So You Want To Be A Foreign Language Teacher – Part Deux

How do you start off with your students? This is crucial. One mistake my school used to make was loading up classes with 38 to 40 some kids on the assumption a lot of them would drop after the first grading period. That meant all students in those classes started off in an impossible situation, developed habits appropriate to that overcrowded environment, and found it difficult to readjust some months later with a smaller (32) class.

Obviously, the way you start off is going to depend on the policies of your school, your department, and the type of student you have. For instance, right now I work in a religious school with small classes whose students are screened. In my old school, the only screening was that fl was taken mostly by college bound students. Even with that, we got most of our students from Title I schools. Often their English was weak and sometimes non-existent. We had police officers on campus, parole officers, and lots of security. Nevertheless, the atmosphere was quite good and discipline was not a huge factor for me. In other schools, discipline can be a major factor, along with absenteeism.

At this point, we absolutely must talk about personality. I’ll keep it brief: some teachers can walk out of the best run faculty meeting ever and harumph about it being “a waste of time”; other teachers will milk even the worst meeting for a chance to network, dig out good information, make contact with new people, etc. It’s all a matter of attitude and perspective. When on listservs I’ve mentioned that when you approach an admin, you should keep in mind his/her agenda and realize that your concerns must be fit in some way to all the other demands on this admin.

Wow! What a reaction. And I’ve seen teachers go into an admin with a list of things he wants done RIGHT NOW. And when he gets put off or diverted, he sincerely believes that he is a victim of an incompetent, uncaring admin. What naivete. If you are one of those people who expect everyone else – your colleagues, your students, your admins – to dance to your tune, then you should just keep bulling ahead, hoping the world will change to meet your specifications.

Now, for those I haven’t lost, let’s move on.

The students you encounter have personalities, too. They also come out of not only a culture and a social class, they come from other schools with a school culture (how many of you can tell which junior high a kid came from by his deportment?). Then there is the Zeitgeist or generation. We have all sorts of terms now for this: Generation This and Generation That. I consider most of this nonsense and suggest the book The Way We Never Were by Stephanie Coontz, esp. to those of you who have tended to believe the hype about how great things used to be. Your students are neither monsters nor angels but just regular people in the throes of adolescence.

If you walk into the classroom with these things in mind, you will have to first assess your students. what sort of people are they? Is there a commonality among them in attitude, academic background, origin, culture, habits? Your class may be homogeneous or mixed. The school I used to work in was noted for its diversity: we had lots of LDS kids, many Hispanic kids, a strong admixture of Native American and African American students, few Asians, almost no Jews. My current school is 90% Catholic. I don’t really see a difference, although I make free use of the principles of their faith to call them to moral and decent behavior.

So the levers you have will depend on the make-up of your student body, but beyond that, or rather, before that, you yourself have to understand the implications of the origins of your students: economic, social, cultural, religious, and so on. If you yourself harbor prejudices – and we all do – you are doomed if you do not confront them and overcome them in dealing with your students. The worst one is a prejudice against poor people. A subtle cultural divide between Blacks and other groups can be hard to grasp and one Listserv moderator has suggested we have a series on Black culture in the classroom. I’ll try to start that under my category Minority Students.

All your students have a culture. One thing my wife and I noticed in the cross-cultural training we used to do is that many Americans think there is a default American “way” that is not a culture but just the normal way to do things. Most Americans do things in that way and anyone who is different has this thing called a “culture”. A few years ago my school asked me to participate in a presentation to faculty on the various cultural groups in our school and expected me to present on Black culture. No, I declined, I would present on White culture. Our faculty, normally hostile to this sort of thing, responded 100% positively to the presentations and got a kick out of mine where I treated “White kids” with the same language educators use for “other” ethnic groups.

Part of the poverty issue is the Fund of Knowledge issue. Whatever testing and grades may tell you, the real issue is how much kids come into the classroom with, their background knowledge. While a good school can overcome a lot, family background is crucial. Simply expecting students to know certain elements of the Fund of Knowledge won’t help you teach them if they do not know them. You have to provide that.

Let me state here that I see nothing wrong with providing a course that assumes such background, as long as it is advertised up front via prerequisites, screening tests, etc. What I strenuously object to is making required courses like that. The danger in providing these elite classes is that they almost alway divide along class and ethnic lines, further dividing a student body that may already be divided.

Later today I’ll try – only try – to talk about what we actually do with the students those first few days.

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