Michael's Question for the Group

We didn’t get a discussion going on Michael’s blog post from Friday. However, we need to step up on the follow-up email below from Michael. I don’t mean to demand responses here, but this is a serious situation. We just need to know that there are no “leaders” or “experts” here who can answer questions, nor is there a right way to do things. So that means we all have to work together like a tribe. Let’s help Michael here.
Here is the 1st post:
https://benslavic.com/blog/2011/12/04/studyspanish-com/
Here is the second follow-up post from today:
Hey Ben,
Thanks for posting that article on the blog.  I’m surprised that nobody has commented on it yet.  Anyways, I just had my post formal evaluation meeting with my Principal.  He’s a pretty good guy and he’s on board with us and likes TPRS/CI, but evaluated my performance as “unsatisfactory” in 5 different sub-categories.  I was wondering if I could send you a scanned copy of my evaluation and his notes and the lesson plan for that day and have you look it over.  My principal always says he’s open to listen to anything that I disagree with, and is willing to take that into consideration in the evaluation, but as I am still so new to TPRS/CI, and especially since this is my first year teaching at the middle school level, I don’t know enough about what good TPRS/CI instruction looks like to really disagree.  I’d like to have someone experienced look my evaluation over and help me make the changes I need to make and also let me know the areas I need to employ a bit of “diplomacy” so I can get a fair evaluation.  Anyway, let me know what you think.
Michael
Here is my initial response to this. This may be at least in part due to the system this principal has to use in evaluating you. There may be a disconnect there, between what you did and the instrument used to evaluate you. Often, admininstrators are forced to evaluate things that they don’t understand. Would a hospital administrator be the one to comment on a doctor’s treatment of a patient? On the other hand, the critique could be 100% valid, especially since this is your first middle school year. Please send us the stuff and I will put it up here,then we can read it and respond quickly and efficiently with our own comments and maybe you can get the insights you need to not be crushed by this and to make the changes you need to make but not feel like an incompetent shit, which may be one of the intentions of the entire process of being observed. A shitty observation can give birth to a week of mental suffering. Like one of my favorite saints (Francis) said: “Lord grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

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8 thoughts on “Michael's Question for the Group”

  1. I figured I’d include my Bio. Perhaps you’ll be able to help me out better if you know a little about me…
    (I started this out as just a response to Jen’s bio, but I just kept going so if it sounds like it doesn’t flow, that’s why.)
    Michael Nagelkerke
    Falcon Middle School, Falcon, CO
    I haven’t yet gotten around to writing my bio, but I could cut and paste the majority of Jen’s bio into my own. Everything she said about not feeling like a “real teacher,” trying to do things “the way we’re supposed to,” having lesson plans and sticking to them, commanding respect and giving a bunch of challenging homework and projects, all this struck a chord when I read it because it’s exactly how I felt too.
    While trying to conform to the mold of the “ideal teacher,” I’m absolutely positive that I crushed the hopes of all but the 4%ers of ever learning Spanish. My department chair and mentor teacher was against TPRS and when I asked why, he said that one of the schools in our district did TPRS instead of following the district pacing guides and curriculum, and whenever we’d have one of their students transfer over to our school, they wouldn’t know anything. This was confirmed when I actually had a student from said school transfer into one of my classes and despite having had Spanish for the same amount of time as my students, she did very poorly. She even came to me and talked about how much she loved Spanish class when she was at her former school and now she was failing and very concerned about her grade. I kind of chuckled to myself and thought, “Yup, the dept. chair was right. It might be fun, but kids don’t learn anything using TPRS.” She ended up dropping the class at the end of the semester and I just hardened by heart and felt relieved I didn’t have to fail another student.
    I started teaching in August of 2007, but after two years of teaching Spanish, my contract didn’t get renewed. I pretty much burned myself out in the first year. I started teaching with an emergency license and got my teaching license through a 1 year alternative licensure program. I never worked so hard in my life. I was a full time student and full time teacher, and I would get to school at 6am and wouldn’t leave until 6pm or latter sometimes, and then go home and do my online class work. I spent so much time trying to come up with authentic, interesting and innovative ideas on how to teach, but no matter what kind of dog and pony show I tried to put on I just couldn’t please those darn kids. “They just don’t want to learn!” I’d say to myself, but deep down, I knew that there had to be a better way. I really wanted to teach students to really speak Spanish, not just do grammar and conjugate verbs.
    That year I didn’t get my contract renewed, was a really tough year for me. Due to district policy the administration wouldn’t tell me why I was getting canned. I really didn’t see this coming. I would have figured that if I was doing that bad, I would have been told something like, “Hey, if you don’t change this or that, you’re going to have to find a new place to teach.” Can you imagine what calamity we’d incur if we teachers failed a student without giving them feedback or a reason why? Apparently administrators aren’t held to the same standard, at least in that district.
    I pretty much pleaded with them to tell me why, citing the fact that I needed to know what I was doing wrong so I could make changes and perhaps keep a teaching job in the future. I got told my contract wasn’t being renewed shortly after my 2nd formal evaluation of the year and they told me that in my post formal evaluation meeting, my evaluator could go over some of those things. The AP that was my evaluator pretty much avoided me and didn’t respond to my emails after that. Anyways, I spent the next year effectively unemployed. I was completely crushed as a teacher and was considering other career opportunities.
    In October of 2009, I got engaged to the love of my life and with the prospects of marriage and not finding many alternative employment opportunities in the current economy, I decided to give teaching another try. I ended up landing a part-time elementary Spanish teaching position, (hardly enough to support a wife, but it was the only job that was offered to me).
    Being the only Spanish teacher in the building gave me an incredible amount of freedom to do whatever I wanted. I didn’t have to worry about sending students on to another teacher that would complain if my student knew this or that, so I started experimenting with more communicative methods. I was teaching 1st-5th grade, and I saw each class every four days for 40 minutes. I started the year mainly doing TPR activities, teaching songs, and playing games. I never once gave a work sheet. The response I got from my students, fellow teachers, parents and administrators was tremendous. I was so surprised because I felt like I was slacking off- no grading worksheets or tests? Come on! What kind of teacher does that?
    Despite the limited time that I saw them, they were learning, engaged, enjoying Spanish and having fun. But, I knew the techniques and activities I was using were not enough. I wanted my students to be able to communicate, and not just know how to follow commands and know vocabulary. I decided to experiment with TPRS. Towards the end of that first semester, I started using TPRS and comprehensive input. I bought the “cuéntame” TPRS curriculum, but found that the stories just didn’t work for me and then I started to make up my own. I stumbled across Ben’s website and watched one of his videos on Youtube and was absolutely impressed hearing his students responding so effortlessly and willingly to the French he’d rattle off. When I saw that video, I knew that’s exactly how I wanted to teach, so I started reading all his free materials, and bought some of his books.
    Despite that year being an overwhelming success (Both my formal evaluations were perfect), state budget cuts forced my administrators to cut the Spanish program. (No hard feelings. I probably would have done the same in their position.) But that same day my administrator broke me the news, she also told me that she recommended me to the middle school and that if I wanted it, I’d have a full time job as the new middle school Spanish teacher.
    So now I’m a middle school teacher, and I’m having nearly the same overwhelming success as at the middle school. I’ve been using Ben’s methods and techniques almost exclusively it’s working brilliantly. It’s so weird and surprising to me to have students I don’t know come up to me in the hallways and say, “I can’t wait till next quarter when I get to have Spanish class!” or students that I have had or have currently approach me and want to try talking to me in Spanish. That never happened to me when I was a Spanish grammar teacher at the high school.
    So now I’m a happy teacher and my students are happy too. I’m really thankful to Ben and all those who went before him to pioneer TPRS and Comprehensive Input.

  2. Hey Ben,
    I’m not really feeling crushed at all, but I do appreciate the encouragement and sharing the St. Francis quote with me. I completely agree with what you said:
    “Often, admininstrators are forced to evaluate things that they don’t understand. Would a hospital administrator be the one to comment on a doctor’s treatment of a patient? On the other hand, the critique could be 100% valid, especially since this is your first middle school year.”
    I respect my principal and want to take into consideration his experience, but like you were implying, he was never a Spanish teacher, doesn’t speak Spanish or any other foreign languages that I know of, and so I assume a certain amount of ignorance on his part about how to teach a foreign language class. There’s a certain amount of ignorance on my part as well- I have not read Krashen and have little experience using TPRS/CI, so I don’t feel super confident in disagreeing with him about some of the areas he rated me as “unsatisfactory.” Also, if he’s right, I want to know ways to improve that would align with TPRS/CI. I’m pretty sure he’s right in a couple of subcatergories.

  3. I’ll try to give a more detailed response once we have the evaluation on the list. One reason that administrators are perhaps uncomfortable with TPRS, is that they often try to avoid confrontation with parents. This is understandable, as they do not want to add to the number of meetings with frustrated parents that already fill their calendars. To teach TPRS/CI is to confront head-on the unconscious power struggle that happens every day in the classroom, and bring it all to the surface, ultimately as part of their academic grade. In order to have a healthy community, you have to dig up some of the emotional muck and deal with it, muck that families don’t want to deal with. There is going to be a lot of pushback from the parents of 4% ers, who are themselves 4%ers and are used to getting away with being arrogant jerks because they are smart, and expect their kids to do the same. As a result of this, many administrators would probably say that behavior has no place in an academic grade computation, but should be dealt with separately, preferable not by them. Or that it is unfair to bring down the grade of a smart kid because of something that is “unrelated to their intelligence and academic performance in class” (in quotes because this kind of statement is very problematic). This is where the interpersonal standards come in, and why our efforts on this list (to be as specific as possible about how those standards translate into daily expectations) are so important. If we can keep hammering the interpersonal standards in very specific ways to our administrators, this may be the only way to get through.

    1. …to teach TPRS/CI is to confront head-on the unconscious power struggle that happens every day in the classroom, and bring it all to the surface….
      Put that one on some calendar somewhere. Boy, that is well-said! No wonder we feel that we are engaged in an intense luciferian struggle. We are!

  4. From your bio it sounds like your could not be more committed to your students and your craft. So, I assume your principal must have latched on to something more tangible to him. It is always tough when you get observed by somebody who is not a language teacher, worse yet, does not even speak any second language himself. You probably stayed in L2 to whole time and he might not really have been able to figure out what he was observing. One of my first observations (still as a “traditional” teacher, but nonetheless) was from an assistant principal who was/is a trained music teacher. She didn’t like that I spoke so much German (presumably because it made it harder for her to know what I was saying) and, most of all, it upset her that I didn’t give detention to a kid who walked in without a pass.
    I feel that observations should serve the purpose of making me a better teacher. Clearly, an observation like the above will do none of that. I had my reasons for not giving that kid detention (his life was and still is hard enough as he struggles just getting through the day without being shoved into a locker or worse) and I also had my reasons for staying in the target language. But, in my case, I did what I thought I had to do to have any chance of gaining long-term employment at that school and agreed with everything she said. I know, not showing much spine here but it was my first year and I didn’t want it to be my last.
    That being said, and not knowing what displeased your observer, take it with a grain of salt, show him somehow that you are implementing his suggestions, and keep fighting the good fight.

    1. Yesterday was Staff Development Day for us. In the afternoon I attended a session on Differentiation and Classroom Management. It was led by someone whom I respect a lot. While there were things with which I have some issues, one of the core principles was that teachers have to know their students in order to differentiate. Brigitte, you were simply applying differentiation effectively.
      Our school uses a “tardy machine” – students go to the attendance office to receive the detention slip, so teachers do not have to take time from instruction to do paperwork. However, the student misses even more instructional time. How I handle the situation depends on a number of factors. One thing that is consistent, though, is that the student must come to me, greet me and shake my hand. Yes, I’m willing to pause official instruction for the sake of that interpersonal contact. I will often ask a couple of questions to see if the student was simply being a teenager or being defiant in some way or had some pressing need. One student came in late because he had been unloading Christmas trees at his job the night before, and his back was sore so he was moving slowly. No way I was going to send him for a detention. After class I talked to him about possibly seeing a chiropractor, and another student volunteered to take him to hers. In the upper levels I sometimes give students the choice of explaining the situation to me in German or getting the detention slip. Sure it’s “forced output”, but I help them along, and many of them realize for the first time that they can actually explain themselves in German – and I pick the students that I’m sure can do it. Of course, the opportunities for this are rare. I seldom have students simply arrive late without a reason. (Gott sei Dank)

  5. I don’t count tardies. I don’t care. They walk in and sit down late if they are assholes (only a few do). I look at them and say, “AH!” (A for “ass” and H for “hole”).
    It’s not even that I choose not to do it. I can’t do it. I have all that cool stuff I want to do and to give a detention in that moment, write it down or whatever real teachers do for a tardy does not fit, and, like you, Brigitte, I don’t know how it would help the kid anyway.
    That administrator would probably want to fire me or at least write me up. Fine. I don’t live in fear.

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