Reflections on student teaching

I recently finished a 7-week stint with a student teacher. She was my first student teacher, and I was a little nervous. I’ve only been teaching for 4 years and my teaching style has shifted significantly each year. I decided to undergo another major overhaul, mostly ditching the text and going full-steam ahead into comprehensible input/authentic resources shortly before Christmas, so she started with me right when I had no idea what I was doing at the Spanish 1 and 2 levels. (I have Realidades for Spanish 1-3 and Imagina for Spanish 4.) I do use the text for Spanish 3 and 4, but only because there are more level-appropriate videos and reading passages in those texts. The level 1 and 2 books treat my students like they’re idiots, and I don’t like that.

Anyway, I don’t feel like I’m a completely different teacher than when I first set foot into Crete High School for my own student teaching in 2009, but after observing my student teacher, I can see the differences I’ve made over the years that really help me to manage my classroom efficiently. So, in no particular order, here are some pieces of advice for newer language teachers or student teachers.

1) Use the TL as much as possible. This one is kind of a ‘duh’, but I know it is extremely intimidating to stand up in front of a class and teach in your non-native language… especially if there are native speakers present. Doubly so if your cooperating teacher uses heavy TL and you aren’t sure you’re up to the task. That’s okay! Try it anyway! You’re going to make mistakes – most of the time, the kids won’t notice. (After all, they don’t speak it very well; that’s why they’re in your class.) It’s also good modeling for the students. If the teacher isn’t willing to take a risk in their language use, why should they? The best part is, speaking in front of the class will improve your abilities as well. I probably improved my spoken Spanish more by being forced to speak it for 16 weeks in the classroom than 6 weeks in Mexico (where most of the friends I made wanted to speak in English).

2) SLOW DOWN. The corrollary to #1 is to slow down. No, I mean it, SLOW DOWN. Now, I don’t believe we need to go word-by-word slow, but it’s very important to maintain a reasonable speed and to leave space between chunks for students to process. I’m someone who speaks very quickly in both English and Spanish, doubly so if I get excited. If I’m blathering away at breakneck speed, there’s no way my students can understand me, and I just defeated the point of telling my story, directions, or whatever it is. That’s when students get frustrated and complain that you don’t speak English. Make it understandable to them, and things will go much more smoothly.

3) Leave wait time. This is a second corrollary to #1. It’s very easy to get in a rush, but it’s incredibly necessary to leave think time for your students. I do a lot of choral response in my class, so I find it important to remind students ‘piensan, piensan, piensan‘ to let everyone process my question before shouting out the answer. This is doubly important after giving directions, regardless if you choose to give your directions in English or the TL. Give an instruction, wait, let the kids figure it out and follow it. Then give your second instruction. If you give them 3 instructions in a row, then start the activity without any sort of wait time for them, they’re going to be upset that you started without them, and you’re going to be upset that they’re not ready. Chunk it up, and you will have less problems.

Classroom example:

Okay, estudiantes, Uds. necesitan las actividades en clase. (Okay students, you guys need your activities in class.) Wait. They take out their activities paper.

Por favor, llamen esto “La ropa y la moda”. (Please, call this “clothing and fashion”.) Wait. They head the activity with the title.

Vamos a describir las fotos. Uds. necesitan describir las fotos. ¿Qué llevan ellos? ¿Qué ropa llevan ellos? Escriben en las actividades en clase, por favor. Okay, just to check, what did I say? (We’re going to describe the photos. You guys need to describe the photos. What are they wearing? What clothes are they wearing? Write it in your activities, please.) If I give lengthy instructions in Spanish, I always check with a medium-level student to make sure they were comprehensible.

4) Routine, routine, routine. A major factor in a successful language classroom is routine. We use routines every day so that our brains can take a breather and not have to process every single bit of information that enters it. Routines are essential in the language classroom, because it helps our students with comprehensible input. Even if they don’t catch every word you say, building a routine will help even your lowest language learners follow along. My lower levels know that we start with el principio (my word for bellwork) while I take care of non-teaching business, then we take out our actividades en clase and do 2-3 of those before finishing the period. It’s also important to have routines for non-teaching stuff, like how you store your graphic organizers/texts, where you keep extra copies, when you update a website/info board/whatever, etc. A little organization on the front end will save you tons of time on the back end.

5) Have a clear attention getting device. When it comes to classroom management, which all new teachers struggle with, having an attention getting device is probably the #1 key to not going crazy on a daily basis. Don’t get me wrong – sometimes I have to use my attention device every 2 minutes, but 2 minutes of peace at a time is still better than 0. In my room, I stand front and center and say loudly and clearly, Señores y señoritas, necesito su atención, por favor. Then I give them 5 seconds of wait time. Sometimes I even visually count down on my hand. This gives them the necessary time to finish up finding their paper, writing their sentence, talking to their friend, or whatever they were doing and focus on me. If I still don’t have all eyes on me, I repeat the phrase and countdown. If I still have stragglers after the repeat, then I call them out by name. This generally does the trick – if not, we move into warnings and potential detentions. I find that by giving a solid 10-15 seconds of clear wait time, I save myself minutes of ‘Bobby, sit down. Jessica, I need your eyes here. Liz, stop talking. No, I’ll sign that later. That’s nice, Jeff, I can’t listen to your story right now, I’m teaching.’ For those of you who have students at the elementary level, I think the whole brain teaching technique is fabulous. (I wanted to link to a blog about a teacher who teaches elementary and teaches whole brain in English at first, but then can pretty much use Spanish only from thereon out. I can’t remember who wrote it though, so if anyone knows which one I’m talking about, please let me know!)

I could probably think of many more pieces of advice for new teachers (be flexible! test technology before using it! don’t trust lyrics sites for Spanish songs because they never seem to use accent marks which is annoying!) but these are the top five ideas that I discussed often with my student teacher and I think will make the most difference for novice teachers.