When I was a young college student, part of my teacher preparation courses required me to observe 5 different teachers for a class period and report on my findings. I met many different kinds of teachers – some older, some younger, some effective, some not as effective. Something one of those teachers said to me has stayed with me over the years. As we observed his upper level Spanish students working on interpreting a poem of some sort, he turned to me and said, “You know, sometimes I wonder what we do all this for. If we graduate one student a year that can actually do something with their Spanish after high school, we’re doing pretty good.”
Even as a painfully naïve pre-service teacher, something about his statement bothered me. Obviously, it bothered me enough to think about over 5 years later. Now that I would consider myself an intermediate-level teacher, I finally figured out what it was. This teacher taught in a school that graduates well over 600 students a year, and he felt that if ONE of those 600 was able to be conversational in Spanish, that was GOOD? Pretending that 50 of those students went on to complete 4 years of Spanish, in what other situation would a 2% success rate be considered a good thing? And more importantly, that says to me that there is something wrong with the program. My students come to me with very little background knowledge of Spanish and are originally quite intimidated, but I point out that they all learned to communicate in English. They are at different levels of proficiency in English, but everyone can make scribbles and noises that are recognized as words by other people.
The reason this came to mind most recently is because, well, I’ve broken his barrier for “good”. I hope that when my students graduate after a 2 year comprehensible input program, all of my students are capable of holding a basic conversation. After 4 years, they should be that much more prepared to enter the world and use their Spanish. Since it’s November, most of my seniors have been chosen their college and are working on scholarship applications. I found out last week that one of my students was planning to become a translator. Another is going into engineering, but is trying to figure out how to fit in some Spanish courses so she can continue her studies. And in an odd twist, I found out that a former student of mine will be transferring to a 4 year college next fall and intends to be a Spanish minor, if not an outright Spanish major.
My school graduates about 25 students per year. After my first anemic Spanish 4 class (made up of students who started Spanish before I arrived), I’ve had 10 and 8, respectively. Considering my own high school Spanish 4 class (in a graduating class of 300) had 12, I feel pretty good about those numbers. The question is, what do I do differently than the teacher I observed so long ago? The students graduating now didn’t start with CI, and I’m certainly a better teacher in general now than I was 4 years ago. Am I really a better teacher? Do I speak better Spanish? Is my class more fun? Do my kids just have less choices? Or am I just an optimist?
My personal theory is the last idea. One of my favorite quotations in the world is, “Whether you believe you can or you can’t, you’re right.” If I believe that my students are never going to be good at Spanish then of course they won’t. I won’t lie – I was pleasantly surprised to hear that these students were considering careers in Spanish, and I hope the others find it useful as the Hispanic population grows in the US and they enter the working world. But if none of my students are able to use their Spanish after they leave my class, then I am probably not being a very effective teacher and I need to reexamine what I’m doing.
I hope that teacher, if he’s still teaching, has since reflected on his practices and worked with the other teachers in the building to increase the effectiveness of their program. Believing in the abilities of his students would be a great way to start.