How To Get Along in School

From Joy


First off, a quick (re) introduction. I’ve been a lurker for many years but I seldom post because I think I come off as a bit brusque. This I think is because I’ve been already ’conversing’ with the posts :0) by the time I do put in my two cents. To me it’s a logical extension of that conversation but when I see it on the list I cringe because it looks so abrupt.

Anyway, I’ve been following this discussion and I wanted to comment on this piece only – not the entire thing.

“Explicit grammar instruction rules. That is what is tested. Students know
this and that is their focus, not proficiency, communication, competence,
performance, meaning……. nothing the theory folk talk about. Teachers
want their students to “know” the forms of the language.”

I believe that part of this also has to do with the old adage of what one is doing vs what one is perceived to be doing. Here on the Listserve, almost everyone understands the subject matter that we are dealing with, the theories of teaching/learning/acquiring language, and the most preferred outcomes for the students.

However, the rest – administrators and parents to be specific- usually have little to no idea of what we do. Give me five cents for every person who says “I took two years of (language) in high school and all I can remember is (insert odd bit of language here)” and I can retire to the Bahamas – but I digress.

My point is, students can take home a vocabulary quiz or a conjugation, or sentence completion or a textbook ’Chapter Test’, liberally decorated with red ink ( personally I prefer pink, green and purple:-), show it to the parent, and that parent can ’understand’ – Ok, I see you got so many wrong, so your grade is valid. More items correct on the next quiz/test is visible progress (I did not say in what:0).

An administrator who visits your classroom unexpectedly and notices that your plan for the day says it is meeting the requirements for Level X, Standard 2.a. will walk out satisfied that you are in compliance and meeting requirements.

In other words, we have to satisfy those who justify their effectiveness as good parents/administrators by judging/critically assessing how much work the teacher is doing based on how closely linked to the Standards the teacher’s lesson plan is, how much work their child brings home, how many graded assignments there are per week, and how much they can ’help’ their child with ex. vocabulary lists. When a student ends up with a low grade, there has to be some type of ’paperwork’ to justify this so that the administrator can point to it as factual evidence of what was done, how well/poorly by the student.

Some of the most effective things that we do as foreign language teachers cannot truly be reduced to a rubric, a number, or a letter grade. The things that are most tangible, transparent, and accessible are those thrice cursed vocabulary lists, grammar rules and conjugations. The textbook series is another tangible, where the onlookers can judge by Chapter and Page number how much is being done, and where many must coordinate with the levels above and below regarding how many chapters and which grammatical structures will be done in each level.

Now, that said, I have not been into the archives (sorry Marilyn) but if there is something in there that tells us how to teach the way we know it should be done in order to get the results that we (I cringe as I use this word) ideally should get, whilst satisfying the administrative and parental requirements for concrete, yes-no, ’in English so I can understand’ requirements, I shall be very happy to be directed there.

Meanwhile, I think most of us will continue to be conflicted between what we really want to do, and what circumstances are compel us to do. (I personally walk a tightrope between communicative push and textbook tangibles). There is going to have to be a seismic paradigm shift in attitudes toward foreign anything – language, people, customs – before we can make major changes in FL Teaching. In which direction, towards which theories, I won’t even pretend to know that answer. Meanwhile, we will continue to change isolated threads or small bits of the pattern, but major change in the fabric of FL Teaching is going to take a while.

Just mythoughts on it

Wow! This is one of the most provocative posts I’ve read, and there are some good ones on these lists. By provocative, I mean that it literally provokes in me a massive response.

The post gets precisely to an area I have wanted to deal with. Daniel Hansen raises the issue directly, referring to “they” who expect such and such and thus direct the teacher in a way that precludes “getting theresults we ideally should get”. In the past, when I worked at my old school, I tried to start a discussion of this issue but was promptly shut down by people who insisted I had a special situation, i.e. one most teachers do not work in.

I tried to explain that my school was 75% free or reduced lunch, a majority minority school by the time I retired, with many students not speaking English…… to no avail. Somehow, my experience could not be transferred to the teachers on the List who were complaining about their situation. So I gave up.

Now I am in a special situation: Latin teacher in a highly selective Catholic prep school, enrollment 500 with a classload of 35 (now) spread over three classes, first year, second year, and third year. That is special and I appreciate.

Yet even here, I have something to offer the List on this issue, I believe. But, just as you feel you come across as brusque and tend to bruise tender feelings, so I apparently come across in an unpleasant way. That’s the risk we take when we reveal ourselves. Some people just won’t look underneath our clumsy words and try to see that we want a real dialogue. Some even prefer dogmatic assertions: do it this way, arrange your gradebook that way, etc. Here’s the word for snow bunny – now go play.
(Happy Easter and Passover, BTW, speaking of bunnies – I know, I’ve just managed to offend three quarters of the List… and I’m working in a Catholic school! But I did just get back from Easter service in a Pentecostal church)

Anyway, I’ll toss care to the winds and explain my approach to what has to be a real issue for working people, satisfying the wolves while saving everyone on the sleigh.

In my old school, I allied myself with the curriculum directors, 2 in a row who understood communicative teaching and supported it – both, BTW, knew LCTL: Swahili and Japanese. The Japanese teacher was raised in Mexico City and her husband had done his mission in Japan for his church and later opened a business there where she joined him. She really understands acquisition. The former person ran science, social studies and fl for a 70,000 student district and hit the cover of Newsweek for her innovative science program, yet was up on SLA.

The other arrow in my quiver there were the Mormons who supported my Russian class. A good many of the first missionaries into the U.S.S.R., later Russia, came from my class. I was not slow to use their support.

Therefore, anyone who messed with me was messing with the curriculum directors and the highly influential LDS community in my district. I’m not stupid. I leaned on that to allow me to conduct my classes more and more in a communicative fashion. I also had support in my friend and colleague, Brian Barabe, who teaches the way I do. He and I took turns at being dept chair, covering a good deal of my tenure there (I worked 20 years).

None of that would have mattered if I had not worked my butt off teaching. But I maintained my role was as the expert on teaching my languages and if anyone challenged me, I could back up what I was doing, i.e. I had a rationale for everything I did culled from the literature in my field.

How did I do that? I read, I took course, I went to conferences, and attended in-services. IOW, I behaved professionally. Fortunately, I had the support of my spouse and my friends i.e. I wasn’t fighting demands on the homefront that I go into admin to make more money, etc. I exercised, ate right, slept well, developed my spiritual side, and kept my mental health well lubricated. Family and friends are your bulwark, as is your faith. Your health allows you to do all this. Anyone who lacks one of those areas……. all can be forgiven b/c you are working under a severe deficit and I would not expect you to go out on a limb and defy custom or the culture of your school and dept.

And there was an early dept chair who was all paradigms all the time and threatened us with district final results, etc. But I also was very active in my school and so the principal supported me against this chairman. The rest of the chairman in my career were great.

My new school: conditions great. Expectations: very high, esp for traditional teaching of Latin. I am by no means a traditional teacher of Latin. I have two years of high school Latin in the mid-50s – that’s it. The rest is self-taught (which means quite a few hours over 30 year period of self-instruction in Latin – that’s another issue, the time devoted to reading and study, even of things seemingly irrelevant – who thought I’d ever teach Russian or Latin all the while I was studying them. I even became a Dobro Slovo initiate in the 70s, well before I ever started teaching (that’s a Russian honor society)

……. anyway, I digress, too. So in my new school, I faced the prospect of people bursting into my room and demanding my students decline something. So my very first day, I talked Latin to them. I introduced the, to them, novel idea of doing a self-portrait in Latin words and presenting it. I talked enough Latin and we read enough Latin that I was able to take the grammatical knowledge the advanced students had and show them how it applies to actual Latin. All they had ever done was translate.

So within a couple of days, parents were calling the school telling admin how much their kids liked Latin now. (I found out I’ve increased my enrollment for first year for next year by 50% – my goal is to build the program to where they can get students for AP Latin – even though I don’t like AP anything). As time wore on, students became even more enthusiastic and their parents along with them and then the faculty. So by the fifth or sixth week they were asking me to finish out the semester, then the year. Finally, they asked me to commit to two more years at least, which I did.

Now what did I do to get this kind of approval from students? Play games? Have pizza parties? Toga parties? Wine tastings? No. I just worked my butt off as before but I had much smaller classes, much smaller, and I was teaching only one language as opposed to three in my old school. So I focused entirely on Latin. Plus, due to the fact that I started as a sub, I had 3 classes and 4 prep periods the first couple of months until they gave me a study hall. The first 2 and a half hours of the day were given over to lesson planning.

Does that sound outrageous? My life has been threatened at conferences when my colleagues find this out. Yet in other countries it is not unusual to find significant time given over to opportunities for collegial work. Why am I usually though not always on my own? Because even at this school, teachers are not used to having planning time so even if we share a prep period or they have some time, they’re not sure how to structure across the curriculum planning. So I volunteer to review DVDs for the social studies dept, I advise the English dept on some of their early English projects, I offer the psychology teacher insights on work in a mental health center, I attend the philosophy club debate, etc.

I do work hard; not harder than the coaches and AP teachers and sponsors of robotics and chess clubs and so on, but I do work hard. I also make a point of charming parents – this school provides far more opportunities to meet parents than my public school did, though, unlike Kafi, I don’t do home visits. My wife does get tired of me always bringing work home and when I first became a teacher I worked 20 hours a week at a hospital, so I know what an exhausting schedule can do to your desire to buck the system.

Each person has his own strengths and weaknesses. Brian Barabe and I shared hundreds of hours and more cups of coffee to hash out the essence of what we were doing, yet he and I generally had our own styles, our own areas of emphasis. Teachers have to tailor their job to their needs and abilities. For instance, I am an eager public speaker and think on my feet; a shy teacher might want to design a different approach to lessons, parents, admins, etc.

Certain essentials, though, have been covered on this List before: work with the counselors, the admins, and the support staff. If you have a copyroom person, watch how they treat the aloof, demanding teacher versus friendly old you who always tell them, “I can use it now but if you’re swamped, I’ll pick it up tomorrow” – you’ll have yours in five minutes while the other teacher will wait his turn.

Is that manipulative, fair, honest, professional? Some will say that by finding out what the admins need and giving it to them, I am sucking up or not putting my students first. I look at it as if I were suddenly given the admin’s job: what would I need from the teachers and would I be a jerk for asking for it?

I would love to discuss this. Anything like this is complex and not suitable for listserv messages. That’s why I started my blog but few attend it. I would love discussion on the blog (I’ll post this there now under the title How to Get Along in School in the category

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