What’s it like to be personal assistant to a teacher?
‘The pupils are enthusiastic and they miss you.’ That’s what a teacher from Haags Montessori Lyceum said in a mail to third-year student Resi Aarts (Bachelor’s in Physics) when she was unable to tutor the pupils one Friday. She and Sem Grootscholten (Master’s in Public Administration) support secondary school teachers. They do this at schools in Leiden University’s network, and are paid for this.
‘Secondary schools can apply for grants that they can use to hire a personal assistant for a teacher, PAL in short,’ says Hanny Gijman, PAL project manager at Leiden University Graduate School of Teaching (ICLON). ‘The idea behind the PAL programme is to relieve teachers with a high workload and to introduce students to teaching.’ Since the outbreak of coronavirus, the programme has also been used to help pupils with a learning delay to catch up.
Resi and Sem are both education fanatics. Resi: ‘I applied because I have been tutoring since I myself was at secondary school, and have been giving final-exam training for two years. I think it’s super fun.’
Sem is also a pro: ‘I’ve been tutoring for over ten years, so this felt like an extra challenge. I also just really enjoy doing it. I’m involved with a political party too and my focus there is on education policy. It’s nice to have practical experience. Education is one of the most important aspects of a society.’ While Resi works at Haags Montessori Lyceum, Sem works for Dalton Den Haag.
In principle, Resi is present at Haags Montessori Lyceum every Friday afternoon to answer questions about chemistry. Pupils from year 4 of senior general secondary education (havo) to year 6 of pre-university education (vwo) are welcome to ask her their questions. ‘I’ve also helped the final-exam pupils with retakes of their written exam by going through previous exams with them. It was really nice to get that mail from the teacher saying how keen the pupils were and how much they’d missed me.’
The PAL programme
Secondary schools and students in higher education can register for a regional PAL programme. ICLON is the point of contact at the University. Seven students have already been placed. Students do not have to be following teacher training or the education minor to apply; as assistants they are not replacement teachers but are there to assist the teacher. Before they begin, all students are given training at ICLON on topics such as the different roles of the teacher, analysing non-verbal teacher behaviour (posture, intonation, expressions, attention, gestures) and giving feedback. They can also follow courses at ICLON. The PAL students have an appointment at the school that they support and thus receive a salary from the school. There are PAL initiatives in other regions, such as Amsterdam and Twente.
Sem helps with two subjects: ‘I tutor final-exam havo and vwo pupils in physics, and pupils from year 4 and 5 havo and 5 and 6 vwo in economics. The pupils say that they can use some extra help. They get that in what are known as the “Dalton hours”, which is a kind of independent study time. And if I have time in my two-day schedule, they can also contact me then.’
Close to pupils
Resi only teaches in person, so this is on hold if the schools are closed. She enjoys her role. ‘I’m still fairly close to the pupil’s world, which is part of the fun for me.’
Sem teaches two days a week, both in person and online. In his lessons he uses assignments from the textbooks. ‘You can’t come up with your own assignments when you have to keep on top of the subject matter for six classes. I let the pupils try the assignments themselves first, and intervene or provide an explanation if necessary. I think that’s how they learn best.’
Becoming a teacher?
One of the goals of the PAL programme is to interest students in a job in education. Will that succeed with the two students? Resi: ‘No, I’m afraid not. I see myself going into business.’
Sem doesn’t immediately rule out a career in teaching. ‘I first have the ambition of going into politics, working for a lobby group or working as a civil servant. That doesn’t mean that I don’t see myself returning to education at some point though.’
Resi has received her compliment but had already realised that the pupils like receiving her help. Sem also feels valued. ‘It gives me a buzz if I see the pupils make progress. And if a pupil understands something because of my help, that’s a nice feeling. The contact with the economics teacher – physics only came later – is positive too. They see that my efforts have an effect.’
Both Resi and Sem would recommend the work to other students. Sem: ‘As long as you like teaching that is.’
Resi: ‘The pupils like you being there and it’s always fun with the teachers. What’s not to like about it?’
Would you like to work as personal assistant to a teacher (PAL)? Send a mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Text: Corine Hendriks
Photos of the pupils and bike shed: André van Haasteren