People and incidents along the way

Our professional development can be marked by specific items like tests, degrees, hirings and firings, and other boosts and bumps along the road. In my case, I can point to two specific instances marking my development.

The first displays for all the world to see the way I saw language and language learning. It was long before I ever thought of teaching but someone knew I was interested in Russian and so offered me a six-weeks job teaching a little Russian to travelers. They were going on a newspaper-sponsored trip to the Land of the Commisars, I would guess in the 70s. So I prepared my course.

It consisted of a series of well-structured, deliciously laid-out lessons in those basic elements of the Russian language, things every traveler should know. Short form and long form adjectives, the negative-genitive construction, the partitive genitive, the instrumental of prior and future states, the concept of privation in determining verbal aspect, and, of course, mutation and its role in the nominal, adjectival, and verbal praradigms. I wisely left out participles since they are used only in the written language.

Yes, laughable. Fortunately, those poor people, who only had wanted to know how to say, hello, good-bye, thank you, and where’s my suitcase, hadn’t paid good money. Unfortunately, the Parks and Rec department did pay me.

What may have got this train of thought going was coming across notes I had made concerning the request that sent me on my career as a fl teachers, day-by-day entries leading up to my being hired to teach both Social Studies and Russian. The latter led to Spanish and Latin. When I started my high-school Russian class, I pulled out that old syllabus I had made up to make up my curriculum.

The turning point came when the district head of bilingual ed loaned me two tapes of lectures by a guy named Stephen Krashen. I had been doing lots of reading, people like Stevick and others. Students’ comments and my own observations, e.g. that at the end of the year students remembered and used what I had used with them the first few days of class. They knew nothing of all the “meat” aka grammar, I had given them throughout the year.

How could that be? I had only spoken Russian with them to whet their appetite, but of course they could not progress until they had the grammatical foundation. Yet here they were, in May, hopelessly confused about the difference between perfective and imperfective aspects yet able to converse a little with me in material we had used 9 months earlier! Hmmmm.

And so I began. I joined flteach quite a few years later and that was a big help. Gail Guntermann taught methods at ASU and was actually the one who gave me flteach’s address. Most of all, Brian Barabe was a Spanish teacher at my school and even when I was only student teaching there, he and I became friends and he was excited that I was going to teach a fl. He also brought me into AZLA and from there ACTFL conferences and SWCOLT and an eventual position on the AZLA board.

Given all the flack administrators take, I would be remiss if I did not mention two people: one is Susan Sprague who was so famous as a science teacher that she got a cover story in Newsweek; she was the science, fl, and social studies curriculum coordinator for the district. Her interest in fl included using Swahili on many trips to East Africa. Taking her place was Liana Clarkson, a teacher of Spanish and Japanese. Both these people were unfailingly supportive of my growth to communicative teaching, often in the face of opposition. But they had done their homework, knew the research, and Liana had taught many years.

My own teachers were many, but Lee Croft stands out. I did take several courses from him but it was mainly as someone to talk to, to get me involved in AATSEEL and other Russian-related activities, that he kept me feeling professional. He also recommended me for a five-week term of classes in Moscow, a highlight of my life and sponsored a forum for state Russian teachers to provide us with the latest tools and resources to carry out our job.

That’s professional and I no doubt left out some good people. My personal life has not been smooth but I’ve managed to avoid death and divorce. My wife started me on another intense interest of my life, the African-American community and the African Diaspora. I never developed professionally in that area but have studied it intensely these 50 years.

Finally, without acknowledging all those individuals who helped me with my teaching, I would like to mention my previous 20 years before teaching when I worked as a counselor. In ways too many to count, that experience prepared me for the classroom and to this day, I believe, accounts for a bigger gap between me and some teachers than the gap between communication-oriented and grammar-oriented teachers.

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