Teaching Early Childhood Kids May Seem Terrifying… At First Sight!
Six months ago, I’d have told you that I felt the same way about teaching Early Childhood kids as I did about puppies. I was very fond of them and I definitely wanted one in the distant future, but they were just that bit too clingy, sticky, and needy for my liking. Plus, I’d definitely be nervous to find myself in a room with twenty-four of them. When I was offered a Meddeas placement that would have me teaching exclusively as an additional support Language Assistant with Infantil pupils aged 3-6, I jumped at the opportunity – but in my head, I was panicking.
How on earth can you teach a foreign language to children who are so small that they’re still learning their own language? What if they couldn’t understand me, or I couldn’t understand them? How can they study vocab and grammar if they can’t read or write? What if I stood on, dropped, or somehow broke one of the mini humans entrusted to me? Wait, since when did three-year-olds do a nine-to-five stretch at school five days per week in the first place? What if I made them cry? And if they wet themselves? What if they hate me?
When I first walked into my the Infantil classroom of my school in the Madrid suburb of Majadahonda, feeling like Ireland’s answer to Buddy the Elf, my nerves were drowned out by an avalanche of plastic farm animals, the sound of bilingual nursery rhymes, and the army of outrageously cute, checked uniform-clad miniature people who would be my students for the next six months. Despite my initial reticence, I’ve absolutely loved my time in Infantil – and with just a few days left of my placement, I’m dreading saying ‘Bye-bye!’ to the host of tiny children who’ve kept my days, hands, and heart full since January.
Here are some of the reasons why being with infants has been unexpectedly amazing.
Your Pop Culture Knowledge Will Skyrocket
I am now proud (ish) to say that I can rattle off the results of every Atlético de Madrid match this side of Christmas, floss (my hips, not my teeth) at lightning speed without injuring myself or others, and make my own slime using nothing more than a massacred gluestick. Taking – or, more than likely, feigning – an interest in your pupils’ hobbies and interests is a great way of establishing common ground and helping them trust you, and since Infantil kids are all too keen to talk about themselves at extraordinary lengths, it’s incredibly easy to bond with them.
Plus, ‘intercultural awareness’ is always a handy skill to list on the old CV – future employers needn’t know that that awareness is primarily linked to LOL cards.
It’ll Help You with Your Spanish
Yes, the absolute golden rule of Meddeas program is not to speak Spanish in front of your students, or even to let them know that you understand their native language (believe me, you haven’t known contempt until a six-year-old girl has looked you up and down and shaken her head in disgust upon hearing you fib Sorry, I can’t say hello in Spanish!).
That said, Spanish babas will more than likely spend a good part of the day babbling at each other, and even at you, in kiddy castellano – which will work wonders for your vocabulary pertaining to tattle-taling (¡Me chivoooooo!), miniature diplomatic disputes (María me’a pega’oooo!) and general baby-talk (M’echo pupa – thankfully, it doesn’t mean what I first thought it did). Once you’ve successfully interpreted a sobbing toddler or the sweet chorus of eleven kids telling you the same story at once, holding Spanish conversations with adults outside of school shouldn’t seem quite so daunting anymore.
Children Will Big You Up…
Whilst there’s no such thing as an ‘easy’ age group to teach. Tiny children are by far the simplest demographic to impress, amuse, and entertain. After just a few days of warily avoiding the benign human giraffe who’d materialized in their midst, my pupils warmed to me and became unfailingly, adorably affectionate. When the other Early Childhood Language Assistant and I cross the threshold each morning, the kids are clamouring to show us the block tower they’ve built, share their picture books with us, or have us style their hair ‘como túuuuuu!’. Teaching in Infantil is, for most of us, the closest we’ll ever come to feeling like a member of One Direction.
…And Keep It Real
An early years classroom should be your first port of call if you ever find yourself needing a reality check. Infantil kids might be small but they can also be savage and aren’t afraid to speak their little minds.
These kids will let you know when you’re looking tired (¿Estás malita? – No, Ana, that’s just how my face looks), when you’ve made a dodgy decision at the hairdressers (Ya no me gusta tu pelo), and will regularly remind you of your ultimate replaceability: on any given day, I automatically answer to the monikers of ‘Katy’ (the other Infantil auxiliar), ‘Amy’ (their former Language Assistant), Oyeeeeee (a catch-all which normally means they need help putting their jackets on) or and Esa señora (the implied elderliness of this nickname is the only one that stings – six months’ worth of Baby Shark-soundtracked early mornings have clearly taken their toll).
In short, Infantil will help you learn to laugh at yourself and stay humble.
You’ll Learn Important Professional Skills
Infantil is never dull and rarely stressful, but the occasional high-octane moment is inevitable when you have twenty foreign babies all around you. Being with children is a great way of developing skills and qualities. They will stand you in good stead regardless of your career plans.
For example, these past few months, I’ve learned how to multitask (i.e., successfully defuse a dispute between two three-year-olds whilst simultaneously manufacturing a macaroni-and-bead necklace), adapt efficiently to new environments (calmly distribute art materials to the sweet soundtrack of fifteen five-year-olds bellowing the Moana soundtrack), and develop my emotional intelligence (communicating with tetchy, tired, or tearful children through their second language). Learning curves have never been so much fun – even if they’ve involved more PlayDough than I’d expected of my first post-uni job.
You Won’t Get Away with Lazy Lesson-Planning
Before I began my placement with Meddeas, I was fretting about how to teach grammar and vocabulary to tiny kids – but this was when I had no experience of teaching to children so young. My role as a Language Assistant has involved providing additional support in English-language Science and Society classes – interactive, fun subjects in which kids have plenty of opportunities to experiment and play – and it’s shown me that children learn best when they don’t realise they’re learning.
Being tasked with teaching people with heaps of energy and the attention span of hyperactive goldfish will keep you on your toes and make you raise your teaching game. You won’t get away with photocopying slapdash gapfill worksheets ten minutes before class starts, or with conducting half-hearted conversation practice: children need to be challenged, be kept busy, and you should always have half a dozen back-up activities up your sleeve.
Being with tiny children will encourage you to be creative, to think outside the box, and to find interesting ways to add a bit of sparkle to the quotidian: vocab lists can be spruced up if you make them into a dance routine, flashcards can be enhanced by a bit of friendly fly swatter-based competition, and thanks to the good people of YouTube, you’ll be able to find earworms on everything from skeletons and snakes to Christmas and cultural celebrations.
You’ll Make Loads of Tiny New Friends
Before starting my Meddeas placement, I was worried that a massive age gap, my lack of experience of being with pre-schoolers, and the language barrier would stop me from establishing any kind of meaningful working relationship with my students. I worried that they’d treat me with (at best) indifference or (at worst) disdain. How wrong I was.
I’ve had an absolute ball teaching in Infantil. It’s given me the opportunity to play an integral part in my pupils’ day-to-day school life, and to help them to view English as something that’s to be enjoyed, not endured. Six months of constantly squatting to sit on knee-highchairs, smelling of tea-tree oil (an effective headlice repellent – you can’t be too careful) and having Super Simple Songs’ latest release stuck in my head have flown in.
On days when I’ve boarded the bus to the school feeling homesick, grouchy or fed up, my pupils have always been able to make me smile – be it by awarding me a precious pegatina, drawing me a Picasso-esque portrait, or solemnly whispering to me that I’m their best friend now. They’ve gone from being tiny, indistinguishable cuties with the same high-pitched voices and smiling faces to being little individuals who are unfailingly funny and warm, and I’ll be sad to leave them behind.
Plus, the fact that there are now forty under-fives bouncing around a wealthy Madrid suburb speaking English with a distinctive Belfast twang? Priceless!!
By Emer, O. 2018-2019