A Tough Question With A Simple Answer
I have been blessed in my language-teaching career to not have too many bad things to deal with. I am definitely lucky. After some thinking, though, there are some things that have not been great. The most difficult experience I have had was being a first year teacher with no support. I was hired as the 1st – 8th grade Spanish teacher with a 6th grade homeroom. At the time I was hired, I thought it was great! I was happy to just have found a job that was in the field that I had studied. I was ready for the challenge of teaching so many new kids. Until that point, I had only taught university level (with lots of other TAs and we made department-wide tests and used the same department-created syllabus) and had an internship at a high school. I was definitely a newbie and I had a lot to learn and the principal who hired me (not at our school anymore) gave me the keys to the classroom and said, “Have fun!”
That was the extent of my orientation to the world of elementary school Spanish teaching.
So, August, 2010 rolled around and I started. But then…there was no curriculum; there were no materials from previous teachers other than the textbooks (originally published in 1987, 4th edition published 2000). I thought it was weird that the principal only gave me the textbooks and no scope and sequence documents or curriculum documents, but I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to rock the boat. I just got hired for my first real job and I wasn’t going to ruin it by complaining.
I floundered for a while. I didn’t get a lot of respect from the older kids because I kept teaching them things they already knew. I still didn’t say anything about the missing curriculum documents. I just kept trying new things in later chapters in the text. I told them, “Review is good, it’s good practice and you’ll need it for high school.” I kept my head down and just plowed through the year, hoping that I was doing a good job.
The more I taught, the more I found my voice in the classroom. I am not a quiet teacher; I am not laid back or subdued. I am wild and crazy and loud and do whatever I can to engage the kids. I have no problems with embarrassing myself for the good of their education. The way I handled it was to keep trying new things and to keep trying to do the best for the students. My goal is for them to communicate in Spanish. It’s taken me a while to figure out how to do it, from new textbooks, to units I’ve created on my own, to finding and using TPRS and CI Methods. I have just kept trying new things to achieve my goal.
I guess you could say that that answers the question in the title, but there’s so much more to it, so much more that I have learned from my troublesome experience of being an (almost) unsupported brand new FLES teacher.*
Blessing in Disguise
In some ways, being thrown in head first…
…was a trial by fire and I am a better teacher for it, but at the same time, it would have been nice to have some help from other, more experienced Spanish teachers at some of the other Catholic schools in my area. There wasn’t really a network of teachers that I could look to for advice or mentorship or even just camaraderie (there still really isn’t, but I do know more of them now than I did before). At this point in my teaching career, I am thankful for having the ability to create my own program, but that’s only because I have spent 4.5+ years creating it. There have been a lot of false starts and major changes in my approach to teaching and those things wouldn’t have been possible in a different situation, but at the same time, structure is really important to keeping us sane as teachers.
Learning When To Say No and When To Say Yes
The other thing that I have learned is how and when to say no to taking on more responsibility. I said yes to doing a lot of things that I really enjoy doing, like teaching kindergarten, doing dismissal duty, and cafeteria duty. These were things that the admin asked me to do and I said yes to. But there are somethings that I have agreed to do that I regret.
I am experienced enough to know that I won’t be fired for saying no to doing something unreasonable. In the last few years, I have said no to things that have gotten in the way of teaching, the kinds of things that I would not have said no to before. Unfortunately, as much as I loved being a homeroom teacher and having “my kids,” it was too much and the homeroom responsibilities cut into my teaching responsibilities and it was a problem. Now, I teach more and have no homeroom and things are going great. I miss it terribly, but I am now able to make a better learning experience for all the kids in the school.
Hard Learned Lessons
The best tip I can give that I learned from those first few years is to say yes to all the things that are reasonable for you to do. Take on duties that are fun. Volunteer to do things that you think you’d like to do. I like to interact with kids, so I help out with the chess club and I oversee the 5th grade patrols during dismissal and I have done cafeteria duty. These are all duties where I get to hang out with the kids outside the classroom. I get to know them better and it builds a rapport in the classroom that other teachers might not have. The best part of volunteering, from an administrative point of view, is that it makes you look great. You are the person who has given of your free time and your effort. It makes you look good and you get to do something you like…And when the time comes to assign someone to do a really onerous duty, you already have a full schedule doing things you like.
And what’s better than that?
*This post makes it sound like I bootstrapped all the way from hack to the best teacher ever, but that’s not entirely accurate. I have so many people to thank, especially Debbie and Anne (not Spanish teachers, more like big sisters), for helping to guide me through the minefield of being a brand new teacher. They are the best and I thank them with all my heart. I wouldn’t be who I am today if not for them.