I have been teaching languages for several years. More than several. Five years. Times two. Times two, again. Ok, 20 years… I have been teaching for 20 years. My plan was to give it my all, burn out after 10 years, and retire from teaching. I felt for a long time that I was not the best version of myself that I could be as a teacher each year, and I struggled with knowing I could do better. After many years, I grew to recognize that we simply cannot always give it our all. But we can do the best that we can given the circumstances that we are living. Life happens.
Although I admit for a few years here and there I felt like I was losing the spark, something each year has kept me excited and enthusiastic about teaching languages. Maybe it’s my kindergarteners and first graders who think I’m forever in my 20’s. Perhaps it is the notes that I have received from middle and high school students telling me I’ve made a difference. Or it just might be the stories that I get to tell my family and friends.
I’ve moved a lot and taught in eight different schools in Iowa, Austria, Connecticut, California and back home to Iowa. I’ve taught all ages and all levels of Spanish/French and I’ve loved every job I’ve held. Each position was extremely difficult to leave and I vividly remember my last day at each school. For 14 years, I was well regarded in the communities where I taught. I had strong classroom management and positive relations with my students, give or take a few. I was content going to school each day, greeting the kids, telling funny stories to make them laugh, following my lesson plan… Everything was perfect. Except… Except when eager young learners approached me saying, “I just want to be able to speak Spanish/French. Like you. What can I do?” I had no response but to shake my head and say, “You are just going to have to study abroad.” That question didn’t come up too often, but it was always there lingering in the back of my mind. They wanted more and I couldn’t help them.
Until… six years ago, when I moved to California. I was introduced to a new-to-me way of teaching: Teaching Proficiency Through Reading and Storytelling. I accepted a position, understanding that they didn’t use a textbook, but novels, instead. I was not convinced, but it was the only position available in CA at the time. All other schools were cutting positions. This school was hiring.
I had heard about TPRS 11 years before, in Connecticut, where we received crash-training. I was skeptic to this new idea at the time of the training and therefore didn’t fully understand exactly what it was. I went through the training, stuffed the packet in my file folder in my upright cabinet and continued on my merry way of teaching the way I had been taught, the way I had been taught to teach. It worked. Mostly. But there was always that question I could never answer, lurking in the back of my mind. How do I help my students speak fluently?
After accepting the position and making the move from CT to CA, I pulled out my file folder and blew the dust off my TPRS packet. I had HEARD of it, but honestly, I didn’t UNDERSTAND it. Except… I didn’t realize that I didn’t understand it. I realized that I didn’t know what I was doing and that was extremely difficult to acknowledge after 14 years of teaching. It was difficult. I was no longer highly regarded in my community. I felt as if I were a brand new teacher. With brand new difficulties in the classroom that I had not encountered since my first years of teaching.
After a few weeks witnessing what students were able to do in such a short time, I was all in. And it turned my professional world upside-down. I had fantastic teachers to observe but not much time to visit their classes and I had a hard time admitting that I needed help. Yes, I had training. Yes, I was familiar with TPRS, but no, I was not good at it. But I was determined. My colleagues kept telling me, “Even bad TPRS is better than what you were doing before.” That was also difficult to hear because I HAD been successful in my classroom for many years, doing what I was doing.
I look back now, and I realize that before teaching with Comprehensible Input, I was successful with connecting with students and with classroom management. I was not successful with helping students acquire language. I was really good at teaching verbs, grammar and vocabulary and I was fantastic at telling funny, compelling, engaging, entertaining stories in English to connect with students. They LOVED my stories.
After three years, I finally started to feel fairly comfortable with what I was doing. Fast forward to present time, six years later. I feel like I know what I’m doing, but there is SO much out there and a lot to read every day. And I feel a constant drive to improve my skills. I have never been so involved in my own personal professional development. I dabble in a little bit of everything. In retrospect, during those first three years in CA, I was not really doing just TPRS. I was using Comprehensible Input with my students. I made sure the language that I used with students was sheltered and comprehensible. I used a lot of repetition, gestures to convey meaning and translations on the board. I simplified my funny stories and told them to my students in French/Spanish. I asked a lot of engaging questions. I wasn’t a fantastic story-asker, but I could write compelling stories of my own, using little video clips or pulling structures from songs.
It took a while for me to find what was engaging to my individual groups, but with a lot of practice, reading different ideas and getting input from my students, I feel like I’ve gotten the hang of it. There is ALWAYS something more to explore, but I feel like I am no longer a novice.
Advice I can give after my experience: Go see other teachers. Observe what they do. In person and online. Use what works for you. Read. A lot. My greatest resource recently has been the iFLT/NTPRS/CI Teaching group on Facebook. Try it out but start small. If I could do it all over again, I’d use short stories with a LOT of repetition. It took me, on my own, in three years, to achieve what my current colleagues did in one. They observed, asked for help and practiced, practiced, practiced. And we continue to grow together by reading, sharing and collaborating. We not only collaborate within our building, but with anyone and everyone who is willing/interested in sharing.
You can do this. If I, a skeptic, with 14 years teaching experience + the way I was taught + the way I was taught to teach, could start something new, YOU CAN, TOO!