Education Opinion

One moment, please!

By Hanne Denney — August 11, 2007 3 min read

Un momento por favor. This week I was a struggling learner in Spanish class. I want to become fluent in Spanish, so I challenged myself to learn this new language. I grew up hearing Danish at home, although I did not really use it myself. I studied French in high school and college (I’m not fluent, though I should be). I am interested in multicultural studies and anthropology, so I seek out other cultures.

You would think learning Spanish would be easy. There are a lot of Latino people in Maryland now, although not that many students in my new school. I hear the language, and listen to Spanish radio sometimes, and read about Latino issues, so I should be able to learn the language. Spanish words and phrases are found everywhere.

But a reminder – I am going to be 49 in two weeks, and I think it’s true that it’s harder to wrap an older brain around a new language. Tengo cuarenta y nueve anos. I have to study harder and longer to memorize new vocabulary or verb tenses. For me to really learn Spanish, I am going to have to apply it. Use it. Try it out for myself. Risk it all by trying my new knowledge. That’s what this class is designed to do – build basic competence and confidence so we’ll try to use what we’ve learned.

There was a point in class where I became very frustrated – I think it was on Tuesday, the second day of class. I made a mistake in something I wrote on the board. The teacher corrected it, but I couldn’t figure out how I made the mistake. I was looking at my papers, and realized I had written down an answer from Part C instead of Part B. While I tried to figure out if the rest of my answers were from the wrong section, too, I missed the review of the other answers on the board. While I was trying to catch up with those corrections, she gave the directions for the next activity – in Spanish. I was focused so hard on my paper I didn’t hear a word. Didn’t even know I’d missed anything. By the time I realized what was going on, the class had begun working, and I had to ask the teacher to stop. Más lentamente, por favor! And 20 eyes looked at me to see what my problem was.

I was so frustrated. I was annoyed at myself. I was embarrassed, and wanted to explain to the class that my mistake was a logical one, not a stupid one. I was sorry for interrupting the class. I wanted to give up on that whole section. All I wanted was a couple of minutes to figure out what was going on and fix it! Otro minuto, maestra!

My adrenalin level increased, I didn’t make eye contact with the teacher, and suddenly I wanted to use the bathroom so I could exit the room. I was frustrated, verging on angry. But I’m an adult, so I took a couple of deep breaths, and moved on. I asked the teacher to wait a moment, figured out my problems, caught up, and listened to her repeat the directions. I apologized to the class, and the teacher encouraged me by (1) telling me questions are bueno, and (2) asking if I was ready to continue.

On Wednesday morning I didn’t feel good about going to Spanish class. After a session of self-analysis I felt the light bulb go off over my head. So THIS is what a student in my class experiences when she is struggling, and I don’t notice, and the class moves on without her. Aha! I had been given a great “teachable moment” – and the lesson was for myself.

I am a special education teacher, and many of my students have significantly greater struggles than I experienced. I will start this school year with new understanding of how quickly an enjoyable learning effort can become a task of frustration, anger, and withdrawal. I will try to be a better teacher. I will look for those students who turn their eyes away because they are disengaging. I will actively search for those silent expressions of frustration – head in the hand, pencil erasing madly, flipping pages, sudden need for the bathroom. I will look for those students who are trying out the new language of learning, and who are stumbling on the vocabulary. I’ll look for myself in my students by remembering what it felt like to struggle, to misunderstand, to be left behind.

I must remember that true learning only happens when the student accepts the lesson and applies it, moving the new material from short term memory to long-term comprehension. I’ll be a better teacher this year, because I have to work hard as a language student.

Soy una maestra especial de la educación. Es mi placir. Gracias.

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