is more rewarding than anything else and to this day I miss all the staff and the children alike.

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