So You Thought You Were An ELL Teacher and Other Myths Of My Former Life
The last month has been a whirlwind of the beginning of the school year. And in the background of that, some scary personal life things have happened. For one, I no longer ride my scooter at all. After a near head-on collision I decided it was time to hang up the ole’ helmet and armored jacket. Two, a toxic reaction to fish is a scary thing. Three, starting a candida diet cleanse has the tendency to turn me into a royal effen bitch. So…ya know, Life.
I digress. Onwards to the topic at hand.
This being my fifth year teaching and my tenth year working in schools, I’ve learned to be flexible. In the middle of a lesson things are dive bombing and I’ve saved it. All of a sudden you seem to have a roomful of monkeys rather than children and must accommodate appropriately so we all don’t lose our minds. The school you work at decides to scrap its ELL program and you are told “You are all ELL teachers now.” This sends a ripple through the staff of both excitement and nervousness.
I remember my non-English speaking students well. There were very few of them but when they came to class they were so lost, scared and worried. I, having had no ELL training, always worried about these students and felt at a complete loss for what to do. I took some professional development called G.L.A.D. and all the strategies I learned in that class were wonderful. Wonderful and so not on my top priority to-do list given the massive amounts of readying for this or that I was constantly doing. Somehow in some way, maybe we can call it miraculous, these students eventually were able to succeed and participate. I never felt it was from any special extra intervention I did. Luckily I had wonderful students who were always willing to help one another. And a good buddy/colleague was the former ELL support teacher and a wonderful sounding board for ideas and just plain whining. But as a professional, I always felt I failed those kids.
Fast forward to my present day situation. I have 22 students and over half of them are ELL students. I’d venture to say all but 1 are learning English. I, for one, do not speak fluent Spanish. This has created a rather exciting and frustrating experience for me.
Myth Number 1: “You are all ELL teachers!”
Let’s get this straight…I am not an ELL teacher. I have no special training and I do believe it does take special training. Sure I had a course once that had the most unrealistic things I could do, that it felt like a giant waste of my time. But being a seasoned ELL professional is, I think,fairly different from being a regular classroom teacher. I look back on my now laughable anxiety about having ELL learners in my class with envy.
I’ve been spending the majority of my time trying to wrap my brain around how to completely change the way I teach while also doing the things I do which is learning new curriculum, planning/thinking ahead, reflecting, modifying and trying again. In just my fifth year, where I feel I am hitting my stride, this is sometimes a very depressing prospect. But also an exciting learning opportunity. I am currently not at the exciting learning opportunity stage of my thinking. I am more in the okay it is time to put my combat boots on, stand up, shut up and do.
I have a lot of things going for me. I have amazing colleagues both Tico and Norte Americano whom are excellent teachers. The majority of them are bilingual and are always willing to help. My students are also ah-maz-ing because they want to be helpful and are. I have one student in particular who finds it fun to translate for me. But this is where my pride comes in—jeesh that feels embarrassing. Hey 9-year-old can you repeat what I just tried to teach? On the flip side this also fosters my belief and philosophy that kids can teach kids. But it is a blow to my teaching ego. I take great solace in the fact that the curriculum is also quite new for my other colleagues and we have wonderful rich discussions about how we can modify it.
Myth #2: “We never have enough resources around here! I can’t find the books I need!”
So let’s set the record straight. Even the most cash strapped schools I’ve worked in are the luckiest mofos around. I remember complaining that I needed more books or couldn’t find the right books for my students. What a whiner I was. Or the copier was down again. God forbid I had an ELMO to work with! Now that I don’t have ready access to a book room or a consistently working copier or an ELMO, I am adjusting and seeing how very lucky I was. We have a lot of books for our students but I remember when I first started teaching it was standard practice that new teachers got funding for a classroom library. Please don’t get me wrong…the school I work at has plenty of books,a copier, whiteboards and the usual teacher supplies. What I should be saying is, I miss conveniences that people in the States consider to be de rigor resources. Here we have access to books and needed supplies and can order them and the admin wants to support us. But outside sources come into play in a big way here. We live in a not so populated part of Costa Rica…about 3-6 hours from the capital city. Business done here is done in a completely different way than in the States. In the States, you want to go buy teaching resources or teacher supplies…you go to Target, the teacher store, wherever and within a day, bam, done. Here? It can turn into months long fiascos that require much teeth gnashing. The business done here is all about relationships. Sure we have access to a supply store but supplies are cheaper in the capital city. Sure we can order more books for our students through Scholastic and the like but it may take MONTHS to get to us.
So I am learning how to copy, beg, borrow and accommodate in ways I hadn’t thought of before. It is a nice professional challenge and in a weird way, I am enjoying it. Depending on the day.
Myth #3: Teachers should be getting their professional certificates.
I am not sure this rant/rave relates to this post but it occurred to me that if I were teaching in the States, I would have had to start my ProCert or National Boards this year. It also occurred to me that I should bow down and worship anyone who has undertaken and been successful at said endeavors. I am not sure I want to go back to a system that will require me to do one of these things. In the teaching profession back in the States, I feel that those with a Master’s degree were never fully utilized or given an opportunity to show their professional growth in innovative ways. Just ProCert and National Boards, because that’s the way it has been done and that’s the way we do it. When and if I return to teaching in the system in the States, I really don’t want to do those things. From what I’ve inferred, they are VERY similar to the things I did to get my Master’s In Teaching. Am I whining? Yes! Part of it comes from knowing the ins/outs of the daily stresses and not being able to imagine putting more into that mix. But where this mostly comes from is a big disappointment in the way that we’ve structured professional opportunities for teachers. I don’t want to jump through hoops I already had to jump through to get my master’s so I could teach!
Am I saying that teacher’s shouldn’t have to grow as professionals and prove it? No! But what I wish for most is a flexibility in the way in which we show our professional growth. We don’t always make our students write essays for every major project, so why would we do that to each other?
Myth #4: Private school kids have it so much better.
This may hold true in los Estados Unidos but from what I can already tell, from my limited experience, kids in school struggle. In the States, they DO have better access to high quality learning opportunities because those schools generally are better funded. But I think there is a myth that somehow private school students don’t have some of the same problems poorer students do. They do. They have Moms and Dads who are dysfunctional, who neglect them, who hurt them and who barely take care of them. The difference, in the States, I think is that the kids in the private schools have what we call privilege. They will have better access to more resources in life than those students not in those schools. Take a look at some of Kozol’s work, Kohl’s work and Ravitch’s work if you feel I am being outrageous.
In summary, every new experience is just that, new. They are scary, exciting, nerve-wracking and ultimately, the hope is, rewarding. It can be very hard to get stuck into a compare mode. I am working hard not to do that and be more be-here-now about it. Day by day, as my Dad says.