A Chance For Conversations will dive into social issues like education and bring stories alive through the first-hand perspectives of teachers, non-profit leaders and students. Today, I’m happy to share a A Chance For Conversation with a CPS bilingual 2nd grade teacher, Alex.* Alex began her teaching career in Teach For America and continues to teach her bilingual classroom after nearly 5 years.
Describe how and why you became a teacher.
What are the nuances to teaching in a bilingual classroom?
“I studied politics in college and I thought I wanted to work on the Hill and affect change in that way. I ended up taking Educational Psychology and American Politics at the same time. It felt like these two discourses had separate and different approaches to education. Why is it that we are analyzing policy without context for what is happening in the classroom? Teach for America felt like the right next step to figure out if I wanted to teach or go into policy”
What were your first few years of teaching like?
“The experience as a first year teacher is different from your experience in TFA. I’m really grateful for my experience with Teach for America. After all, I’m still teaching at my placement school in a bilingual classroom.
TFA’s commitment is two years and it’s impossible to feel like a good teacher in two years. You grow an insane, exponential amount. They say you don’t really become a good teacher until your fifth year. I felt like I just getting the hang of it my second year and I wanted to continue feeling successful at it. With more experience and years in a classroom, the more full your experience feels.”
“In most schools in Chicago, there are transitional bilingual classrooms. When students are entering preschool, kids get a home language survey. If more than 10 kids in a classroom speak Spanish at home, it has to be a transitional language classroom. Gradually, the school transitions the kids to be successful in the English-only classroom.
They do a good job about making culturally relevant curriculum but I struggle with the idea that we are transitioning these kids out of Spanish. It is the wrong discourse. It sends the wrong message.”
Working in brand strategy, it’s interesting to observe how certain professions have better ‘brand reputations’ than others. Teaching is one of the most important professions; yet, teachers don’t receive the respect they deserves. What do you think are the biggest misconceptions about teaching?
“That is a very large pet peeve of mine. This misperception about teachers and their jobs. People think that it is this cushy, easy baby-sitting job. We are there for a couple hours, we leave at three, we have summer vacations, etc.
I try to make it relatable to people. Every day, you have 45-60 minutes to prepare for a 7 hour presentation and those 45 minutes are spent talking to parents, principals, students. You are pulled in a million and one directions. Sometimes, you have to create the content from scratch. Sometimes you are doing all the data analysis in that time.
I feel particularly strong about how teachers are treated in our culture. If we want to talk about issues in education, we need to respect teachers. Teachers are doing awesome things and don’t receive recognition for it..”
Describe how federal and local policy either inhibit or enable what you are able to do in the classroom.
“The most glaring issue is related to testing and accountability. Particularly in DC politics, when politicians and policymakers talk about holding teachers accountable with testing, they don’t realize how hurtful that language is.
In a primary grades classroom, when your reading testing is one-on-one and happens at the beginning of the year, and you are teaching a new class about the rules of the classroom, it’s virtually impossible to do that, test and still teach. There’s so much time spent on testing that I’m just starting to teach reading now and it’s the end of October. I have months of instruction that are disregarded because of testing.
There are other things that happen at the local level that our principal puts on us. We are doing this lesson on social-emotional learning not because it is best for our students, but because there is pressure from the local government. Kids can tell when curriculum is forced versus organic.”
Parent-teacher relationships are so important. How do you establish that relationship in your classroom?
“You have to approach a relationship with a parent like they are your teammate. We are working together for the success of their child. I will invite them into my room. For example, I have one parent who loves to decorate and set up a Dia de Los Muertos altar. In Latino culture, teachers are really respected and parents tell their kids to respect the teacher. That’s so wonderful and I want parents to think of me as a friend.”
I’m so grateful for the teachers that spend some of their hard-earned free time to contribute to A Chance For Conversations. Teaching is one of the most noble professions and I hope their stories resonate with you as much as they resonate with me. To protect their privacy, classrooms, schools, and names have been changed.