Along the path to proficiency, we encounter many things in our classroom, in our department, and in the field. In this series, we would like to share some notes from the field from educators who have made an impact and have learned something impactful along their journey. Here they will share their notes from the field with us and how their learning has helped shape them, as well as its impact, as they help their students along the path to proficiency.
I wish I could say I always wanted to be a teacher. Unfortunately, no. I was the most surprised as anyone when I ended up teaching 7th and 9th grade English at South Park Junior High in Corpus Christi, Texas. The desire to graduate can be very compelling. It really didn’t matter, however, because teaching was just a temporary gig on the way to other things in life. Right?
Fast forward 10 years. I’m sitting in an interview with a principal of a large, diverse high school in a school district transitioning from rural to surburban—a big, imposing guy with ice-blue eyes that don’t seem to blink. The job I’m interviewing for is as a 9th grade English teacher, plus 3 sections of German. What? One of those yes-I’m-certified-but-no-I’ve-never-taught-it moments of truth. I confessed, but I really needed the job. The principal took a chance (or maybe he was just desperate), and so began my journey.
Yep, year one was hard. Notice I did not refer to year one as a challenge, a learning experience, a time of professional growth. Nope, it was HARD. One memory that stands out in particular was the day I had the German 2 students diagramming sentences on the board. I think that was the low point—My instruction was obviously not effective, and I had to figure this out. My learners deserved better than I could deliver. How do I teach another language if I can’t teach it like I teach English? I set my intention and defined my goal: No matter how many years my students stay in the German program, how do I take them where they are and move them forward? How do I enable them to speak, read, write, and understand German?
In hindsight, my goal seems overly broad and ill-defined, but that’s what a goal looks like when you don’t know what you are doing. It served its purpose: I began to actively explore, and as I did, three areas became especially fruitful for me.
I reached out to colleagues. Each of my district’s five high schools had a German teacher. I began to establish collegial relationships with them. Not easy back in the pre-email days. We actually had to talk face-to-face or ear-to-ear. These colleagues proved to be valuable sounding boards, sources of experience, and collaboration partners. Mostly on our own time and without much district support, we ended up working on units together, presenting our new learning at conferences together, debriefing instruction and giving feedback to each other. We didn’t agree on everything, and we each ended up incorporating a variety of different instructional strategies, but we quickly realized that we could still support one another in our work. The most important thing was our learners and we needed each other to figure out how we could support them in their journey to proficiency.
I dove into the research of our field. One of my teaching certifications is in Biology. I don’t know if my background in science influenced me or not, but I became kind of a foreign language research nerd. Why did this strategy work? Why did it not work? Are all strategies equal? Are there variations—effective, neutral, non-effective? When I could not answer my questions, I went to the research. I read Savignon, Omaggio Hadley, Shrum & Glisan, Lee & VanPatten. I read Wiggins & McTighe, Marzano, Vygotsky, Egan, Hayes Jacobs. I was searching for the foundation, the bedrock, the replicate-able, the touchstone I could rely on when I ventured away from the traditional and safe. Nowadays the temptation is to let someone else do the investigative work, but my own background knowledge grew exponentially when I made the connections among the researchers in our field and my work as a language teacher.
I worked to become discerning so I could find my own voice. In my mind, the danger to all this exploration and collaboration is that one could be so overwhelmed with models, advice, and information that one would either scurry around randomly copying this or that or the other, or just freeze up and be unable to make any new or different instructional decisions at all. I still had to be me, teaching my students in my setting, dealing with my reality and the day-to-day demands my principal and district required of me. I went back to my intention, armed with all this information and these new experiences and began to sift and sort. I did some action research to see if this grammar acquisition stuff really worked. (It did.) I looked at the big E (general education) movements and experimented to see if I could get them to apply to world language instruction. (I could.) I developed a sermon attitude about professional development: What is the one thing in here that I can take away and grow from? I taught myself how to apply research specific to one content area to my own content area. I messed up; I tried again.
When I think of a journey, my English Language Arts background kicks in, and I think of the epic journey. An anonymous English student from Yahoo Answers says, “An epic journey can be something that is a huge deal, and takes a lot of effort and planning.” Well, yes, it is huge and it does take effort and planning. No hero gets to the end of his quest by accident, and neither will any of us. But by keeping our minds open and exploring, the path will be there.
A former German teacher and World Languages Curriculum Coordinator for the Plano Independent School District in Texas, Greta Lundgaard now works with schools and school districts as a world language consultant. She has served as the president of the Texas Association for Language Supervision (TALS), the Southwest Conference on Language Teaching (SWCOLT) and the National Association of District Supervisors of Foreign Languages (NADSFL).