The irony of technology

It’s no surprise that I am a huge fan of technology. I’m on twitter, I’ve got this blog, I have a blended classroom, and so on. I am literally a child of technology: I wasn’t exactly the most popular girl in middle school. (For some reason, people don’t really care for nerdy, obnoxiously smart and snarky young women. Hmm.) So I turned to this new-fangled internet thing and wow! There were losers like me on there! We could be losers together! And so began some of my life-long friendships; people that I have never met in person but I have known longer than any ‘real life’ friend I spend time with. Suffice to say, I am a little biased towards the good that technology can do for people. Don’t get me wrong, there is an incredibly unpleasant downside (online bullying, #gamergate, doxxing, etc.) but the internet is also a wealth of amazing information, opinions, and ideas that can revolutionize what we do in our lives. The internet helped me through the worst parts of my social development when I was utterly shut down to the rest of the world around me. It taught me how to build my own computer. It continues to help me with developing my expertise as a teacher.

I also feel that technology in the educational world is a very divisive issue. I am struggling with this in my own school. We recently went 1:1 with laptops and I am loving it. There are challenges, to be sure, but I have the skills and tenacity to overcome them. I have my room set up in fashion that encourages communication (both face-to-face and online) and where I can freely move about the room. I understand that my students, for the most part, have used technology as an entertainment device for most of their life and not as an educational device. In this 21st century skills world (or as I like to call it, the world), I consider it a part of my job to teach students to use technology appropriately. And like with any other new skill, they aren’t very good at it. I have to correct my students a lot. But I have to correct my sophomores less than the freshmen, the juniors less than the sophomores, and I pretty much let my seniors make their own decisions because: holy smokes, they’re almost full-fledged adults who need to know how to make the right decision without my hovering. I also understand that there are teachers who struggle with all of these things, and I can be a leader to show them how to manage behavior in a digital world. [Edited to add: After I originally wrote this post, I spent a portion of my day helping another teacher who is, in her own words, ‘terrible with technology but needs to learn about it’. I was happy to spend the 15 minutes it took to walk her through how to set up stuff on planbook.com. I like helping others have a good experience – I practice what I preach.]

But then there are things that outright irritate me, and this cartoon is one of them. I saw this posted on my twitter feed a few weeks ago, and it made me think.

cellphonesuntanThe irony of that cartoon, of course, is that it was shared on a social media platform. It probably wasn’t shared from a beach, but it was very possibly shared from a phone or tablet (considering that 80% of twitter’s users use a mobile device to access it). The people depicted in the cartoon are kids and teenagers, even though 90% of American adults have a cellphone, 58% have a smartphone, and approximately 50% or higher use their phone for entertainment purposes. For some reason, even though the vast majority of Americans have access to technology, using it frequently is considered something for ‘kids these days.’ The perception of people – especially young people – using their cellphones to do something besides make an actual phone call is widely negative. I often hear things like ‘lazy’ ‘only motivated by games’ ‘can’t function without technology’ or ‘why don’t they read a book?’

Here’s the reason this cartoon really bothered me: if I were a person, sitting on the beach, reading a traditional book, no one would make a comic about that. If I was reading a book on my beloved kindle, that’s probably not comic-worthy either. But being on the beach, reading a book on my phone? That’s worth making a comic about; the tragedy of being unable to function without my smartphone. And while we’re at it, why is reading books considered a more worthy pastime than playing a game, or watching tv? I think we should judge media by the story that it tells and the thoughts it provokes, rather than the platform by which it is consumed. It would be pretty difficult to explain to me how 50 Shades of Grey is superior to Guardians of the Galaxy in terms of story and pro-social ideas, even though 50 Shades of Grey was originally a book (and Guardians of the Galaxy a comic – possibly the only art form more widely derided than video games).

Although this issue is more pronounced at my school due to our heavily veteran staff, I expect other schools are experiencing the same push and pull of technology in the classroom. That’s normal; it’s how progress is made. But by depicting mobile tech users as clueless and crippled by their need to have their phone at all times, we’re doing our students a disservice. Like it or not, this is the world they – and we – live in. We need to put away the prejudices and meet the challenge with an open mind. That doesn’t mean using tech for tech’s sake, but rather using it in a directed and meaningful way. What can you do to show your students how to use their technological powers for good and not evil? How can you encourage your students to make good tech choices?

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The fine art of asking questions

Something that is a personal weakness of mine is getting enough student-student interpersonal practice. At the novice level, my students get tons and tons of PQA (personal questions and answers) from me, but they are on the receiving end of the questions. As we move up in ability, I tend to focus more on lengthier and more in-depth interpretive reading and listening skills, so interpersonal gets pushed to the back burner. (I want maximum input, of course, but where is the balance?)

The ability to ask questions is really more of an intermediate skill, and I will be the first to say that I don’t do the best job of preparing my students to make that jump. So I have ended up with 4 levels of students who can answer pretty much any question I ask, but only the most brave and outgoing of students who can actually ask sensical questions and keep the conversation going. Which is silly, because in a situation where my students MUST use their Spanish, it will most likely be a spontaneous interpersonal speaking situation.

One thing I have done to try and help this problem is to add various interpersonal-type activities to the students’ homework choices. Because interpersonal is tougher, I also make it more enticing by requiring less time out of them to do it. Students can tweet, text, snapchat, or just talk using their voice to each other and it counts.

Another big push I am making is in the vein of Amy’s timely posts about her questions workshop and interpersonal blitzes (which I will be borrowing myself, thank you). Similar to the questions workshop post, my Spanish 2 students are moving from novice-high to intermediate-low and I want them to start being able to do more with question-asking. I just finished my master’s degree capstone project on the circling technique used in TPRS, and I thought, why not tell the students exactly what I’m doing? I mean, if the technique works for teachers, why in the world can’t it work for my students?

So we’ve done it a few times and they are definitely getting faster and more confident with their question-asking. The first thing I tried was to take a story that we’ve done – it can be a new story or an review story; it doesn’t really matter for this. (You could also substitute authres, if your students are ready for it. Any sort of reading will work.) Then I posted the four kinds of TPRS questions on the board: ones that elicit a yes answer, ones that elicit a no answer, ones where you give a choice, and an open-ended question with a question word. Then we looked at the story and I modeled some sample questions they could ask about the story, using the same topic to demonstrate how each sentence would work. (Obviously in the classroom we did this in Spanish, but I’ll write them here in English so everyone can understand.) For example, the first thing we do in a story is name our main character. Some sample questions on this topic could be:

Is the girl’s name Barbara? (yes)

Is the girl’s name Anna? (no)

Is the girl’s name Anna or Barbara? (Barbara)

What is the girl’s name? (Barbara)

I think this modeling process showed my students very clearly how we can ask different questions about different topics, and giving them a story to work with (rather than having them make up their own questions off the top of their head) made them feel more comfortable. Then I asked them to make up some of their own about the story using the 4 types of questions. My lower-level students tended to copy the exact same format of the modeled questions, just changing the topic. The more advanced students showed me they were ready to move forward because they chose to write a wider variety of topics and wrote more complex questions.

I did this initial lesson a few weeks ago and was pleased with it, so I extended it last week (with a different story). This time, after reading the story, I reminded students about the 4 kinds of questions. Then we practiced writing questions on paper as if they were taking a story quiz, only instead of me writing the questions, they got to do it. I went around and checked as students worked, helping them to correct questions that were way off. For the most part, the students did just fine (our biggest issue was students still wanting to ask ‘Qué se llama’ instead of ‘Cómo se llama’) and there were no problems. Then, I collected their papers. The next step is to redistribute them and have the students take each other’s ‘quizzes’ as a kind of check for comprehension – if your question doesn’t make sense to the person reading it, then we had communication breakdown and we need to find a solution. (We haven’t done this part yet, so we’ll see how it goes.)

I think by practicing with quizzing each other in writing a few times, and a few of Amy’s interpersonal blitz sessions, I can get my students back on track for interpersonal speaking. Another resource that I really like but always forget to use are the Cuéntame Cards from Teacher’s Discovery. They’re a bit pricy and you have to cull them to match your students’ levels, but it was easier than making my own (which you certainly could do). In addition to the cards, the instructional pamphlet comes with a handful of different ways to use the cards in the classroom.

What do you do to help students prepare for interpersonal situations?

#Teach2Teach Question 3

Today’s #teach2teach question is a doozy. Every teacher has teaching horror stories. For some of us, it’s a horrible administrator experience. For others, it’s a classroom out of control. Maybe there was a day that a lesson completely fell apart and so did the teacher.

This week’s question is from Jennifer: What has been your most troublesome experience with teaching and how did you deal with it?

Great question, Jennifer! But before I start my own story, I want to point out that this experience I am going to retell here leads directly back to my response for question 2 about politics and why I was so blunt in my advice. This particular story heavily influences me, my teaching philosophy, and how I try to manage myself in regard to my admin, students, parents, and other teachers. Thankfully, I am a quick learner, but experience is a harsh mistress.

My awful, terrible, no good, very bad student teaching

My worst experience came in the form of my first attempt at student teaching. I was a young, naive, but energetic and passionate Spanish teacher who was placed with a native speaker teacher in a high school in my area. I knew it would be hard, and I was nervous about my Spanish, but I thought it could be a wonderful experience to work with someone who was a native speaker.

It wasn’t.

I met with my cooperating teacher before the semester started to get a feel for things. This meeting went fine, and I left feeling confident that I was going to learn a lot. Then the semester started and some things just seemed… well, odd. For example, she was having some computer problems, so she went to visit the tech person and left me alone with a group of extraordinarily unruly freshmen for an entire class period to review for their final exam. On my second or third day. When I didn’t know any names, classroom procedures, or even what they were supposed to be reviewing for! After the semester class switch, she informed me I would only be teaching two sections of Spanish 4. I was confused because I thought I was supposed to eventually teach most, if not all, the regular teaching load.

By the end of the second or third week, I was feeling much more tepid about my experience. The teacher didn’t seem to have any sort of management plan besides ‘Guys, c’mon, let’s pay attention.’ We had first period plan, but she told me she had to drop her daughter off at school so I generally arrived at 7:30 to plan while she usually arrived around 8:30 – half an hour after school started. (This should have been a huge, screaming, blinking red flag.) Cell phones were everywhere with no consequences. On top of that, the Spanish 4 classes were woefully behind where they were ‘supposed to be’. Logic dictates that the best thing to do for these students would be to back up and pick up where they were, but the district mandated that we keep slogging through imperfect subjunctive when I was still regularly hearing ‘yo haco’. One of the two classes I took over had 30 students crammed into a room meant to hold 20. I had this class right after lunch, and I would get so nervous and worked up that I would literally shake when trying to teach them. I was so nauseous all the time from the stress, I worried I was pregnant or had some other illness.

As the semester dragged on, my cooperating teacher and I didn’t seem to get along very well. After about a month with her, we had a discussion about whether or not I should stay in this placement. Because I had no spine at the time and didn’t want to make more work for anyone else to find me a new placement a month into the semester, I said that we could continue.

So things went on like this for another month. The teacher consistently undermined me in the class – everything from letting students leave the room in the middle of a lesson after I explicitly told them no, not helping me with watching for inappropriate behaviors, interrupting my lessons to tell personal stories, and I am fairly certain she changed some students’ grades in the gradebook behind my back because she felt my assessment was ‘unfair’. It’s been over 5 years and I can probably recount at least 10 specific stories off the top of my head. My stress got worse, and I dreaded teaching. By this point, I figured I would graduate and be done with it, and maybe go do something else for a while instead of looking for a teaching job because clearly I wasn’t cut out for it. I would go home and cry on a regular basis. I was miserable.

Everything finally came to a head about 2 months into my 16-week assignment. I was going to teach a lesson using a newspaper article I’d found in the local Spanish newspaper. It was perfect. It had all sorts of vocabulary from the chapter, it was pretty short, and by Spanish 4, I thought we could read it for the main idea. I even had my cooperating teacher look it over, and all she had me fix were a few spelling errors.

The lesson itself was a complete and utter failure. I had no buy-in from the students and by the end, I basically gathered up the handful of students who were willing to work and helped them. I had no idea how to salvage the situation because ‘c’mon, guys’ is an extremely ineffective management technique. My cooperating teacher did nothing to save me from this clearly sinking ship. In fact, there was a member of the district office there that day who happened to be in the room at the time, and she did nothing to help me either. The bell finally rang, and it had never sounded so sweet.

We had another plan period after this class (now I have to laugh, what a luxury to have two planning periods!) and clearly, I was completely distraught. The woman from district office asked me what I think went wrong, and I responded with ‘everything’. I was told that my lesson was awful, and I blew up. I pointed out that I had asked for help and if my lesson was that awful, it was the cooperating teacher’s job to help me fix it before I taught it. At this point, my cooperating teacher launched into a diatribe of every grievance she had held against me for the last 8 weeks, including matters that I had considered resolved. Then the other woman berated me, telling me I was just making excuses for my horrible teaching. I cried hysterically while being browbeaten by these two women for the entirety of the plan period, and then told that I should just go home because I clearly wasn’t going to be able to teach my other class that day.

I left. To make things worse, when I got to my car in the parking lot, someone had smashed into my car and knocked the driver’s sideview mirror completely off. After completely losing it, I sat in my car and recomposed myself, then went home. Shortly thereafter, I received a phone call from my university’s student teaching coordinator telling me that I needed to come in as soon as possible to meet with him and my education professor, and that I should not return to the school.

The next day, I went in and discussed the happenings with them. The woman from district office had contacted the university, telling them I was unfit to teach and should be removed immediately. It was mutually decided that I would not finish my placement there, and try again in the fall with at a different school. I am forever grateful that I was allowed to tell my side of the story and given a second shot, but at the time I felt like the world’s biggest screw-up. I was worried my life was over.

The happy ending

However, sometimes things happen for a reason. I realize now that, had I stayed and finished my placement at that school, I might not have gone into education at all. If I had, I probably would’ve been a very poor teacher because all I learned was what not to do. Instead, I was allowed to thrive and flourish under two amazing teachers, Betty Díaz and Janet Eckerson, in Crete, Nebraska. My experience at Crete was the complete opposite of my first experience. I felt like the teachers and administrators actually cared about their students. They had superb student management. The kids were connected and involved. Even better, Crete had a high Hispanic population so I was able to work with some very nice kids who helped me with my Spanish (I picked up most of my Mexican slang from them) and even got to see what a native speaker Spanish class should look like. I remembered what it was like to enjoy teaching (even if Janet did make me speak Spanish the entire time and it was scary!) and although it was still difficult due to the nature of student teaching, I have only good things to say about my time there. If there had been a position available at the time, I would’ve taken it in a heartbeat.

Lessons learned

So what did I learn from this experience? Number one, trust your instincts. If you are in a situation that is not working for you, especially a student teaching situation, do not be afraid to speak up. Your university wants you to have a good experience and to become a good teacher, so let them help you! Number two, even when you’re knocked down, get back up. I take it as a point of pride that I now have Spanish 2 students successfully doing the exact same type of lesson (reading authentic resources and looking for the main idea) that my Spanish 4 students couldn’t complete – clearly, the problem is not with me. Finally, I consider it a part of my duties to take on student teachers and do my best to teach them how to be good teachers too. I see it as my way of paying back the teaching community that gave me a second chance and allowed me to go on and become a teacher leader myself. Once you’re established, I encourage you to do the same.

A good idea that could’ve been better

A few weeks ago (okay, so like a month ago at this point – I’ve been busy) I was working on a unit in Spanish 4 where the focus is on using subjunctive nominal phrases. Only I don’t call it that anymore (I used to, which was the equivalent of saying ‘we’re going to learn about alskfaerozvjar hojaewrljzasdde today’ to my students.) Instead, I tell them we’re going to work on giving recommendations by using phrases like it’s good that/it’s important to/it’s necessary that, which all trigger subjunctive in Spanish. I was looking for something to use as input that could trigger some good responses that would need this structure, and I tripped across one of the Cápsula Cultural bits in Triángulo Aprobado, about technology in the classroom.

‘Great!’ I thought. ‘This is perfect! We just went 1:1 with laptops in my school and there’s a lot of debate on both the teacher and student side about whether or not it was worth it.’ So in my brilliance, I decided to have the students read the Cápsula Cultural on Thursday and then we would debate it on Friday. Making sure my upper level students get enough speaking practice is one of my weaknesses (and they are generally pretty weak in speaking due to my prior grammar-focused ways… most of them speak at intermediate low on a good day) so I was thrilled that I came up with this marvelous idea.

After reading, I put the students into a pro group and a con group and asked them to brainstorm ideas in Spanish for our debate on Friday that would support their argument. This went fine. The trouble was when we actually held the debate which was less ‘debate’ and more ‘one person reads their argument, then the other group sits there awkwardly until I prompt them for a response’. I also made the poor decision to let them choose their groups, which meant that one group had far more confident speakers than the other. We got through the ‘debate’ and they ultimately were able to come up with some good arguments and counter-arguments, but not without a lot of coaching from me and a little Google-fu. I realize now that my error was in not loading them with input beforehand. A small blurb wasn’t really enough to get them ready for a speaking-intensive activity like a debate, especially since we’d never done one before.

Somewhat ironically, I ended up finding a few more sources that would work better to put this activity in my ‘generation gap’ mini-unit that we just completed. So I think this lesson is totally salvageable, I just need to place it with the similarly themed items next time rather than with similarly grammatically themed. I also consider the debate a 75% success because I then used the arguments the students made during the debate, cleaned them up, and turned them into a reading and writing assessment. The student arguments were put into a compare/contrast paragraph format, where I then asked students to listen 3 pros and 3 cons in English (from the reading! I check comprehension in English. Next year, I may make this an AP-style multiple choice situation since that’s what they will be needing to do on the AP test.) The writing portion asked for students to give their opinion on technology in the classroom, which we had practiced previously in a dialogue journal prompt.

I am always pleasantly surprised by the quality of my Spanish 4 students’ work, because they have been my experimental class since day 1. (The class before them was my very first class to have levels 1-4 with me, and a lot of stuff I tried didn’t work – not to mention working on my sad newbie classroom management skills!) I always forget to take snapshots of their work, but I think next year I also want to have my students start keeping digital portfolios so they can see their growth throughout the years. We’ll see.

Hitting the 90% target for upper levels

Something that’s been on my mind as I progress through this school year is the ACTFL recommendation of 90% target language use by the teacher. Technically, in my undergraduate program, we went through all the ACTFL stuff (modes, proficiencies, and so on) but I don’t feel like I had enough background myself to fully understand what it all meant. Now, I know my proficiencies like the back of my hand and can tell a student instantly where I think they’re landing (and whether or not that is meeting our proficiency goal, and if not, what they can improve to get there). I can rattle off my Spanish standards without a second thought. (Nebraska’s are more or less exactly the same as ACTFL’s, so that helps.) So when I was a novice teacher, none of these things came to mind since I was mostly worried about surviving and not so much about thriving.

But now I’m at a point in my career where I’ve got the survival part down and I am now polishing my program to make it the best it can be. I am super proud to announce that I agreed to teach Advanced Placement Spanish at my school in the 2015-2016 school year. As far as I know, it will be the first Advanced Placement course offered at East Butler (although we offer a few other courses that are of equally high caliber for our high ability students, they just don’t have the designation). I am equal parts excited and terrified, because I want my students to do well on their AP exam but I also know that knowing Spanish does not necessarily equate to doing well on the exam. And also, holy smokes, I’m teaching an AP class!

The thing is, ACTFL recommends 90% target language use by the teacher. The AP designation asks you to specifically state in your syllabus that the teacher will speak 100% target language and encourage the students to do the same. However, I think it’s far more difficult to hit even the 90% target with upper level students than it is with younger ones.

In the lower level classes, especially if you’re a storytelling teacher, it’s actually very easy to hit the 90% goal. It’s easy to ‘stay in bounds’ because everyone is still mostly within the same vocabulary boundaries. If I do a story day or something that involves boatloads of input, the only time I really need to break TL use is for disciplinary purposes. (I make sure to do those in English, just to ensure there’s no ‘I didn’t understand I was in trouble’.)

But once we move into Spanish 3 and 4, I run into the problem of having wider and wider variations of ability. The very lowest self-select out of Spanish, but in this year’s Spanish 4, I have students ranging from intermediate-low to advanced-low. The vocabulary difference between those students is huge – but because I can’t climb into their heads and see exactly which words they’re comprehending, I don’t know how to stay in bounds for the lower students while still challenging the higher students.

There is also the difficulty of grammar explanation in the higher levels, because that’s when students have finally had enough input to make some minor focusing on grammar worth it. I have switched to pop-up grammar for the last 2 years, but my older students were started with the good ol’ worksheet method, which means their grammar is often less accurate because they spent less time seeing and hearing correct grammar in context and acquiring it. Yesterday, one of my high ability Spanish 3s asked me to grammatically explain nominal subjunctive to her. She’s someone who is to the point where teaching her the requirements (trigger word, ‘que’, change in subject) will improve her accuracy because her brain is ready to use that information – that’s why she asked. I guess I could’ve fumbled my way through telling her in Spanish, but it would’ve taken 20 minutes and she might not understand. Or I could take 5 minutes and explain in English, and be done with it.

And then there’s the actual teaching. Chris Pearce, who does teaching comics on his super cool blog that you should totally check out, Teachable Moments, posted a very timely comic that pretty much sums up my dilemma:

Due to the nature of Spanish 4, I don’t use a lot of target language. It’s because I don’t use a lot of language at all! Whereas at the novice level, I have to lead students through every little thing, by the time the majority of the students have reached intermediate and can create their own sentences, I’m not needed nearly as much. I go from telling a 30 minute story in 3rd period (Spanish 1) to asking my students to read the article and answer the questions, then sitting quietly at my desk (Spanish 4). I do use more target language when we do interpersonal mode stuff because their speaking is a little weak (my fault) but again, Spanish 4/AP Spanish is mostly student-led discussion. Is it cheating to hit your 90% because you literally only need to give directions and then occasionally circulate and ask students if they need help? (They usually don’t.) I actually feel somewhat lost during those classes, because I don’t know what to do with myself. I don’t need to sit there and stare at them, but I also don’t want to appear to be ignoring my students if an administrator walks in. I usually do ‘fluffy’ things (check #langchat, read my blog feed, organize) but maybe there’s a better way. Or maybe it’s okay that I use such little Spanish because my students are getting their input from authentic resources, and not so much student-modified language from me.

What do you think?

#Teach2Teach Question 2

Time for round 2 of #Teach2Teach, the blogging series where experienced teachers are trying to give our best advice to new and pre-sevice teachers. Today’s topic is one of my favorites: politics.

Carrie asks: How do you stay inspired and not get bogged down by the politics of teaching?

I have to agree 100% with Amy when she says that whether we like it or not, politics are part of the job. Since everyone theoretically got some sort of education, everyone has an opinion on it. Even though we as teachers understand that things are completely different from the other side of the desk, many people still base their opinions on their own experiences. The sooner that we understand and accept that playing the politics game is part of our job – and learn to manage it with grace – will help us maintain our sanity.

When in doubt, keep your mouth shut

Now, I need to preface my personal comments by noting that I am terrible at politics. I love debating policies and arguing over procedures, but when it comes to the tactful part of politics, I am terrible. Horrific. Awful. I have a big mouth and I have gotten myself in hot water multiple times over it, and that is why I am wording my advice in a strong, somewhat rude way. Let me be a lesson to you: if you are in doubt about anything, keep your mouth shut. If you are emotional, keep it shut. If you are angry or frustrated, definitely keep it shut. I call my blog Making Good Mistakes because making mistakes and fixing them is how we learn. But sometimes we make a big whopper of a mistake, and it is easier to remove the mistake-maker than to give them a chance to fix it.

As a new teacher, you are going to mess up. But just as our tolerance for making the same mistakes wanes the closer our students get to adulthood, the same will happen with administration. Make their job easier for them and resist the temptation to give comments if you haven’t thought them over multiple times and considered how it will be taken by anyone who might run across it. This goes doubly so for written material whether that is an email, a blog post, or even just a quick tweet. (And even then, you might still find yourself challenged, but I have no problem with being challenged on a thoughtful belief I truly hold, rather than an off-the-cuff remark that is now biting me in the butt.) It’s just not worth it.

Remember to be friendly, but you are not their friend

This piece of advice goes dually for working with students and other adults in the building. Being a young teacher, you are in a weird position. Many of your students could be your own siblings, and you may have many of the same interests. I absolutely encourage you to use those strengths, but remember, no matter how close you get, they are students first. They can be your friend after they graduate. In addition, different schools have different policies on social media. If yours doesn’t have a clear-cut policy, always use caution. Remember that anything you write on the internet, no matter how private you think it might be, can quickly spread through the internet and make its way to your principal’s desk.

It is harder, I think, to remember that your coworkers are not necessarily your friends, either. It can be very difficult to be the new kid on the block, especially if you enter as the only new teacher with a well-established staff. The loneliness can be alleviated by a good mentoring program, but most schools don’t have that. With other staff members, you can be more of your real self than you are with the students, but you are still playing the political game. Just because you are all educators does not mean you all have the same beliefs and values. Throughout the school year, there are naturally occuring personality clashes when it comes to things like school improvement or making changes to curriculum. Handle these with grace and composure. Like I said in my first point, if you don’t have a well-rehearsed, tactful response, just keep your mouth shut. As you become more established, you will feel more comfortable (respectfully!) challenging beliefs, but at the beginning, you don’t have the trust built up to do so safely.

Keeping your spark ignited

Okay, so my post hasn’t been very positive so far. ‘Keep your mouth shut or you’ll get into trouble.’ ‘Be friendly, but not friends.’ I have one more not-so-positive thing to say before I tell you all the good parts, and that is to temper your flame. I am all about passion and excitement and enthusiasm – I think those are all qualities you need to be a good teacher. But you have to keep that enthusiasm under control. It can be very hard when you feel like you have this Really Great Idea! but if you approach it like your way is the best and only way, it can turn people off in a hurry. (There is a reason this post on offensive “authentic resources” has, by far, the most hits on my blog.) But I encourage you to take your tempered flame and direct it towards gently guiding people, whether they are your students or fellow staff members, rather than blasting everyone in the nearby area with it. Going with the fire analogy, a raging fire left unchecked and uncontrolled only destroys everything around it. But a controlled flame, like used in a welding torch, can create wonderful things. Be the torch and not the blaze.

It’s also better to keep your fire safely contained, so that you don’t burn yourself out. The workload in your first few years is intense, and if you give 110% of yourself to your job every single day, you won’t have anything left. Going back to my first #Teach2Teach advice, make sure to take time for yourself. The grading can wait.

But what if you’re having the opposite problem, where your flame has been dampened and you feel like you’re just slogging through the days? That is the time to refresh and reconnect, to relight your fire with the fire of others. I’m going to sound cliche here, but those are the times to read blogs and check #langchat. Maybe you’re struggling with a unit, or have a so-so lesson that you’re not sure how to make great. Maybe it’s just the kids getting you down. That’s when you need to touch base with people who will lift your spirits and push you forward. If you can get this connection in the teacher’s lounge, great. If you feel like nothing positive is discussed at lunch, eat by yourself or eat with a positive-minded friend in his/her room. You can’t always choose how you feel, but you can choose what to do about it.

The first few years can be incredibly lonely because you haven’t built up your teacher support network yet, and you might feel that your normal support networks don’t cut it (even if they’re amazing, wonderful people, teaching is one of those jobs where most people have no idea what you actually do each day and why it is so hard.) Trust me, we’ve all been there. You are probably going to make political mistakes – say something inappropriate or rude to a student, or offend a coworker – but take them as making good mistakes to learn from. Recharge your flame by huddling close to people who are currently burning bright. Eventually, those people are going to need you to return the favor. We’re all in this together, for better or worse.

Acts of intentional kindness

So we’re well underway in the second semester with our new superintendent at East Butler, Mr. Sam Stecher. I think I’ve previously mentioned that I really enjoy working with him because we’re on the same wavelength when it comes to managing student success. That is to say, we both feel that positive student-teacher relationships are a huge predictor of having a well-managed, efficient, engaging classroom. I think that this goes doubly for language teachers because a good portion of our job is to learn personal information about our students through our target language. On top of that, I work in a very small rural school. I have 3 classes that consist of one student. (To be fair, two of those are independent study, but still.) My biggest is 19. I’m the only Spanish teacher, which means that by the time my students get to Spanish 4, we know each other quite well.

But Mr. Stecher encourages us to go one step beyond just being nice in the classroom. He encourages the staff to be in the hallways, and he himself is very visible around the school and makes himself very approachable to the students. He asks us to complete the missions from Mission Monday that focus on promoting positive contact. Another thing he has talked about at various PD meetings is the idea of acts of intentional kindness. Acts of random kindness are nice, he says, but they don’t create a long lasting effect. It is repeated, intentional acts that will foster the cultural growth we’re looking for. Working with teenagers can be hard – after all, they are people-in-progress and sometimes are not very nice – but for some of them, we’re the only nice adults they’ve got for role models.

It is with these acts of intentional kindness in mind that I have (somewhat accidentally) started positive relationships where I won’t see the outcome for years. During one act season, I had to go through the library on a Friday after school to get some stuff out of the attic for our play. I didn’t know at the time, but I tromped right through our elementary HAL (high ability learners) group work time. The HAL group competes in a robotic competition and also does a presentation on problem-solving. Since I felt bad for invading their workspace and figured having students show me their learning would be way more interesting than grading papers, I asked some students to explain to me what they were doing. (Teacher thought: if they can sufficiently explain to me what they are doing and how they are doing it, they clearly understand the material and learning happened!)

What I saw was awesome. I had all these elementary students – who I don’t even know – clamoring to tell me about their robot. They were so excited to have a visitor who took a genuine interest in what they were doing. Then I visited the production group, who was using iPads to create videos to explain their inventions for scientists in the desert. This group, in particular, was very outgoing. I ended up not getting any of my grading done, but at the time I was just enjoying talking to these kids. I didn’t realize I had laid the foundation for my teaching future.

The next week, I happened to need to go into the library again. As soon as I walked in, the production group shouted my name and one girl even ran up and gave me a hug. High school teachers: how often are your students THAT excited to see you? I felt like a rock star. So ever since then, I have made it a point to say hi to these students if I see them waiting to go into art (which is down the hall from me) or in the lunchroom. I also don’t have 7th or 8th graders, but I try to say hi (with their name if I know it!) when situations allow for it. Why? Well, not just because I’m nice, but my niceness has an intention: I am building a relationship with these students.

You see, if I have this student – we’ll take the one who gave me a hug, she’s a 3rd grader – and I am friendly and kind to her for the next *6* years before she theoretically enters my classroom as a freshman, I have 6 years of positive feeling and goodwill built up. That is a lot of dollars in the relationship bank. If I can make positive contact with even 5 kids in each grade before they get to me, that’s about 1/4 of the student body who will already be on my side the moment they step through my door. That is going to ultimately make my classroom a fun, easy-going, friendly place with way less effort on my part.

In other words, right now I am putting in little bits of change into my relationship banks with these students. A high five here, a kind word there, a friendly wave and a smile. It doesn’t take much. After collecting interest on those relationship banks for years, there will be plenty of kindness to withdraw when they eventually enter my classroom as Spanish learners and I have to ask them to do things they don’t want to do. Not all of us are lucky enough to work in a K-12 building, but are there any ways you can make positive contact before students land in your classroom? How can you put spare change into those relationship banks?