10 Reflections from 10 Years of Teaching

Wow.  It seems like just yesterday the principal I had in middle school was sitting me down to offer me a position teaching 7th grade French at my alma mater.  That was now ten years ago!  After my first decade of teaching, I thought it would be interesting to share some of the lessons I've learned so far.  Here are ten lessons I've learned in ten years of teaching:

1. The best part about teaching for me has been working with kids even more so than sharing my love of French.
I would bet that the vast majority (if not all) of the teachers you will run into really enjoy working with kids.  I know that to be true of the teachers where I work.  They are constantly trying to come up with ways to support them and to make the educational experience more memorable and meaningful to them.  That being the case, what first drew me to the profession was my love of French.  In junior high school, as I was starting to think about career options, I knew I wanted my love of French to be incorporated into my future vocation.  It was actually during a career exploration project in 9th grade English class (thank you Ms. Brinkman!) that, after considering a few different options, I completed to project by concluding that the career I was most interested in was being a French teacher.  And after that, I really never turned back!  Now, of course I love sharing my passion for French with my students, but it's really building rapports with them that makes my job so meaningful to me.

2.  The most enjoyable topics to teach are the ones that students enjoy learning, not the ones I enjoyed learning as a student.
In junior high and high school I loved grammar, and I've found that's a common occurrence among future language teachers.  Most, if not all of us, were grammar nerds in high school.  The only thing is, 98% of the general public do not find grammar interesting!  So I have found as a teacher that topics that I wouldn't necessarily think would be that interesting to teach, such as the alphabet or numbers, are some of the most fun, because there are so many fun activities, songs, and games that students enjoy participating in to learn them.  When it comes to grammar, over the past ten years, I have drastically changed how I teach it to make it in order to make it as contextualized as possible and I try to minimize explicit grammar instruction.

3.  The age level I work with (and love working with) was not the level I originally wanted to teach.
When I was in high school and early college, I always figured I'd be teaching 9th or 10th grade French, because I loved the grammatical concepts I learned about at those levels.  When I student taught in a middle school, I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed working with the younger group (younger in the sense that my adolescent certification covers grades 7-12).  I think each age group presents its own unique rewards and challenges, but what I love about the middle level is that my students are a delightful blend of child and young adult. Many of them still possess a childlike demeanor, but they are learning to think more like adults. Additionally, teaching students a language from their first day to the end of the first year allows you to see the foundation they build in language acquisition. Those are just a couple of reasons why I love the middle level. Last year I wrote a whole post about why I love the middle level, which you can read here.

4.  One of the most rewarding experiences for me as a teacher was watching my own students teach younger kids.
As adviser to my school's French Club, at the first meeting of the year, I ask students to suggest activities they would like to participate in. A few years back, a student suggested that we go into the elementary schools and teach French. I thought that sounded like a great idea, so that is what we did!  Watching first and second year French students share their knowledge and passion with 2nd and 3rd graders was incredibly rewarding.  You can read more about this project here.

5.  I love living in and being from the same town as my students (and having attended the same school as them).
I really love the sense of community I can take part in by being a native and a resident of the same locale as my students.  Many of my colleagues are also alumni.  Students love hearing what teachers of theirs I had.  I enjoy running into students (current or former) in public because it shows them I'm part of their community.

Me as a 7th grader in the same school I now teach at.

6.  Another proud teacher moment came when I saw my students really pull together after a tragedy.
Following the terrorist attacks in Paris in November 2015, my students made drawings and messages of hope and solidarity for their pen pals in France.  I was so touched by how passionate each student was about this project and how much effort they put into it.  You can read more about the project here.

7.  When teaching a language, sometimes the less "rigorous" lessons have the biggest long-term impact.
While academic rigor is important in education, not all of the lessons that reinforce big ideas and enduring understandings that we want our students to take away from our classes need to be super rigorous.  It's important to infuse memorable lessons that give students a chance to sample and enjoy food, music, and traditions of countries and regions that speak the target language.  Each year, my students celebrate la Chandeleur by sampling crêpes and flipping them (you can read about an earlier version of this activity here), Mardi Gras and Carnaval with music and food, and a variety of other celebrations.  These lessons are just as important as the others because they are an important part of the cultural piece and they are the activities that make students more excited about learning a language.  At the end of the year, most students say our crêpe day was the highlight of their year in French class.

8.  Contacting parents for good news is just as important as bad news.
Teachers devote a lot of time to reaching out to parents of students who are struggling, either academically, behaviorally, or otherwise.  This is an important part of our work, but it's also imperative that we don't forget to get in touch with parents whose students have excelled in class.  Parents are usually so surprised and thrilled when I call them simply to tell them their son or daughter is doing a great job in class.  In our school, we also mail postcards to students of our choosing each month.  I also make sure, when I've had to contact a parent for bad news, to follow up with good news if the student has improved in the area where they were struggling.  It's important, not just for the parents, but for the student as well.  If you contact a parent with bad news, and then don't acknowledge when the student works to make an improvement, I think that can send a message that you don't really notice or appreciate their efforts.

Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

9.  It's ok not to be the expert and it's ok to be wrong.
As pre-service teachers, we are told to be firm with students from the very beginning so they respect us.  I've even heard that saying, "Don't smile until Christmas."  As I've grown as a teacher though, I've become more comfortable with admitting when I don't know something or I need input from students or I'm just plain wrong about something.  Of course there have been times when I inadvertently did something that a student found unfair or I made some sort of mistake.  I'm happy to apologize when those things happen, and I think it strengthens the relationship with the student to validate what they are upset about.  I've also solicited feedback from students after completing projects, asking what apps or websites we should use in class, and after remote learning.  Students appreciate when they are listened to, and being able to admit that you're wrong or that you don't know everything shows you are human and makes you more approachable, I think.

10.  I truly believe that in a first-year language class, being able to get one's idea across is far more important than being able to use correct grammar.
When I first started teaching, as a lover of grammar, I did a lot of explicit grammar lessons.  Right around that time (and even a little bit before) a huge shift in best practices was emerging in language education that advocated for more contextualized use of language and a greater emphasis on communication as much as possible in the target language, along with a reduced emphasis on explicit grammar instruction.  Over the past decade, year by year, my colleague and I, the two French teachers  in our building, have made many changes to our curriculum to adhere to these best practices.  I no longer teach students how to conjugate verbs.  Do I think in order to fully master French that they need to know how to do this?  Yes, certainly, but not in their first year of instruction. My colleague has noted over the years that with the changes we've made to our curriculum that students come into her class as 8th graders more and more able to express themselves effectively and in French each year.  I found that when I taught students lots of explicit grammar, some of them really struggled to grasp it at such an early level of language acquisition, and those that did grasp it really mastered it during the activities and assignments that we did, but if they were to do a free write or have a conversation, they often could not apply those rules contextually, which is the whole point of learning them.  I find that in more recent years students leave my class more confident that they are able to communicate in the target language and more excited about continuing their studies.  That to me is more important than verb endings.

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