Friday, March 08, 2013

The Dilemma of the Language Teacher

A Spanish teacher I know just got observed by her principal, who told her she used too much target language--in this case Spanish. Her AP, who is monolingual as the principal, sat there and nodded dutifully. These are tough times for language teachers, with requirements getting lower as students prepare for the do or die tests in math and English. I kind of understand why a principal, with his job depending on it, might focus more on the tests that will determine whether or not he'll spend next year pushing cell phones at Best Buy for 9 bucks an hour.

It may not be the principal's fault that he neglects foreign language, hurtful to students though it is. It may not be our fault next year when we drill students for the tests that will determine whether or not we'll be joining the principal at Best Buy. Satisfying though it may be to jump up to assistant manager, make two extra bucks an hour and order the principal around, neither of us really belongs there. The craziness that forces us to neglect what's best for kids is not all our doing.

What is the principal's fault, though, is his utter ignorance about language acquisition. In fact, the optimal percentage of target language in a language class is precisely 100. Of course, with a monolingual group it's tempting to revert to English, but honestly, how many people do you know who've studied Spanish for years only to learn, "Como esta usted?" and perhaps a little song about the Puerto Rican flag?

That's what I learned in years of Spanish from teachers who almost invariably spoke English. I went through endless lessons about "el preterito" without ever realizing it was the past tense. I conjugated my butt off and memorized dialogues, but I could not speak Spanish if my life depended on it. When I became an ESL teacher, I decided it behooved me to know another language. I spent several summers in Mexico living with Mexican families, and it was either speak Spanish or sit in a corner and cry. I hate corners, so I learned the language.

In my English class, we speak English no matter what. And that is not easy, particularly when you have 20 kids who all speak another language. If I were in Korea with 20 Americans it would be pretty hard for any teacher to make me speak English. But I'm up for the challenge if I'm the teacher.

One of the greatest compliments I've received as a teacher was a little bit sideways. My friend asked a young girl who the craziest teacher in the school was, and she immediately replied, "Mr. Educator."

My friend was sorely disappointed. He was certain he was the craziest teacher in the school. So he asked her why.

"Well, we were all in the beginning class, and none of us could speak English. But Mr. Educator made all of us speak English anyway."
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