#Teach2Teach Question 2: Politics and Teaching

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School Politics

Sometimes the realities of running a school get in the way of the ideals that we have for our language classes. At my school, at least, Spanish (the only ForLang offered) is the first one kids are pulled out from for activities or resource classes or speech therapy. Sometimes I really feel like I am the very bottom of the totem pole; I’ve felt like my only purpose is to watch the students while their “real” teachers have a bathroom break. I have lobbied and tried for years to get more time with my students. I have presented revised school schedules, volunteered to give up planning periods and shorten my lunch period, all with the goal of seeing any or all of my students more times per week.

None of it has worked.

It can be disheartening. But after the initial disappointment, there can be a silver lining. We just have to learn how to spot it among all those dark clouds.

Politics is all about Perception

I would love to teach more, but it’s not a possibility. The last time I went in to ask if there was any way I could teach more classes to my students, the principal showed me the breakdown of the required amount of time for each subject. It was a bit of a wakeup call for me. Each subject area has a required amount of minutes per week that it must be taught. Different classes have different amounts of time, with ELA and Math taking the biggest chunks (we are transitioning to Common Core at our school). Foreign language instruction was the last on the list of subjects (a bad sign) and when I saw the amounts of time required, I saw:

K – 2nd – 0 Minutes

3rd – 5th – 0 Minutes

6th – 8th – 90 Minutes (optional)

I could choose to see this as something dismaying; I could choose to see the small amount of required time as something frightening. I foolishly thought that since this was new information for me, it would be new information for the admins and they would say something like, “Oh, you’re not supposed to be here. There’s the door, it’s been nice knowing you, now get out.” This, of course, is totally silly because they have known about the required amount of time since before I ever started. But that nervousness can get to you. It got to me for a while until I realized that I haven’t been fired in 4.5 years and since I teach all the kids in the whole school, I have become sort of a celebrity here with kids and parents. Once I had that realization, I chose to see it in a different, more positive way: Even with these constraints, I am a full time teacher. I see all students at least 30 minutes per week (and I get to see the majority of them 90 minutes a week).

I choose to see these constraints as freeing. There is no requirement for Spanish at the lower grade levels. Looked at from the other side, though, this means that there is no restriction on what I can do in the classes. I am not beholden to any one district-wide curriculum and even though it has been A LOT of work, I have been able to put together something that I think is pretty good (but there’s always room for improvement!)

I know that my situation is definitely NOT the norm. I’m sure that you have different types of constraints that I will not know about or be able to address because of the particulars of my situation. But I assure you, no matter what the problem is, there IS some different way of looking at it that you can gravitate towards if you choose to look hard enough. I’m not saying it’s easy. It took me months of reflecting and thinking (and stressing out) before I had my realization about the positive side of the administrative constraints of my curriculum.

Teach Smarter

I am blessed to have an administration that believes in foreign language instruction at all grade levels. But I still only see the kids a few times a week. Because of this, I have had a lot of different iterations of “Spanish Class” in the last 4.5 years. Currently, I am using TPRS and I believe that this will be where I stay. This is the future of language instruction because of the results it yields along with the level of engagement for student and teacher.

When I think about it, though, if I didn’t have time constraints and I could see all students every day, I probably would not have been so quick to change course. In a 2 day/week class, I was able to see just how ineffective the grammar grind approach can be. The students had 2 days of Spanish followed by 5 days without. Between classes, I was lucky if students remembered my name, let alone the complex grammar rules I taught them the week before. At the beginning, I used a much more traditional text-book based curriculum in which I taught everything in the book from Chapter 1 – Chapter 15 in that order. I taught, the students practiced and took tests, we moved on to the next chapter. The results were not great. The students couldn’t do much in their speaking or writing and their listening comprehension skills weren’t great because I spent the time teaching grammar rules, usually using English.

I saw early on that this was a fool’s errand. It was getting nowhere. So I began experimenting. I kept reading about TPRS and tried storytelling in some of my classes. It went OK. Then I went to a workshop in July 2014 and really was sold on TPRS. I have used it in class ever since. The students remember what they have learned because they are remembering story lines, not remembering discreet grammar rules. Politically, the administration is positive and generally leaves me alone because they see my classes with the kids engaged and having fun and they see the written and spoken results that TPRS is so famous for. The kids can understand so much more than they ever could before and they can speak and write, too.

Finding Inspiration

Even when we are frustrated by from the administration or from the district, there is always a bigger story. There is probably not some principal or vice principal saying, “ForLang classes are the bane of our existence and we need to get rid of them at any cost.” They are just doing their best to run their schools.

I am inspired by the administration in my school that is committed to carving out time foreign language instruction when it is not required. I am inspired by the other teachers in our diocesan district as well because they are working under the same frustrating constraints as I am. They come up with some great ideas for activities and their students (and mine) come out of our schools with a solid background in foreign language and culture that their public school peers probably don’t have (FLES programs in FL are provided on a district by district or sometimes school by school basis; to my knowledge, there is no requirement for public schools to have them).

I am also inspired by the teachers in my PLN. #Langchat has opened doors that I never would have considered before. There are so many teachers’ blogs with uplifting commentary and ideas for new activities. It is an amazing time to be a teacher. There are so many people out there with great ideas and who are willing to help either through information they’ve posted in the past or through direct contact with them through email, twitter, or blog comments. I can’t tell you how many teachers whose blogs I follow and whom I respect greatly have offered encouraging words or advice or congratulations when I post about a successful activity. The #langchat PLN is the warmest and most encouraging group of teachers I have ever encountered. I am inspired by someone every single day. I don’t have a department, so I have felt like I was going it alone for a long time and now, with #langchat and the inspiring teachers that I have connected with, I have the All-Star team of department-mates. That is where I find my inspiration on the worst days, the days when I feel frustrated and beat down by administration policies.

Thanks, guys!

The Takeaway

As I mentioned, my situation is probably a lot different from that of most of the others who will read this, especially the secondary teachers. That being said, if there is one thing that I hope that everyone takes away from reading this, it’s that there is always a different way to look at a terrible situation, no matter what that situation might be. There is always something positive that can be made from something that at first seems negative.

The key keeping your sanity in the minefield that is school politics is figuring out how to find positive thing and nurturing it until it transcends the negative and you forget what all the stress was about in the first place.

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