As we kick off another school year, a lot of topics are swirling about in department meetings, district PD, online forums, Twitter, workshops, and more. This organization system or that one, new seating charts or going deskless, standards-based grading or category percentages, and much more. But, as Rihanna tells us, don’t get it twisted. There are some subtle nuances that define our teaching in big ways that we may not realize, and at the beginning of the school year, they merit some reflection.

“I taught it” doesn’t mean that they ‘caught’ it

How many times have we said that to colleagues, “But I taught that!” Usually out of frustration because students aren’t showing mastery, this is a deceptive statement. If there are students in the class who are showing that they grasp certain language and can use it, then it was, indeed, taught. But, don’t get it twisted; are these students the exception or the rule? Do they represent other students in the class? Or, would everyone stand to benefit from some re-teaching and differentiation? The high flyers can go even higher, and the rest can finally take flight, without the pressure of knowing other students are ahead of them.  We need to take a hard look at why we require what we require to be due when it’s due and how we are meeting students where they are to make language accessible to them. Taught isn’t caught, but learned is earned — if we’re doing all the work, that is neither teaching nor learning; no one benefits, and we’ll trudge on tired and frustrated.

Compliance ≠ Engagement

Teaching, learning, and society have all changed a lot, in big ways. One doesn’t need to go very far to hear experienced teachers lament about how students used to learn better/faster/more, or be more engaged/patient/polite, etc. Don’t get it twisted; it’s fair to say that students weren’t that amazing then and aren’t that impossible now, but how do we reconcile the changes we’ve seen? When it comes to proficiency-based language teaching, this can be a major turning point in our own self-reflection. For me, when I taught book chapters one by one, based on grammatical themes, I was definitely mistaking compliance for engagement, and performance for acquisition. If they got a 95 on the test, it didn’t occur to me that they had just memorized rules to then regurgitate onto the paper according to DOT LOCO, or some other acronym. If I had assessed them again a couple weeks later they probably would have a) been too nervous to even write/say anything for fear of being “wrong” and b) all the rules would’ve gone out the window, which is fine. But I’d never have known because that wasn’t what I was setting them up for; what I was setting them up for was what I thought were really compelling guided activities, not can-do statements and goal-based growth. I was filling X number of minutes, not curating a sequenced, memorable language acquisition experience.

Memorized ≠ Memorable

As mentioned above, it’s important for educators in our content area to really reflect on what we’re making memorized and what we’re making memorable. The two aren’t equal and never have been. But, if we’ve been mistaking compliance for engagement, or fixated on the frustration of what they can’t do and not the joy of what they can do, we missed the best parts of our work. There’s a reason students learn swear words after hearing them ONCE or silly statements like “Your mom’s a stove!” which my friend Susan still remembers 20 years later. Making language memorized and not memorable is why our previous language teachers failed us and we now hear adults tell us how many years of a language they took and what all they cannot do. Memorable language is why we think toddlers who have picked up our idiosyncrasies are hilarious, “Whoopsy!” when they spill something or, “Ohhh noooo!” after falling. Our amusement is often memorable to them, and they persist; it’s a positive association. How can we create these same patterns and moments for our students across the span of a semester or a school year? If it really seems they understood and could use ser vs. estar or passe compose whenever back then was, and they aren’t now, that deserves to be unpacked honestly and expeditiously.

Performance ≠ Proficiency

In the same vein, a stellar performance on an assessment is to be lauded – and then followed up on. Performance is what students can do in the moment in a certain setting with certain expectations, and it isn’t until well into the Intermediate Level(s) that students can be ambushed with language and expected to respond. So, sure on Thursday they can talk/write about their family, but as the class continues, can they expand on that talk, or was it just for that one assessment? If they can answer five personal questions today, how do those recycle forward in the coming weeks and months? Does the perspective shift so that it’s the same question but with more repetitions, not as repetitive? Can those personal questions be woven into the class culture with Special Person Interviews or classmate quizzes? How can we take language and spiral it up so that performances over time reflect students’ proficiency and vice versa?

Model what you mention

If we communicate to students to do X, Y, and Z, but are not open to those in our own professional lives, that may merit some further thought. If we incorporate Música Miércoles but then tell students we never listen to TL music in our ‘normal’ lives, what message does that send? Do they hear us speak the TL with former students and colleagues? (If not, what does that communicate about us and our expectations?) As two everyday examples, cell phones and groups are two ways I’ve really shifted my mindset and teaching. If I tell my students about attention, responsibility, and self-control re: their cell phones, that they are to be invisible, yet I can acknowledge that I have my cell phone on my physical person 24/7 and I also take it to meetings and, gasp, glance at it occasionally, how do I reconcile calling my classroom a 21st century learning environment? The same goes with groups – how often do I work in groups in my professional lives, and what is everyone’s accountability? Role? Group work can be the bane of many others’ existences, whereas others live for it. Depending on the task and the group, my mindset can go either way, and I think it’s important to acknowledge that. If we mention it, we need to model it – so our cell phone policy acknowledges what we prioritize and can model, as do our group work tasks (if they can be done alone, or in pairs, why not? What is it about X number of people that makes the task more effective?

Work  ≠ Job

Some days teaching is our chosen career, one’s life’s work. These are beautiful days – the choral responses sound like angels, handouts are color-coded and stapled, colleagues are pleasant, our cheesy jokes garner genuine laughter, and the copier is spitting out papers like Krispy Kreme, hot and fresh. These are the days we reflect and feel like we belong; our classroom feels like home, our students like family.Then, there are the days where teaching is a job. Plans B, C, and D-L have to be put in place because A didn’t work, everything seems to go wrong and on top of that, someone says something snarky, and then you realize you’ve had dried glue on your butt and two differently-colored shoes on, all day. Ugh. Realizing and reflecting on the contrast between our life’s work and today’s job is key — some days, our kids do breakout boxes and use collaborative documents; other days, they do a paired worksheet that is merely for repetition. It’s fine.

Sift and Shift

When it comes to research, philosophies, new ideas, high-leverage habits, I work to sift and shift, sift and shift. One at a time, or zero for the time being, it’s too overwhelming and tiring to do too much at once, because then suddenly we’re a first-year teacher again, inventing the wheel and installing it on the car to make sure it works because we really need to drive to X, simultaneously. Early teaching is already triage, all day every day, and when we try to revamp too many things, or change curricula, or move to a new school, or all of the above at the same time (been there!), way less gets accomplished. Rather, I try to slow down so that I can speed up later. There are tons of ideas out there, but don’t get it twisted: a stitch in time saves nine, truly — find ideas you mesh with, hash out a practical way to incorporate them, and give major shifts time to marinate. It is possible to be open to new ideas and not use all of them. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was any effective classroom with quality teaching and learning.

Then, shift or get off the pot

Sure, new ideas need time to marinate but don’t get it twisted. Once you feel you’re on the precipice of major, positive changes, for you, it’s go time. Whether it’s going deskless, incorporating stories, not giving homework, starting student blogs, using student portfolio folders, whatever it is that you feel can jump start your teaching, shift or get off the pot. That is to say, either jump onto some action items that get you started, or eliminate them from your long-term plan. Like any good New Year’s resolution, it’s one thing to want a goal; it’s another to work toward it. If proficiency-based teaching has intrigued you, get reading, attending, and discussing. You don’t have to dive into the deep end of the pool right away (and when others do, resist comparison!), but it should probably be the goal, even if you started by gently easing into the shallow.

No matter how we tackle our goals and how we grow as professionals, we must not get it twisted — let’s look at what is really going on in our classrooms and realize that when we know more, we do more. In this moment in time, our best is all we have to give, and if it is truly our best, it is enough. Cheers! It’s a great year to have a great year!

Meredith White is a high school Spanish teacher and golf coach in metro Atlanta, GA. She is a…