Different teachers, different classes, different goals

This spring and summer, I was able to get out of my classroom and speak with other Spanish teachers across the state. One of my personal things to work on is not being a zealot about my point of view regarding teaching and foreign language acquisition. I want to be kind, open, and willing to help, without making others feel like they’re inferior, wrong, or stupid. Sometimes I am not very good at that, but it bothers me to see other people make sweeping judgments about the way teachers teach in their own classroom, and I feel like a jerk when I realize I’ve been doing it too.

I learned that although being a department of one is sometimes difficult, I am pretty lucky that I get to make all my decisions myself. I am the Spanish teacher, Spanish department chair, language department head, and my own curriculum specialist. I get to make the decisions for myself regarding my own classroom. Other teachers are not so lucky. If they have all those sorts of administrators who are trained foreign language teachers, great! But that’s not usually the case, and so they have to listen to ideas that make no sense. I spoke to teachers who are fighting the acquisition vs. learning battles in their schools. I talked to people whose curriculum is chosen by someone who is monolingual. I heard from teachers who were told they used too much Spanish. (Yeah, figure that one out.)

I am also blessed that my administration respects my expertise and does what they can to get me what I need to be successful. I don’t have to worry about having to use the same outdated textbooks (or being required to use a textbook at all) – if I can present a reasonable argument on why something isn’t working for me, I am either granted the funds, or steered in the direction of someone that can help. The East Butler Foundation has been instrumental in adding novels to my classroom, and I am forever grateful for their help. But not every school has a foundation that offers educational grants. Not every school has an administration who is willing or able to support teachers fully in their classrooms. My school also helps me with trainings, provides professional leave days, and offers tuition reimbursement for qualifying degrees. Not every teacher is so lucky.

Technology availability is another huge difference between schools. My school is 1:1, and although I know I am a very effective teacher wtihout tech, it helps me be a more efficient teacher. With Google Classroom, I no longer have to carry stacks of paper home. With Duolingo, I have a quick go-to activity if my actual lesson finishes way earlier than I intended. With Youtube, my students have numerous opportunities to find target language videos that interest them. Even before we were 1:1, everyone had Promethean boards, projectors, or TVs connected to the teacher computer. It is frustrating to me that some teachers are forced to use slower, more tedious methods of doing things, just because they don’t have the technology, through no fault of their own. I am a staunch supporter of the idea that technology in itself does not make a lesson, but it is a great way to enhance and differentiate your lessons. I can get more done in less time, thanks to technology.

Another ridiculous difficulty that many other schools face is large class sizes. Class size is an interesting quirk because the research appears to be unclear on class size vs. achievement. Some studies say that it is a huge component, others say that it isn’t. What I can say is that class size absolutely does have an effect on the relationship you can have with your students, and how much personal attention you can give them. My usual yearly class load has been about 60 between all four levels. I expect it to hover between 50-70, probably closer to 50 as our enrollment drops. I usually have 8-10 students that I am with for all four years of high school. We have time to build some really close relationships, which is one of my favorite parts of working at a small school. In other schools, there are teachers out there who see 200 or more students per marking period. If you have elementary, it’s even more ridiculous. A friend of mine who teaches elementary art between two schools sees over 600 students. Six hundred. How many of her students will slip under the radar because they don’t demand attention? Or another teacher, who taught middle school Spanish on a block schedule, who received less classroom time with more students – and those students still had to pass the Spanish 1 exam given at the high school so they could get credit? That sets their students up to fail.

A final comparison I have to make is foreign language specific. This summer, I attended trainings on two completely different ends of the learner spectrum. Something that really finally set in my brain is that different teachers have different goals for different classes. I’m the same teacher for all of my students, but I cannot teach my AP Spanish students who are pushing into intermediate high and advanced low proficiences in the same manner that I teach my novices. The idea of comprehensible input and acquisition vs. learning still holds true, but once my students have the high frequency vocabulary down in a wide variety of tenses, I have to back off from TOTALLY comprehensible input. They have to deal with ambiguity, just like in English, since there are many words they still don’t know. (Like the word ambiguity.) By AP Spanish, my students have acquired enough language to be able to edit themselves in a basic way. They have enough words to guess the meaning of unknown words in a familiar context. They know the patterns well enough to puzzle out a new verb when they know the root, but maybe have never seen that particular form before. Spanish 3 is my real difficulty here – they have acquired enough language that totally comprehensible input is no longer needed, but they still need tons of support before they’re ready to rely on context clues. I expect that other teachers are in the exact same boat, and there are no easy answers. It can be a frustrating place to be, with people on both sides of the comprehensible input camp telling you you’re doing it wrong.

I know it’s very likely I looked sort of snobby in some of my conversations because I didn’t stop to consider other people’s situations compared to my own. I work in an ideal school, and it bothers me that other schools have to deal with stupid things like overcrowded classes, low funding, or lack of autonomy. In the end, we are all working towards the same goal: to provide the best education we can for our students, and sometimes I need a reality check that it’s not so easy for other teachers, and it’s not fair to criticize the decisions of others because their goals are different from mine.

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