For a teacher, opening old files is like opening an old photo album. You’re flooded with memories, and also reflections on what went wrong and what went right:
Why did I let my mom talk me into that perm?
Stirrup pants with winter boots! When are those coming back?
If I had real friends, they would’ve told me that it’s possible to get rid of a unibrow before your Glamour Shots appointment.
That green suede bomber jacket was the best Christmas gift I ever got.
A while back, I was looking for something in my Google Drive and opened a file with the name of the school I started teaching at in 2002 – before Google Docs existed. Somewhere along the way, I’d found a CD or USB drive and uploaded my teacher files to Drive so I wouldn’t lose them. Interesting, I thought. I wonder what’s there.
If you’ve done this before, you know what happened next: I opened a file and was (mostly) appalled at what I saw. Thoughts started with What was I thinking? and went through Ooh, that was a good one and ended up somewhere around I’m so glad for the journey that brought me here from there.
In this post, I want to invite you on a bit of a glance at my old photo album. I’m not sharing the Glamour Shot unibrow, but let’s reflect together on five things I got wrong, and since I want you to know you’re never getting it all wrong, I’ll add five things I got right. Especially if you are a teacher in your first or second year, I hope you find these helpful.
Five things I got wrong
Let’s start with the glaring problems that jumped out at me from those old files, and then we’ll end on a positive note.
1. I made a mess of the rubric.
I took an excellent class on Tests and Measurements in college and it has forever ruined the way I approach assessments. My least favorite professor in college put questions about his JOKES on the test (thanks a lot for letting us know we should take notes on your JOKES). And you should have heard how incensed I got when my husband’s Hebrew professor gave a quiz on the alphabet and the grade depended on how quickly they could write it. Our profession is full of ridiculously invalid assessment.
I don’t always hit the mark, but I dream of a world where assessment is always valid, always as close to a real picture of learner ability as we can come. No trick questions, no extra credit, no multiple choice, no extra-subject categories (i.e. art criteria in a language assessment).
Reflective question: Why, in my first teaching years, did I have appearance in my rubric?
You read that right. In my presentational speaking assessments, I included appearance. As well as-
- correct grammar
- obvious research
Why am I regretting putting things like pronunciation and correct grammar on the rubric? Because I didn’t have any framework for “according to your proficiency level” or “that doesn’t interfere with comprehensibility.” My criteria for this was native-like.
Dear teacher exploring how to improve your rubrics, keep them realistic and focused on language for communication. (See my performance assessment rubric here.)
2. I let projects get out of control.
Before I ever knew what project-based learning was, I had a love/hate relationship with projects- projects the way I defined them. For one thing, I decided to assign 6 projects per year, 3 per semester, in order to have those big grades equivalent with tests. They were the kind of projects I’d seen done across other disciplines and yes, across our own discipline. We spent days (cough, maybe weeks) making piñatas, they made videos of memorized (cough, read from cards) skits with specific grammar requirements, they made elaborate (cough, basic diagrams with discrete labels) posters that went in the trash as soon as they were graded.
These are the features that spun my projects out of control and wouldn’t now be found on an assignment for my learners:
- English: at the beginning of Spanish 1, I had a couple of cultural research projects that involved all English. Now I don’t see the value in spending that much time out of the target language.
- Glue: From dioramas to piñatas to poster displays, artsy projects that require a lot of glue-drying time and very little target language don’t have a place in my class.
- Role-plays: I’m not one to say role plays never have a place in our classroom (sure, it’s not a “real context” and classrooms are a “real context” but there is value in imagination and preparation for situations that might really happen). But skits that robbed us of input time because of all the time students spent scripting, correcting, memorizing, videoing, shopping for costumes – it’s just not worth it. Though I will say a video I got from a student walking through a grocery store was one of the funniest moments of my teaching career.
And again, the rubrics.
Newish teacher considering elaborate project assignments, explore a quality project once or twice a year under the umbrella of project-based language learning (see our city description project here), and otherwise, stick to real language assessments for your big grades – and those, rarely.
3. I didn’t speak Spanish.
When I took Advanced Spanish Literature in college, the professor taught in Spanish. Of course you would teach such a class in Spanish. But Spanish 1? Never. Spanish 3? Maybe a little bit. In my methods classes and throughout my observations and student teaching, I never saw a lesson or gave a lesson where there was more than perhaps 5% Spanish involved. Never. That’s appalling.
It was also appalling to my Spanish 3 students in my first few years that I might occasionally try to teach minutes of class just in Spanish. Ha! What?! And I can tell you I didn’t even do that much very often – the most Spanish we used was when we were reading (and translating) our stories from our textbook.
I recently did a training for people interested in helping refugees learn English, and they were from all walks of life, across the spectrum of age and backgrounds, most with no background in language. I asked them to raise their hands if they thought they weren’t “good” at learning languages. (That was maybe 75% of the group.) Then, I played a game with them in Russian for 5-7 minutes without translating a single thing into English. I asked them afterward to raise their hands if any of them had felt lost and like they didn’t know what was going on. Not a single hand went up. It was a powerful moment, to watch people realize that with context and fun and help, they can understand even in the first moments of learning language they have never heard before. I wish someone had had that powerful moment with me before I launched on my language teaching journey, and I encourage you now:
Newish teacher, you can teach in the target language in a way that’s understandable and fun.
4. I asked for insane translations.
I believe all I need to do here is to go to the tests and give you some examples. These are some of the contrived sentences I asked my learners to translate from English, contrived to show features we’d studied in the chapter being tested.
Spanish 1, chapter on vacations:
He gives me flowers.
Spanish 2, chapter on pressures of modern life (10th grade 2004, mind you):
I lost my keys two days ago. What bad luck!
Spanish 3, Literature book section on legends:
The bold man will perish.
Newish teacher, now I blog with a tag called “no translation.” Check it out, and see if you can learn something from what I learned along the way. Ask for real language for a real purpose, not contrived translations deprived of any context.
5. I hammered verb accuracy.
Again, I’ll go back to test examples to show you what I did here.
Spanish 1, Chapter 6:
Turn the verb into a command as if you were talking to several people. Write the answer in the blank. (2 points each)
Spanish 2, Chapter 13 (the book was a continuation from Spanish 1):
Choose the correct present subjunctive conjugation and write its letter in the space. (2 points each)
Spanish 3, Section 4 in literature book:
If the verb correctly corresponds to the subject, write C in the blank. If it is not correct, write the correct conjugation in the blank. (2 points each)
- yo tenías (tener – imperfect)
- usted fusilaba (fusilar – imperfect)
- yo me incorporó (incorporarse – preterite)
I’m embarrassed to even type them. Newish teacher, our classes are not intended to weed out those who just can’t keep up with our linguistic analysis. Let’s keep it real: consistent verb accuracy across time frames cannot be expected until Advanced proficiency, and except in a small number of special cases, Advanced proficiency will not happen even in a full high school program.
Whew, let’s stop talking about what all I did wrong, shall we?
Five things I got right
I want to be clear – Miss Musicuentos 2003 was not a failure. She was a new teacher. And I’m pretty sure there is no such thing as a new teacher who is a failure. There’s so much to figure out just to keep your head above water and also do some things for yourself. Let me encourage you, newish teacher, that you are not a failure, and would you reflect some on the things you’re getting so right? Here are a few of mine.
1. I dressed up.
It’s no secret: my undergraduate experience did not prepare me to teach Spanish. But it did prepare me to handle myself in a classroom of teenagers. One of the best pieces of advice that I received and followed was that in my first few years, I had to combat how young I was and looked, or students would try to be my friend. When there’s only three years separating you and your oldest student, and you have the authority to give them detention and affect their college applications, friendship is not a goal. Like you’ll read in Teach Like a Pirate, rapport is priceless for a teacher-student relationship, but friends? Recipe for all manner of disaster.
In my student teaching, we were required to dress up so much that I left college with a pretty vast collection of blazers and panty hose. I did not go that far in my first years of freedom (and in fact, I turned down a position at a private school that required their female teachers to wear panty hose), but I did dress carefully. The blazers came out fairly often. And on Friday, when many teachers wore jeans, I never did. I looked so young that visitors would come in the room and wonder who the teacher was, and I knew jeans would just make that worse. So, I chose to dress up for a few years, even when I didn’t have to, and it was a good decision.
Young high school teacher, crow’s feet are coming. I have a persistent patch of gray hairs sprouting just above my forehead. And while I still couldn’t bring myself to wear sweatpants even to teach at a small homeschool co-op for the last few years, my time to dress down had certainly come. I *think* I may have one blazer left way in the back of my closet, but it hasn’t been touched in a long time. For now, dress up a little.
2. I planned and planned again.
I forget which professor in college drilled this mantra into us:
If you don’t have a plan, they will.
Okay, maybe it sounds a little dramatic, but teenagers (or even worse, pre-teens) in front of an unprepared teacher is no joke. If you’ve been teaching for any time at all you’ve done it or seen it. Let me lighten the load by telling you you’ll never again have to turn in seven pages of minute-by-minute detailed lesson plans, but a little overplanning goes a long way. First, I used a spreadsheet to map out the general idea of what I would do in the year – in the entire year (totally possible you don’t have to be that detailed). Then, the weekend before, I’d use an old-school lesson plan book to write all the activities in order. The night before, I’d jot down the lesson plan on a sticky note and keep that sticky note on my textbook throughout the class. That level of planning stuck with me through my first several years, and I’ll always know it’s one of the best practices I developed.
3. I lived within my means.
You don’t want to know how much money I made when I first started teaching. Okay, I’ll tell you. I was teaching full time at a private school in Northwest Texas, and in my second year I was teaching 7 classes of 6 preps, and my salary was about $18,000/year. You read that right. (I’d actually had a school offer me $12,000/year at a job fair and I almost laughed out loud.)
I look back now and that number seems ridiculous, but really, at the time I felt I was doing great. I had graduated with no student debt, I’d bought my mother’s 1987 Mustang for $16 (one dollar for every year it was old), and I was on my own. I was free! I was more than a thousand miles away from my family, with no husband (no boyfriend, actually), no kids, just my job and my life.
As a teenager, I’d read a book on finance by Mary Hunt that changed my life. The primary concept that has stuck with me for over 20 years is the practice of budgeting a regular amount per month for irregular expenses and actually putting that money where it stays put and is labeled for that purpose. So I didn’t buy new clothes every month, but I acted like I did – I put money in a special account (called the “Freedom Account” – and I even had this printed on checks for that account) and I kept a record of how much was in each category using an old-school paper ledger. Now, PNC does that for us in what they call the “Reserve” account, but the concept is the same.
One of my categories was “Summer Pay,” because my school paid us only during the school year. I took my annual salary, divided it by 12, and subtracted that amount from the number actually on my monthly paycheck. The extra went into the “Summer Pay” category. That way, I could write myself a check for my usual income during the summer, and not work at all, if that’s what I wanted. I picked up new hobbies – this is when I started backpacking – and exercised, spent time with friends, stayed in bed all morning with my plate of eggs and good movies.
My point being, newish teacher, you probably aren’t making a lot of money. It doesn’t matter. Make wise choices with it, and you’ll have deep breaths and relaxed, stress-free days you’ll always cherish.
4. I took them to Mexico.
Before I knew how many student travel companies were out there, before I knew how many teachers take their students on trips, my school administration pushed and supported me to take my students first to the border of Mexico and then into Mexico. My school community had a passion for service and ministry projects and we made it happen, from scratch. I still remember the family that let me take their teenagers – and their very expensive SUV – on the way to Piedras Negras where most of our several-vehicle caravan blew at least one tire. I planned and executed meals – breakfast burritos en masse are a winner – and we slept in sleeping bags on the floors of churches and schools. We got color-coordinated shirts and distributed school supplies and gift baskets. I remember how we were always excited to stop at the same restaurant on the way home (“Mejor que Nada“), and when our goofy basketball coach was stopped by Mexican police for going the wrong way down a one way street in Ciudad Acuña and I had to refund him the $20 bribe, and how sweet it was to walk around our activities watching my students sit and chat with precious children at a school.
For the last four years, I’ve just been teaching very small groups at a homeschool co-op, but last year I was able to get two of them to tag along with me and my daughter on a trip to Costa Rica, because I could see the spark in their eyes that needed fuel to stay lit. Newish teacher, your learners’ language journey will last only as long as they care about the people who speak that language, so whether it’s at a festival across town, a museum a few hours away, or a country a world away, do what you can to take them there.
5. We read stories.
I never heard about storytelling language teaching methods until I was well into my graduate studies. But my father had used an old, out-of-print book that had stories the likes of “El gato de Sèvres” and “Una carta a Dios” and “El abanico” and he’d enjoyed it and I’d enjoyed it. So, when I was tasked with starting this school’s first-ever Spanish 3 class, I found enough copies on a used textbook website to incorporate it into our class. (I cannot remember or find the title of this book!) Exploring these rich stories with my students supported some of my favorite class periods and represented a foretaste of all the storytelling that would become Mrs. Musicuentos after the communicative awakening.
As I look through these files and the crazy things I wrote…
You should do homework neatly in cursive. (Yes I do mean that.)
I remember what I got the most right. My students weren’t perfect, but I did my best to love them. My school wasn’t perfect, but I supported it and I loved it. My job was stressful, but I loved it. Newish teacher, this journey isn’t worth it if you can’t find and do what you love. Find it, and do that.