Looking to the future

Hello, readers! I hope you are having a wonderful summer. For me, I’m down to the last week of vacation and decided I should probably catch up on some blogs. With the exception of my one tutoring session per week, I have managed to completely walk away from being a Spanish teacher and concentrate on being anything-but-a-teacher. I love my job, but thinking of Spanish education 24/7 gets pretty exhausting after 190 teacher days. I bought a house and discovered that I really enjoy gardening, even though I hate being hot, sweaty, dirty, or constantly attacked by bugs. Go figure.

I suppose this is when I should make some goals for this year or something, but instead, I am looking even farther to the future. The inspiration for this post came from something that Sara-Elizabeth recently shared on Musicuentos, the invention of the Babel Fish. She got a surprising amount of pushback on Twitter, because although she made me think about the topic (which is the point of blogs, right?)  I didn’t feel like she was attacking our profession. I have some disagreements, but I also think that she made an important point.

One thing that Sara-Elizabeth argues for is that Google Translate has gotten a lot better over the years. And it has. (I was in high school when the first internet translators appeared and I could only use them to get the gist of a passage.) However, I would argue that a practiced speaker of a language can still tell that it’s not normal speech almost immediately. For Spanish purposes, it will use the wrong past tense. It makes all ‘you’ into ‘usted’ even if the situation wouldn’t call for it. ‘Su’ is translated as ‘he’, even if the possessor is female. Every year, I have at least one student who writes ‘me gusta el partido’. A partido is a political party, not a fun-times party: that’s a fiesta. (And further baffling because seriously, who doesn’t know the word fiesta? I know they know it!!) In other words, translators are great for getting a basic message across… usually. I still wouldn’t trust one with say, my medical advice from a doctor. They’re still pretty terrible with slang, and they just can’t convey the same feeling, emotion, and flavor that a text does in its original language.

The other counterpoint I’d make is that, although I do believe teaching as we know it is going to disappear, I’m not overly concerned for language teaching disappearing altogether in my lifetime. It’s true that we finally have the first reasonably usable virtual reality headsets. (My friend has a VIVE and using it is really cool, but the user looks like a total dork.) My new phone has 70x more storage than my first computer from 1995. However, I am pretty sure I was promised a hoverboard and robotic cleaning servants by now. The so-called hoverboards that we have just catch fire and don’t even hover, and as for robotic cleaning servants, well…

So what I’m saying is… if we’re promised the technology by 2030, we’ll see some moderately usable form of it in 2050. I don’t know about you, but I plan to be retiring around then. The rate at which new technologies are created, tested, and applied can’t continue at a breakneck pace forever. On top of that, the biggest barrier is affordability.

Here’s the part where I agree 100% with Sara-Elizabeth: teaching as we know it is on its way out. I think traditional teaching methods where students are physically grouped into a building based on location are going to stick around much longer in urban areas, but in rural, less populated areas that are only shrinking… how much longer is it economically sustainable? When I started teaching at my school in 2010, I had a little over 90 students total. This year, I am currently sitting at 46. Our graduating class size, in just the last decade, has shrunk from about 30 to about 22. This year’s sophomore class only has 19 – assuming nobody moved over the summer. So it’s not that I’m scaring students off (in reality, I have far better retention rates than the Spanish teachers before me)… there’s just fewer kids to teach.

And that’s just the students. What about staff? I think that’s really the part that is going to be difficult. I work with a concentrated group of amazing veteran teachers. But in exchange for experience, I would say at least 1/3 of our staff is at or near retirement age, and I am honestly not sure what is going to happen if they all decide to leave at once. Who will replace them? Will we be able to get and keep quality teachers? What about the teachers who coach multiple activities? Our non-teaching staff is even more critical. I can’t imagine my school running without our three fantastic office ladies. We are in severe need of bus drivers and substitute teachers. It’s the typical small town scenario: everyone is aging out. Many of the kids are leaving and not coming back. It’s hard to face, but that’s the reality of the situation.

So, I worry. We can’t really consolidate our school anymore – we already encompass about 100 square miles. Some of our students live upwards of 20 miles away from our main building. I am pretty sure it’s just a matter of time before schools like mine disappear and are turned into online-only education. I am against that for kids for a variety of reasons, but if that happens, will there be a place for me? What would I do if I couldn’t teach Spanish there any longer? I have plenty of talents but… I like what I do now. I like my students. I like my coworkers. I don’t want that to change. But, and I think this is the whole point Sara-Elizabeth was trying to make, is that we need to be prepared when – not if – it does.

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