My first year of teaching I was so green. I had been hired to do a job I wasn’t sure I was exactly qualified to do–teach English to immigrants. True, I had a language background and some experience with teaching non-English speaking people (if you count making chocolate chip cookies with some Chinese exchange students teaching, that is), but I was grossly unprepared. And I didn’t speak Spanish.
My entire population of students back then consisted of Spanish speaking students either freshly arrived from Mexico or very recently so. While I had had over a decade of speaking **French, two years of Spanish and a year of Italian, this hardly prepared me for my job. While I could understand what my students were saying about me behind my back, I had limited vocabulary to express myself in return.
(**In over a decade of teaching I still haven’t had any immigrants from France. I’m so glad I majored in it)
Enter my brilliant plan. I would have the students teach me Spanish. Brilliant, right?
Yeah. Not so much.
At the time I concocted this crazy plan, I thought everything was going to go so smoothly. The students had started to warm up to me and they really seemed to enjoy teaching me little phrases to say. Every day my Spanish was getting better, and I was feeling more confident.
Then parent teacher conferences rolled around and I decided to practice out my new Spanish. At one of my first home conferences, a family was upset because they were unable to afford to pay for school lunches. I told them about the school’s free and reduced lunch program and then proudly using one of my newly learned phrases I told them not to worry.
I will never forget the shock on their faces when I said that or how two of my students sat giggling helplessly in a corner. That’s when I knew I might have been a tad too trusting. My students laughingly told me that in my earnestness to reassure their parents that everything would be ok and that they shouldn’t worry, I actually told them it was none of their damned business.
Fortunately for me, those parents had a good sense of humor, and after a rapid explanation by their children on what had happened, I was clasped on the shoulders and taken to a table where I was served shrimp soup.
To this day, I am not quite sure exactly what happened that evening, but from that day on I was a welcome guest in their home and in their family. My students, too, eased up on me and started to really help me as I learned Spanish.
Twelve years later and now I’m fluent in Spanish. Never again will I have that unsettling foot in mouth feeling that we language learners frequently experience as we grope and fumble our way around a new language. Yet despite the years that have passed and the proficiency I have gained, there are still times when I get nostalgic for the days of my first Spanish lessons and those first students who taught me as much as I taught them.