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British Council 2020: Life as a teaching assistant in Germany during lockdown

The British Council is a global organisation dedicated to connecting millions of people across the globe through arts and culture, language learning, education and the English language.

Since October 2020, I have been on a British Council English Language Assistant (ELA) placement in a primary school in Hamburg, Germany, which will conclude in May 2021. For many months, it was unclear if the program would be able to go ahead due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Additionally, the prospect of beginning a teaching placement abroad during this time was intimidating to say the least.

Hamburg by night. Photo: Emma Harvey

Fortunately, despite the pandemic, the majority of UK British Council applicants for placements in Germany have been able to go abroad to teach as part of BC’s 'Teach abroad as an ELA' program, depending on their university’s guidance or if they were undertaking a BC assistantship independently (not as part of a Year Abroad program).

The ELA mobility program was established in 1905, offering paid teaching placements abroad and providing applicants with the opportunity to gain classroom experience, travel, improve their language skills, immerse themselves in another culture, make friends from across the globe and develop professional confidence.

Every year, around 2,500 ELAs from the UK are sent abroad to support the teaching of English around the world. Approximately 260 posts are available in Germany throughout all 16 Bundesländer, with the majority of placements being in secondary and vocational schools, and a few in primary schools.

The ELA placements last for either six months or one year, and assistants are expected to work for 12 to 20 hours a week, depending on the Bundesland they are teaching in. This allows for plenty of time to explore and experience Germany.

Coronavirus restrictions have affected the ELA program and lifestyle in many ways. This year, the program start was delayed from September to October 2020 and the compulsory four-day induction course run by the BC partner agency Pädagogischer Austauschdienst (PAD), usually taking place in-person, was conducted through online webinars over Microsoft Teams.

The biggest change to the ELA lifestyle is that the opportunity to experience culture and travel has been largely narrowed due to the ‘lockdown light’ throughout Germany. During September and October, I was still able to visit some cultural institutions such as the Elbphilharmonie and Hamburger Kunsthalle, as well as take a few day trips to cities such as Lübeck, Buxtehude, Stade and Frankfurt, and experience the local cuisine.

However, since November, restrictions have been much tighter, meaning that it has been increasingly difficult to develop cultural awareness and explore Germany’s sights, as well as socialise with other ELAs, Erasmus students and locals.

Additionally, the teaching aspect of the ELA experience has changed somewhat, with some classes moving online due to pupils having to quarantine, meaning that lesson materials had to be adapted to online learning. For example, I recorded myself reading stories aloud for year 4 pupils to listen to during their period of isolation.

Furthermore, coronavirus measures in schools have made the classroom experience significantly different. Wearing masks in the classroom means you have to speak much louder to be understood, and every twenty minutes the classroom has to be gelüftet (aired), resulting in several shivering students and teachers wrapped in scarves and blankets.

Despite the unusual circumstances, the ELA placement has definitely been a great learning and confidence-building opportunity so far. I have also made the most of Hamburg’s outdoor sightseeing opportunities, such as the Außenalster (Outer Alster Lake), Elbstrand, Planten un Blomen and the Hamburger Stadtpark, and have managed to maintain a degree of social contact in line with the current rule of being allowed to meet with one other household.

Außenalster, Hamburg. Photo: Emma Harvey

Luckily, 2021-2022 applications for British Council ELA placements are proceeding relatively normally. However, there may be some delays in the application process and the commencement of the program. The British Council is in continuous liaison with overseas partners to stay up to date with coronavirus restrictions and government and health authority guidance in order to ensure that the ELA program can continue despite the current situation.


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