First, it's important to say that each Teacher of the Year comes with a disclaimer - we've not "arrived." We are practicing teachers. We are classroom teachers of normal students (not all of whom would receive "National Language Students of the Year" awards). We're just like you. Perhaps just like you, I love planning lessons, but I dislike grading papers. I learn more about what my students can do through formative checks, casual conversations and observation - all non-graded events. What may be different about a National Language Teacher of the Year is our commitment to learn and serve our fellow educators. Here are a few of our quirks:
- We are all a bit geeky when it comes to "foreign language shoptalk."
- We get excited about a new teaching strategy or book on education.
- We participate in scary activities - like traveling (with and without students) and experimenting with the latest technology or apps.
- We volunteer - sometimes without thinking.
- We collaborate through social networking - Yes, we tweet and Facebook about language teaching.
- We're the first to sign up for conferences -- and we'll face a room full of our peers as a Presenter.
- We apply for things like scholarships and grants (I applied for three just last year).
- We belong to professional organizations: our state language organization, our regional, ACTFL, our specific language organization (mine is AATSP) and we get involved in their leadership,
- and true confessions, our "Rock Stars" are the language experts in the field we admire.
So, back to the lesson, "Life is Full of Surprises." I have found that the best surprises I have experienced have come from taking a risk. For example, I risked taking my first language course as a freshman in college. I found out I was good at it and that culture fascinated me. Example number two: I took a risk giving John my phone number, but this coming May we'll celebrate our 33rd wedding anniversary! I could go on and on about the scholarships I applied for and have sometimes received. In my professional career, my risks have often been rewarded, not just with information gleaned but with new, enriching relationships. To become proficient in a language, risks must also be taken. Novices play it safe. They use highly practiced, memorized phrases, often with beautifully practiced pronunciation. Communication, however, is limited to those phrases. Intermediate language users, however, get it wrong - a lot. They are creating their message by mixing and matching what they know. That usually starts with vocabulary that may or may not contain structure (a.k.a. grammar). Sometimes it's a memorized phrase with a substitution. Think of it as a kind of "rolodex" system. I search my brain's vocabulary bank for the vocabulary I need and then put it together anyway I can - often using the syntax of my native tongue. As a teacher, you've probably watched your students do this - their eyes are moving back and forth searching . . . Howard Ehrlichman, professor emeritus of psychology at Queens College of the City University of New York says, "people tend to make eye movements - about one per second on average - when they are retrieving information from their long-term memory." When students are searching for the right word - they're accessing acquired language! It's a good sign - it doesn't imply that they've forgotten what you've taught, just where they filed it.
Along the way toward language proficiency, there will be those surprising and potentially embarrassing moments. Most every language teacher could share a funny story about a not-so-successful risk they took "creating language." It's the same way with our students -- they're going to make errors; it's part of the process. They use circumlocution and other strategies. They try to communicate their message because its more important than the words used to get it across. A recent example in my classroom was a student trying to discuss the right to bear arms -- it took me a minute to connect his translation: "osos brazos." But they are also going to surprise you with what they're able to do! Surprise is when our students have those "aha" moments - when they self-correct - and when they form something amazing on their own -- when they communicate with a native speaker and proudly announce that "they understood everything I said." Enjoy language teaching -- enter your classroom and anticipate the unexpected. Be surprised and express joy at language acquired.