I've been ther
Slávka Bertová: Be a Comenius Assistant
Spend up to an academic year living and working in another European country as an assistant teacher
Slávka Bertová is a former student of the Department of British and American Studies at the Faculty of Arts, Comenius University. After getting her bachelor’s degree in the Teaching of English and French in 2009, she spent a full academic year as a Comenius assistant at Hangleton Junior School in Brighton&Hove, England. Since September 2010, Slávka Bertová has continued her studies of English and French at Universite Catholique de Louvain, Belgium.
Comenius Assistant is an EU program for future teachers from across Europe. The program enables you to spend up to an academic year in a school abroad working as an assistant teacher. Its main aims are to raise awareness of the European Union – mainly of its cultures and languages, to help develop international relations between schools and to provide future teachers with a better know-how. Anybody who studied or is still studying towards a teaching qualification and has not been previously employed as a teacher is eligible to be a Comenius Assistant (CA).
Slávka Bertová applied for the Comenius Assistant program because she wanted to find out whether she was meant to become a teacher or not. “You can’t know unless you try,” she says. Besides that, she wanted to improve her language skills, discover a new country and a different education system.
According to Slávka, the program has many benefits. “The greatest one is that you don’t need any experience in teaching; it is the program’s aim to provide you with the very first experience. The program enables you to gain an insight into another European education system, which will definitely enrich your teaching skills and ideas. You can apply the learnt theory into practice and try your own methods without any risk – you can’t make any mistakes, it is all about learning and experimenting. You cannot fail; there is no exam or evaluation at the end of the assistantship. You work with experienced teaching staff, so you can learn a lot by observing them. All your lessons are supervised, so you can get feedback on whatever you do.” Another advantage is that Comenius assistantship is an internship, not a full-time job, so it doesn’t require a person to teach more than 16 hours a week. “On the other hand, you get a scholarship high enough to cover your basic needs so you don’t need to worry about finding a part-time job, you can really focus on your teaching activities and discovering the country.”
Slávka was taken good care of upon her arrival. A teacher from her school offered to let her a room in her house for the first few weeks of her stay in England so that she wouldn’t have to stay in a B&B or hostel. “That was very helpful,” says Slávka. “My tutor [a teacher from your host school who is responsible for you during your assistantship and who helps you with everything] met me the day after my arrival, showed me around the town, told me something more about the school, provided me with some useful information about life in the UK and especially in Brighton&Hove, and recommended some useful websites.” The school offered her free school dinners. Slávka explains with a smile that her colleagues called the midday break “lunchtime”, but the school canteen served “school dinners” at the time.
Beach in Brighton
Slávka says that she was very lucky: everybody was helpful, and she also liked Brighton, where she had been sent to. Normally, Comenius assistants cannot choose the place to teach; they can state their preferences on the application form, but there is no guarantee they will be sent to one of the preferred destinations. Brighton’s advantages are that it is only an hour’s drive from London and it is on the south coast so the weather there is more pleasant than in the rest of the UK. Its disadvantage is that it is quite far away from anywhere else, which, however, did not stop Slávka from travelling around. During the year she stayed in the UK, she visited Edinburgh, Bristol, Bath, Stonehenge, Cardiff, Norwich, Liverpool, Oxford, Stratford-upon-Avon, Belfast, Isle of Wight, Arundel Castle, Leeds Castle… Her school also gave her an opportunity to go on a one-week residential trip to the Welsh countryside with her pupils.
Residential trip to Wales
Slávka found the work of the Comenius assistant very challenging, but it was challenging in a different way than she had expected. “I was teaching the French language and a bit of the Slovakian language and culture. The challenge did not lie in my knowledge of these languages, but in my ability to take control over the class, to prepare activities that my pupils would enjoy and at the same learn something from. According to the UK policy, learning must be fun. Pupils do not get any marks, but they get a lot of praise and rewards. The system does not put an emphasis on encyclopaedic knowledge but rather on practical skills and experience and on social behaviour. For example, we had many assemblies dealing with bullying, tolerance, friendship, etc.” Slávka says that what differentiates British schools from those in Slovakia is the heterogeneity of classes – British pupils are of many different cultural backgrounds and speak different mother tongues – and the technical equipment of schools. At Hangleton Junior School, for example, each classroom has two computers and an interactive smartboard and there is also a swimming pool.
Slávka in action
To those who would like to apply, Slávka would recommend applying for as long as possible, i.e. a full academic year. “Time passes very quickly and there are so many things to learn.” Applicants should take their time to fill in the application forms – why they want to become Comenius assistants, what they want to learn and what they have to offer. They should be realistic, but sound motivated. Wherever they go, it is a good idea to get in touch with other Comenius assistants. “They are the best people to share your experience with because they are in the same situation as you are so they will be perfectly able to understand you.”
A day trip to a science museum
Interview: Lucia Otrísalová, Photos: Slávka Bertová
For further information about the Comenius Assistant Program, check https://www.saaic.sk/_main.php?prog=SAAIC&str=saaic_aktuality.html or contact Slávka at slavkabertova(at)gmail.com.