Being a foreign language (FL) teacher means not only being fluent in the FL, but at times trusting your instinct. When I say that, I believe in thinking outside of the box, trying out new ideas and feeling confident about what you are doing. Of course, there are sometimes flaws which need to be worked out.

I also have to admit not all materials are supportive, some can be quite frustrating, or they simply turn the learners off because they become bored, they want something refreshingly new. An appealing attraction has to be prevalent. As with any job, what affects the workers also has an effect on the employer and this scenario applies also to teachers.

It is well-known that learning is a way of life, that we all do learn for life, that we grow mentally with learning; some might even say physically is also possible. The implicit duty of all educators is further education, to keep oneself up-to-date, be inventive as well as creative. One way of educators doing this, besides waiting for a sabbatical, is doing classroom research either on your own or working with peers, your fellow teaching colleagues. Most common is to observe fellow teachers working in their element, that is teaching in their classroom. One such incident comes to mind. Her name was Sandy Horgen.

Sandy was a tiny figure, small-boned and frail-looking 23-year-old, young and fresh, meaning she had been a full-fledged teacher only since a year ago. I had become her mentor, the mother hen, due to my twenty-some years of teaching experience. I had spent the previous fifteen years at our education center located high in the alps of Switzerland.

Our language school was small, privately funded and exclusively catered to the poor young and richly endowed teenagers to adults. The school boarded the students on our sprawling luscious green campus as it looked in summer, in winter it was snowy embankments; if enrolment was high, and it normally was in winter because the landscape offered numerous winter sports, accommodation was found in private homes in the peaceful countryside community. 

For the first three months of Sandy’s employment I often found her after classes at the end of the day in the teachers’ room in tears. Many of her questions pertaining to her students that she had taught that day were difficult to give a pat answer. As with learning of anything – it takes time – you have to keep repeating "Rome wasn’t built in a day!" or "Look, you haven’t learnt your mother tongue in a short time either. In fact, you are still learning it." In Sandy’s case both she and her students needed these reminders. Sandy required pep talks; she had to be reminded that this was her first real job and that it was still considered to be a learning experience, contributing to her further development as a foreign language teacher. 

One other time, a frightening experience for any teacher, all of her students walked out on her in the middle of a lesson. Completely down and frustrated, "Why me?" she cried. She had been attempting to introduce  a new grammar point. It was apparent that she had failed to raise the students’ enthusiasm. As her mentor, sympathising with her, I held her in my arms and calmed her down. Together we then drew up a rough plan for the following lesson which Sandy practised over and over until she had it downpat.

Her reward, and mine, was the reception of the later assigned essays, within each and every one the words flowed superbly and scholastically, boosting Sandy’s confidence enormously. Slowly she built up her self-esteem and as the months passed by she began to ‚know each student’, their likes and dislikes, their lifestyles, their favourite hobbies, etc. Now that she herself was happy and totally content with her teaching job, we had slowly dispersed with the mentor sessions.

The year passed, the students were replaced with new ones. The following year Sandy received a new group of young adult business students. Her frailty reappeared, she soon began fretting, so I relented and suggested having another mentor session or two. In reply, Sandy breathed in deeply and then gushed, "Oh thank you, thank you!" But soon after that, her natural flood of tears appeared again.

Once she settled down, we had a few sessions together, we then argued a bit on the proceeding lessons and their content. Sandy was quite a talented teacher, you just had to remind her of it. I happened to lend her a book of short stories, each of which actually underlined one of the current grammar rules the class was working on; naturally I was hoping this would ease the teaching/learning stress of her class. Well, the first story was swallowed with a grain of salt; the book was a bit outdated, I had to admit. Students, the young adult business ones were still sceptical of this pretty young teacher who was really in the same age bracket as they were. After completing a second round of this reading activity the following week, Sandy had received the same grunts and groans from her group of students. As she informed me of the outcome, I asked Sandy to do a feedback session. 

The students’ feedback proved to be quite illuminating. As we ploughed through the give or take 20 papers, Sandy began summarising the majority of them and suddenly she became quite still, slowly turned toward me, clapped her hand over her mouth, then she beamed at me. "Elina," she whispered, "I’m going to write a new set of short stories that will meet with my students’ approval. And I’m going home to work on one now so it’ll be ready for my next class a week from today! What do you say to that?"

It turned out to be a success for Sandy as well as a bonus point. Not only was her class delighted with her first effort, they continued to be for the other stories she wrote. Sandy had polished her approach to the business class, had found a ‚new hobby’ and with my suggestion as her mentor, she had searched for a publisher. She was 'fuendig' –  foreign language meaning successful. Today, we are proudly using Sandy’s book of short stories in classes where supplements are supportive in language learning. She has also been able to have her book published in the main foreign languages our school offers: French, Italian, Romansh and English. Lovely to have your own inhouse author, wouldn’t you say?

June 17, 2020 10:41

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