My Journey as a Teacher
Final Draft EDR 605
My passion to be a language teacher is what has driven me to study and learn about other cultures. My parents instilled this curiosity about other cultures in me from a young age. My father taught Latin and Greek at the university level, and his colleagues and students came from all over the world. They would often come to dinners or parties at our home, and I learned from a young age to take a personal interest in these guests with their exotic accents and clothing styles.
Besides my first teachers, my parents, there were of course other teachers throughout my education who inspired me to follow in their footsteps. To this day two in particular still stand out: my eighth-grade French teacher, Mr. Luippold, and my ninth-grade Catholic high school English teacher, Sister Catherine. How did these teachers inspire me? In the case of Mr. Luippold, his command of the language classroom was entrancing. He would only speak to us in French at all times, which is the best way to learn a new language, through immersion. Translations were never proffered unless you were really stuck and could not understand him. He did a tremendous amount of oral French grammar drills for which we all had to be on our toes because the second you made a mistake, he would move onto the next student, and you would feel desolate about no longer having his attention focused on you. Our desire to hold the spotlight meant that we paid close attention during grammar drills and practiced the rules in our heads constantly in case we were called on. There was a palpable sense of competition in Mr. Luippold’s classroom, competition to give the correct answer but also to win his approval. Of course we all made mistakes, whose upside was that you would most likely never forget that particular adjective-noun agreement structure again!
The other teacher who inspired me to become a teacher was Sister Catherine, my 9th-grade English teacher. Sister Catherine could not only make Dickens’ Great Expectations come alive when we read it aloud in class, through her expressive reading and mastery of the cockney accent, but what is more, she also took a personal interest in me. Because my name is Frances, she once gave me a plaque with the prayer of St. Francis printed on it. This made me so proud! My teacher had thought of me and actually given me a present! I have hung onto that plaque for my entire life, and whenever I see it, I remember Sister Catherine and how special she made me feel that day. But more important than this gift were the casual conversations Sister Catherine would have with me each week. She talked to me as if I were an adult, mostly just small talk, but it was happy talk about things she found surprising or some irony she shared about an author or his work. This small talk made me feel special and gave me a connection to her, but it also taught me the importance of research, of sharing interesting nuggets of information with students. Sister Catherine was what I’ve come to call a natural-born teacher: she never raised her voice once or ever became frustrated with students when she taught. In my heart I feel an eternal debt of gratitude to Sister Catherine for making me feel not just special but also normal at a time when most teens feel very awkward. Her ability to connect so warmly with her students taught me to realize the importance of connecting with your students in the classroom–it is a gift I try to bring to school with me every day because I know that when my students feel appreciated by me or are given choice to work on art projects they enjoy or even to help me put up a monthly bulletin board, there is a payoff in the classroom: We form a bond of mutual appreciation, and my students become more motivated to apply themselves in their learning because of this bond.
In college I became a French major, where I had the good fortune to study in France and live with two unrelated French families in different regions of France, Burgundy and the Loire Valley. As I worked to improve my linguistic skills, I gained insights about French culture as we broke bread around the dinner table together each evening. Conversations about the arts, transportation strikes, and the economy gave me many insights on French values. One can sit in a classroom and learn academic vocabulary and grammar structures or how to construct a grammatically correct sentence, but being able to converse with a person from another culture in their native language and learn about their values is for me the highpoint of language learning. Colleagues of my father’s in the Classics Department often spoke of being keen to learn a second language so that they could read more literature in its original language. While reading literature is all well and good, I feel more strongly that the ability to communicate with different people in their native tongue is the central reason that I enjoy learning foreign languages. Conversations with my French host families gave me insights on my hosts’ “deep culture,” their most strongly held views on topics like education, gender roles, family roles, health, and religion, basically their cultural values. For me there is nothing more satisfying than chewing on how different cultures’ values vary from one person to the next. Thinking about different people’s viewpoints helps me to understand the complexity of other cultures better.
In 2007, after working and living abroad with my husband as expatriates in England, Switzerland, and Germany for several years while our children were growing up, I decided to resume my linguistics studies and pursue a Master’s degree in Teaching English as a Second Language (ESL). My decision to resume my studies was influenced not only by my college language studies but also from seeing most Europeans’ facility with speaking two and sometimes more foreign languages. I was keen to put my enjoyment of language learning to work helping newcomer immigrants to America learn the English language. I had so enjoyed the experience of watching my children grow and mature during their elementary years that I wanted to keep working with students under age 10 and share my love of language learning and enthusiasm for words and word play in an elementary classroom one day.
I have taught ESL for the past few years from the community college level to high school. Most recently, I have been teaching 3rd-grade ESL at a Title I elementary school in the Bronx. My students come from all over the globe. They speak different languages and practice different religions. They all dress differently, the Bengali and Yemeni girls wear kirtans and hijabs; the South American and Yemeni boys dress like their American classmates, as do the girls from Central and South America. We all meet during small-group work at a conference table in my classroom. How do we all learn about one another while negotiating our growing command of the English language? It is a challenging process because each of my students brings a different learning style and level of oralcy to the table, and these are both reflected in their learning behaviors. Some like to shout out answers, others like to melt into the background, barely making eye contact or even speaking audibly, particularly those who have emigrated from a war-torn country or whose opinions are not valued at home due to a family’s gender beliefs. Instilling in my students the need to be respectful of taking turns and giving each other a chance to speak is their first cultural lesson about America. American culture teaches that everyone has a voice and has a right to be heard. A mini United Nations, together we decide on the first day of class what behaviors are preferred for use in the classroom. Using a mix of hand language and gestures, we agree on the following guidelines: ‘raise your hand, don’t call out, resist laughing at someone’s accent, give your neighbor a chance to shine by letting him or her speak before clambering for the floor.’ From there we move on to learning how to introduce ourselves and say where we are from. With their limited English, students attempt to share an aspect of their culture in class, usually by wearing their dress-up clothes to school on one of the holidays celebrated in their country. During the year we have parties and bring in foods from our cultures. Sometimes parents join in so they can also learn about American customs and share those of their own culture. As the student’s teacher, I am their facilitator and role model, but the floor belongs to the students, as they get to know each other and interact together with English as their common language. I feel that becoming an ESL teacher has brought all of my dreams together in one job: the joy of working with children and the joy of teaching language, a tool for developing both communication and literacy. I look forward to continuing to help my students learn about their new American culture and see it in a new light.