by Lynn Ramsson
Before I started my teaching career, I had heard that Spanish teachers are a truly unique bunch. I wasn’t sure what that meant, but after a year or two in the Spanish classroom, I understood much better what I had heard. I felt proud, both of my own progress as a teacher and of my membership in this confederation of hard-working and capable professionals.
All this is to say that when I first started teaching Spanish, I knew I was in for an interesting challenge. This observation may sound like I am stating the obvious; yes, teaching is definitely challenging. But there is something special about teaching Spanish.
Teaching Spanish can be a complicated and unexpectedly emotional experience; learning Spanish is the same, which explained my observation that the more emotional awareness I could bring to teaching, the better. After all, our delight in teaching Spanish is so different from the joy other teachers experience, and our anxieties and our regrets are just as unique as our subject matter. We have different reasons for feeling excited when our students learn something difficult, and we have different reasons when we feel tired and fed up.
If you know what I mean by these vague introductions, read on for a laugh and some reassurance that you’re not the only who feels this way; if you don’t know what I mean, read on for some helpful information about what might be coming your way soon. After a few years in the weird and wonderful world of teaching Spanish, I learned a lot from some unexpected experiences. Here are just a few of my favorite insights.
7 Things I Would Like to Have Known as a New Spanish Teacher
1. Winging it is a terrible idea. Seriously.
I know this because for a few years, I taught English while I taught Spanish. Some days, I could walk into English class without a clear and thorough lesson plan, and if I was feeling confident and sparky, I could start a class discussion that got those kids talking about life and philosophy in no time. Follow that discussion with a quick in-class writing assignment, and then a student-led sharing session, and 50 minutes flew by. This approach never ever works for Spanish class.
Spanish students expect something completely different from their teachers, and they can tell if you’re unprepared. No mention of a specific point to do with a niggly grammar detail? No advanced preparation of an explanation of a language point that might actually require advanced research on the part of the teacher? Trouble in these situations is inevitable. My trouble came when students became less trusting of me as a Spanish teacher. They lost faith, which was painful for everyone, and lost faith is very difficult to regain. Don’t let your students lose faith in you.
2. Overplanning is key, and variety is crucial, more so in the Spanish classroom than any other subject.
One way to look like you’re winging it even when you’re not winging it is to underplan. Underplanning can do as much damage as winging it, because the result is the same: bored and uninspired students led by a flustered teacher nervously pacing the front of the classroom trying frantically to create something from nothing.
Overplanning is necessary for Spanish class in a way that is different from other subjects; it can be difficult to predict how much time students, individually and collectively, will need in order to grasp a concept. There are clear advantages to over-planning: if you don’t do everything in class on the day of the lesson plan, you are halfway done planning the next day, and you can arrive to class relaxed and ready, confident in your preparation.
3. Read any poetry (and songs) thoroughly before using it in class.
I only had to make one mistake with this situation to learn a valuable lesson. One morning, I decided to offer my advanced students a translation exercise, but I rushed through a plan moments before class was scheduled to begin (see point number 1). I distributed the poem by Pablo Neruda after only a brief glance through the verses, clueless in my unearned confidence in my teaching abilities. My perfunctory look-through had revealed quite a lot of religious imagery in the poem, and so the images of churches and angels seemed totally safe and non-controversial…that is, until a student asked about a rather graphic vocabulary word. Because I had not read the poem carefully, I had missed a key point: Neruda was using his spiritual connection with God as a metaphor for his sexual connection with his wife, Matilde.
All I can say is that my students thought their teacher was a lot more of a libertine than she actually was, and I had some explaining to do when an exasperated parent called me that afternoon. Whoops.
4. Be prepared to teach English while teaching Spanish. Your curriculum’s Spanish textbook may present objetos indirectos in a clear and precise way, but enduring student understanding depends on whether or not they remember the function of indirect objects in English. For many Spanish students, their nearest reference point to an abstract Spanish grammar concept is English grammar. So when preparing to teach Spanish grammar, make sure you spend a little time imagining the questions about English grammar that the Spanish grammar point may invite. Have the correct answers to the English grammar questions ready to go, and your students will feel less anxious about the whole experience.
Again, overplanning here makes students feel you are capable, and their confidence in you gives them plenty of space to ask questions and to repeat themselves if they are unsure of a concept.
5. Be proactive about finding yourself a community.
In today’s age of reduced funding to educational programs and schools, Spanish teachers can be a rare breed. Your role may involve traveling to different schools as a mobile, one-teacher Spanish department, which means you don’t get to collaborate regularly with colleagues and share successes and challenges alike. This absence of community can feel particularly acute when parents and administrators try to tell you how best to teach Spanish, even when they don’t speak Spanish themselves. Attend every professional development opportunity your school offers you in order to meet colleagues.
And let’s focus on the good news: when you do find other like-minded teachers, you will have so much common ground, you will never run out of interesting teacher chat.
6. High energy is key.
Most teachers would agree that the extroverted teachers tend to win popularity contests amongst the students, but that doesn’t mean that you need to change your personality if your manner is more reserved. For you, high energy might mean smiling more at your students or standing up at the board more to communicate your interest in your students and their learning. Avoid teaching from your desk whenever possible, as this position appears passive and bored to your students. Choose comfortable shoes and walk around your classroom as much as you can to send a message of engagement and awareness.
7. Don’t take yourself too seriously, and you will model for your students a confidence they need when feeling vulnerable.
Teaching Spanish has so much potential to be fun, but it also has to potential to stress out a lot of young students who feel nervous about looking silly in front of their peers. Few subjects offer students the opportunity to say out loud words they have never seen before, which is a regular occurrence in Spanish class, and few subjects offer students as many opportunities to make mistakes. The more light-hearted your classroom, the less pressure your students will feel while having to do things and say things that might make them feel odd or foolish. Adolescents in particular are susceptible to this stress, so show them with your own behavior that it acceptable and even preferable to embrace new experiences, no matter the outcome.
Remember: if you don’t mind looking a bit silly now and then, hopefully they won’t either, and your classroom will feel like a community of learners who all need the classroom’s unwavering support.
Check out more articles about Teaching Spanish.