Exchange culture at its best

2013 is a year of celebration: The Elysée Contract is commemorating its 50th anniversary and more than ever the Franco-German friendship takes the center stage. Political and economical attachment of the two countries has always played a big role in the media, but something else is happening also on a more cultural and youthful level as well: the Assistant Teacher program.

By Helen Arnd

Avon, France: The door of the classroom opens and a young, small woman enters the room.

– Good morning kids, I hope you are all fine! Today I am going to show you a famous German song, the ‘Fliegerlied’, she says in German.

The pupils cheer and raise their arms up in the air:

– Yeah, finally we are learning another song!, somebody in the back benches exclaims.


Students go abroad for teaching

This is just an ordinary day for the young, small woman Anna Prisca Lohse ever since last October. She is a 21-year-old German student training to become a teacher of French and English at the Ludwig-Maximilians-University in Munich. After her 4th term, she went abroad. Now she is a participant of a special offer, namely the Assistant Teacher program. Within this program, young students move to a foreign country and teach their mother language at a school there.

According to the Pedagogical Exchange Service in Germany (PAD) that possibility exists for around 100 years, with some historical interruptions, e.g. war. In 2012/2013 around 1200 German Assistants were in foreign countries, 400 of whom were located in France. Around 200 students of all 950 foreign Assistants in Germany are French. The receiver side pays, which means that in Germany the respective federal state bears the costs for the assistant and in France is the state that pays. The Assistant Teachers get a salary of around 800 Euros net, which allows them to pay for their rent and living costs.

The work of an Assistant Teacher

Anna Lohse applied for France and was sent to the Lycée Uruguay France, a secondary school in Avon, which is located around 70 km away from Paris and counts around 14.000 inhabitants. Every Assistant Teacher is allocated to one or sometimes two language teachers, the so called tutors. One of Anna Lohse’s tutors, Annemarie Richard, explains her role:

Anna (in the middle) and her tutors, Ms Richard (right) and Ms Peutot (left)

Anna Lohse (in the middle) and her tutors, Annemarie Richard (right) and Susanne Peutot (left), working on class preparation
Photo: Helen Arnd

– I received Anna after her arrival. I am responsible for her, she teaches in my classes. I help her with the integration into our school and also with administrative questions during her whole stay.

It all happens on a pedagogical as well as on a personal level.

– It is very important to begin with a human relationship and to make the Assistant Teacher feel welcomed and accepted as a part of the teaching staff, says the tutor.

During the first two weeks, Anna Lohse shadowed Annemarie Richard in her classes, in order to get to know the pupils, their behavior, the curriculum and the different language levels. After this initial period, she was allowed to teach the classes by herself. The young teacher describes her role for the pupils:

– The task of an Assistant Teacher is not to teach grammar, but to practice the verbal abilities, enhance communicative competencies and to convey my culture to the pupils. I think about how I can combine those two elements of my work here and how it can be fun. I research and sometimes just an idea pops into my head.
So, learning the German song ‘Fliegerlied’ is one element of bringing the culture closer to the pupils.
– I let the pupils listen to the song a few times and they told me what they understood so far. Then I hand out the lyrics and explain unknown words, Anna explains.

A break in German

Günter Jacob, Head of the Division of the International Exchange for Foreign Language Assistants within  the PAD adds:

– Young pupils get the great chance to work with a young native speaker, with whom they can identify themselves easily. Mostly, an Assistant Teacher does not need to force a lesson plan, but can provide current information about current topics the pupils are interested in. This has a positive effect on learning a foreign language.

Téo Valais, one of Anna’s pupils, talks enthusiastically about the lessons with the Assistant Teacher. He thinks, he can evaluate the German culture better:

– We learned German and had fun at the same time. Anna showed us German series and talked a lot about the Munich culture. We even made a movie by ourselves about the Franco-German-relationship in celebration of the Elysée Contract. I think I have improved my language skills despite the fact that Anna did not teach us grammar.

His classmate Baptiste Bataille adds:

– With Anna, it was not a normal lesson. It was more like a break, a break in German.

Practise is the name of the game

Jean-Pierre Bernardy, Inspector d’Allemagne, is responsible for the German students who come to France and are selected to teach within the Académie Créteil. He emphasizes the program’s meaning for the students:

– They come to a foreign country, live there and gather practical experience. Of course, their own foreign language knowledge gets better, because they have many contacts with countrymen.

Günter Jacob agrees:

– The combination of living in a foreign country, having linguistic and pedagogical experiences at the same time is not offered in any other program for students. Not even in the Erasmus program, where students do not have an insight into the everyday work.

Anna's working place from October 2012 until April 2013

Anna’s working place from October 2012 until April 2013
Photo: Helen Arnd

But the everyday work of a teacher is not completely comparable with the work of the Assistant Teacher.

– During my time in Avon, I mostly only experienced the cherries on top of the cake. In most classes, I did not need to stick to the lesson plan and was able to do funny, extraordinary things that were interesting to the students and me. I did not need to grade my students either and I was not required to meet the parents to talk about issues, Anna Lohse describes her personal view.

Günter Jacob explains the reason for this:

– The main responsiblity for the pupils lies with the teachers and not with the Assistant. You cannot expect an Assistant to take the same responsibility as a fully qualified teacher. At their current status in their study, it would be an excessive demand to entrust them with grading, teaching grammar or taking disciplinary measures. The Assistant Teachers have a reduced extent of work, more liberties in their work and of course a smaller income than an ordinary teacher.

Nevertheless, Anna Lohse clearly sees her great experiences and advantages the program has to offer:

– Even if I have not got the main responsibility, I sometimes needed to solve small problems with the pupils. I also learned a lot about time management and how to prepare for the teaching lessons. How to motivate young people and to get their attention during multiple hours is something you can only learn by standing in front of the class. When it comes to teaching, there are a lot of small details which you only get to know by having a lot of praxis.

Some times are hard times

From time to time, it was not only fun and games for Anna. She did not only have classes in which she could teach whatever she wanted, but also the graduating class, where she actually needed to stick to the curriculum of the French ‘baccalauréat’. There is a novelty in the French final graduating exam: Pupils need to write a written exam and also need to do an oral exam in their foreign language.

Jean-Pierre Bernardy sees the important role of the Assistant Teachers in this field of work:

– The oral skills, namely listening comprehension and speaking, can be practiced in a better way with a native speaker. It can be an additional help for the teacher.

Annemarie Richard agrees:

– Anna helped me a lot with the graduating class. She was able to do things I simply have not got the time for and she probably has advantages because she is a native speaker and she has a different access to the pupils.

In this class Anna needed to stick to the lesson plan concerning the final exam, which meant that she could not be as creative and free as she could be in other classes.

Annemarie Richard is teaching the graduating class in German

Annemarie Richard is teaching the graduating class in German
Photo: Helen Arnd

– We, the graduating class, choke under the curriculum; there is not much time for learning additional stuff about German football, beer, food or cars. But I know that Anna did a lot of funny things in the other classes, Corentin Dubois, one pupil of the graduation class says.

– I think even if sometimes the classes here were a little bit frustrating for me and the pupils, it was still a good experience for me. Of course it was more fun in other classes. But later in my occupation, there will also be lessons plans to stick to, difficult times and the preparation of graduating classes,  Anna tries to see the positive side of it.

One of the funny things Corentin Dubois is referring to is making dances to songs and film that.

– After I showed the pupils the lyrics of the ‘Fliegerlied’, I showed them videos of scenes when people are playing that song and do the special performance to it. The pupils were so excited about the performance, so we learned the dance moves together and made a video out of it, Anna Lohse laughs.

Challenges for the program

All positive sides of the program do not hide the fact that according to the PAD and the Académie Créteil there is at least a slightly decrease of applicants. A general reason for that is the failed aim of spreading mobility among Europe after the Bologna process.

– The current study system hardly allows time for flexibility. The study modules are tightly coordinated, Günter Jacob says.

When doing a semester as an Assistant Teacher there is no possibility to earn credit points for your home study – in contrast to the Erasmus program – so some students may consider it as a waste of time.

Jean-Pierre Bernardy explains:

– For German Assistant Teachers we have already reduced the time of the program from seven to six months, so they only lose one semester at their home university. Maybe the program should count as an internship, what some universities demand from their students anyways.

In France there is another problem: there are fewer pupils and fewer students who learn the German language. According to LexioPhiles in 2010 there were only 15% of students at school as well as at universities that studied German. For example, in the 1970’s this amount was 36% of studying German. That brings about an even higher decrease of French students going to Germany as an Assistant Teacher.

Jean-Pierre Bernardy points out another but less hard challenge:

– At some universities there is a lack of information about the existence of the Assistant Teacher program. Some students just do not know about this great possibilty. We need to work on the spread of information together with the universities.

Click here to find more information about the program (in German).

A tradition needs to be continued

Apart from the problems mentioned above, most participants see another, very important and positive impact of the program.

– Some stereotypes are still spread among the generations about the neighboring country. The Assistant Teacher program helps to overcome them on different levels, namely pupils, students and teachers. It is a long tradition in France; even I had an Assistant Teacher when I was a pupil. This wonderful tradition needs to be continued, there is the need of showing that Germany and France are actually good neighbors, Annemarie Richard explains the fruits of the longtime cooperation.

Susanne Peutot, also a German teacher at the Lycée Uruguay, deployed Anna as well for some of her classes. She sees the effect of the Assistant Teachers in a greater sequence:

Anna's daily path: The way to the faculty room

Anna’s daily path: The way to the faculty room
Photo: Helen Arnd

– The Assistant Teacher program is part of a big exchange culture between France and Germany. To this exchange culture also belong pupils and teacher exchanges. Learning a foreign language lives through such contacts and they lead to a better familiarity with the foreign culture.

Susanne Peutot admits that an Assistant Teacher is not only additional help, but also additional work for the tutors, who have to organize the Assistant’s timetable and have to assist if problems occur:

– The ordinary procedure is interrupted but the Assistant Teachers, especially the ones from Germany, have such great ideas. Pupils and students gain so much from the program. The fruits produced by the cooperation are definitely worth the work!

Günter Jacob states:

– The Assistant Teacher program is a way of continuing the Franco-German exchange connection by learning the other language and supported by a native speaker, pupils get introduced to that connection. During the year of 2013 and its celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Elysée Contract, it is this fact which we should accentuate most of all.

A long-term and future-oriented result

Not only is the Teaching Assistant program a great possibility to get involved with another culture and gain work experience but the program also has a long-term and future-oriented result:

– I can definitely imagine coming back to France later and working here again, Anna Lohse considers.

And she is not the only one with this opinion. Actually, Susanne Peutot was once an Assistant Teacher in France herself and after completing her studies in Germany; she came back to France and is now working at Lycée Uruguay France as a German teacher and a tutor for Assistant Teachers. She is happy to see what the Assistant Teachers are up to organize nowadays:
– I have never seen an Assistant Teacher making a dancing video with French pupils to a German song. That is fantastic and what an exchange culture today should come along with!

Anna (right) and one of her classes eating pretzels

Anna Lohse (right) and one of her classes eating pretzels
Photo: Helen Arnd