French is the most popular language in Scotland

After completing her Master's degree, Veronica Queijas was employed as a French language assistant in Edinburgh for the 2020-2021 school year. Through this unique experience, she developed her pedagogical skills for her future teaching career. She recounts her day-to-day life in Scotland and shares some tips for future language assistants.

Veronica Queijas' experience report – United Kingdom 2020-2021

My name is Veronica Queijas and I have been working since September 2020 as a language assistant at George Heriot's School in Edinburgh, United Kingdom. I completed my Master's Degree in General History in June 2020, and before graduating I enrolled at the University of Exeter in the UK through the Mobility Out programme during the autumn semester of 2019. It was thanks to this exchange that I came into contact with Movetia for the first time. I was pleased to find out that they offer language assistant placements abroad. Having particularly enjoyed the experience in England, I decided to apply for a placement in the UK.

The offer matched my expectations; my plan is to become a secondary school teacher. Although I had already taught as a substitute teacher in certain schools in Geneva, I wanted to attend courses in a foreign country to learn about the differences between the two education systems and to improve my teaching skills.

It was essential for me to have a very good knowledge of the English language before arriving there. Most of the pupils I taught were more comfortable with English when given instructions for the exercises, and the teachers from non-French backgrounds preferred English when they explained the assignments for the following week. In everyday life, too, few Scots are fluent in foreign languages, and all administrative procedures were carried out in English only.

George Heriot's School is a public school in Edinburgh's Old Town, and the main building is a castle that has been renovated to accommodate pupils. With Edinburgh Castle overlooking the school campus, the beautiful setting is simply breath-taking.

I was accompanied by four other language assistants; one taught Spanish, one Italian, one German and one Mandarin. We got on very well with each other, and we maintained excellent relationships with our language teachers too. French is the most popular language in Scotland, so I assisted the largest number of teachers – most assistants had only two teachers, while I had eight for French. It was therefore crucial to be well organised, as lessons had to be individually tailored for each teacher depending on their requirements. The teachers were very accommodating with us language assistants, and helped us whenever we didn't understand a task or needed advice. This experience and the people I have met through this work have given me great pleasure.

The pupils were very methodical and polite, and being in private school, there was rarely any need to discipline them. I taught pupils aged 9 to 18, and really enjoyed the wide age-range as it allowed me to appreciate the different levels of each grade, but also to be in contact with age groups that I will not be teaching in the future (i.e., primary school children).

The school also provided an eight-room flat in which the assistants could stay, and it appeared that the room rates were appropriate for their salaries. I personally refused the offer and opted to stay in a separate flat due to the health situation in 2020-2021, to avoid being subjected to quarantine if one of my colleges were to be affected. Finding a flat was rather easy for me; I began searching a month before I was due to start, and then travelled there two weeks before. The day before I arrived in Edinburgh, I received a positive response to a viewing from one of the applications I had submitted, and the same day I received the keys to my new flat. My advice would be to start looking at flats a month before you start work, and then go there two weeks beforehand to visit the property. It is also important to note that in Scotland, viewings are usually scheduled for the next day or the days to come. There is not much waiting time if your application looks interesting to the proprietor.

The challenges of work

As far as the work was concerned, I usually taught either a whole class or small groups of one to three pupils. My contact with the pupils quickly became personal, and we greeted each other in the school hallways. All the assistants had a good relationship with the pupils.

Our role as language assistants was not to teach them grammar. The teachers typically asked us to prepare presentations, games, or dialogues that reflected what the pupils were studying in class, so our role was to develop their oral communication skills.

In my opinion, the biggest challenge for English-speaking students is learning French. The English language is not "structured" in the same way as Latin languages, and the students unfortunately had difficulties with verb conjugation in French. They need more time to learn to conjugate verbs in forms other than "I, he/it, she/it, one, they (masculine), they (feminine)", and the verb tenses proved complicated for the pupils. Similarly, for exams, they were used to knowing the questions in advance and memorising the answers. Our aim as a language assistant was therefore to make them "forget" their memorised answers and develop "intuitive" answers.

I spent 18 hours a week teaching, and earned a salary of £1,272.07. A very generous salary, which is due to the fact that it is a private school. However, it is important to mention that we also worked "after hours” to prepare lessons and activities beforehand. Personally, I could not have had a part-time job on the side, because my timetable was spread out over every day of the week and throughout the day. For example, on Tuesdays I had a class from 8:35 to 9:00, and then no more classes until 13:15. This kind of "gap" in our schedule was very common. However, I did have some free time on the weekends. I usually organised my lessons during the week, and spent the weekends discovering Scotland with my friends.

A positive summary

This experience is very valuable to me, as it has allowed me to acquire fundamental knowledge in teaching and improve my English language skills, as well as share Swiss culture with pupils who are very curious about our society and traditions. I highly recommend this experience, as it offers a change of scenery and allows you to get an in-depth understanding of another culture and teaching methods that are different from those in Switzerland.

How to become a language assistant?

Movetia arranges placements for Swiss students, graduates and young teachers in European partner countries. Participants gain a better knowledge of the foreign language, learn about a new educational system and acquire their first professional experience. They also develop valuable social and personal skills required in the labour market.