Posts Tagged ‘Teaching’

Over the fourteen plus years I have been teaching I have been defining my teaching philosophy. Of course, this is always a work in progress as one always takes something from every lesson taught. For now, these are the main brushstrokes of my approach to teaching:

The most important things I know about being a good teacher I learned from being an average pupil. I was never a straight “A” student (until grad school), so effective teachers were particularly important in my schooldays. Going back to school as an adult for my Master’s and PhD piqued my interest in teaching technique, reaffirmed my passion for literature, and inspired me to revisit Cervantes, Tolstoy, Woolf, Dickens, Castellanos, Dante, and so many others with new, more critical eyes.

It took me twenty years in the business world to realize that my true calling in life was teaching. That was over fourteen years ago, and I have not looked back since. Although I recognized my enthusiasm for literature when I read Hemingway and Borges in high school, it took me twenty-two years to learn what I wanted to do for the rest of my life: to return to the classroom as a teacher and to devote myself to work in a field about which I feel so strongly. I am a giver and a communicator; teaching gives meaning to my life.

My life has been marked by a peripatetic lifestyle, moving to New York when I was ten and then to London, Boston, Paris, Bordeaux, Geneva, Lausanne, and so forth to over eleven cities. Cities became my friends. I loved discovering what made each one unique ̶ how they got their personality. I spent my time in museums, cafés, the theater, concerts, operas, ballets, all of which unavoidably infused me with a love for the arts. Sharing my love and knowledge of cities and their cultures soon became a venue to express myself. As a teenager I gave tours of Madrid and London to friends and family, something I continue to do and enjoy, which has led me to show Madrid to British rock bands and even the Monaco Olympic Sailing Team. From there, embracing literature and language and sharing it was an organic next step and one that I pursue and savor on a daily basis. My experience radiates out in class: studying the menu of the Tour d’Argent in Paris, having students learn and perform scenes from the plays we read, watching videos of tango dancers on the streets of Buenos Aires, and of course sharing my love for Don Quixote that led me to name my Harley-Davidson “Rocinante.”

I received my undergraduate degree in business. I specialized in management, the human part; what motivates people? What makes them tick? I used these skills in my first jobs in finance, photography and management before using them to run my own business for ten years, importing and selling industrial machinery in Spain and consulting for European companies wanting to expand into Latin America. But my underlying passion crystallized when I started teaching full-time in 2005. Although I was making a fraction of the money I used to make, I felt much happier and more fulfilled. I had found my true vocation. I was able to apply my many skills developed and honed over the years in and out of the business world.

I had taught English at the Colegio de Huérfanos de la Guardia Civil in Madrid, but that was a part-time volunteering job. My first full-time teaching experience in Boston was in a budget-challenged district where I confronted underperformance and violence. I was assaulted by one of my students, dining room fights were routine, and one of my best students was stabbed to death by her brother. Although I did not realize it at the time, these challenges made me grow and mature –and learn about classroom management. It was a baptism by fire and I was happy to pay my dues and earn my stripes. From there I went to Walnut Hill, an independent upper school in suburban Boston where for five years I cultivated my craft, winning the E.E Ford Award for Exceptional Teaching, and eventually leading the Spanish Department. Seeking a challenge, before pursuing my PhD, I moved to Buckingham, Browne and Nichols, an elite independent school in Cambridge with a rigorous curriculum. Besides teaching at a variety of levels, including a Senior Seminar on Spanish film, I had the privilege of coaching soccer, fencing, and tennis, as well as the opportunity to participate in community service.

At Seacrest Country Day I  continued to hone my craft by collaborating with the Lower School so level IV juniors would teach the Kindergarten students. I continued teaching French, and re-built the Upper School Spanish program from a disarrayed state. I have also coached Girls Varsity Soccer, improving their record of wins per season. In the Spring I also coached Girls Varsity Tennis, with our Third Singles player winning the District Championship.

Besides winning the E.E Ford Award for exceptional teaching at Walnut Hill, at UNC I consistently received superior reviews, even for teaching French. My teaching steadily placed in the highest percentiles for the department. I averaged an 8.47% overall difference over the departmental teaching averages.

Real learning happens from a place of wanting to learn, a place of openness, and vulnerability. Getting the students to that place requires a relationship of trust, understanding and fairness. That is what I build from day one in the classroom. On the first day of class, having memorized all students’ names from the roster photos, I stand by the door and shake hands and greet every student by name. Then we go over the expectations for the class with a fine tooth comb. An old cell phone “planted” with the first student who walks in will fly out the window, thus ensuring that I will not see a phone all semester. After that comes a fine balance of hard work and fun. I show up early to the classroom to chat and play Spanish music videos for the students as they walk into the room and settle down. From coaching I learned the importance of constant drilling of basics. We always go over grammar, driving at it from as many angles as possible to cater to all learning styles. And talking  ̶ everybody talks about what they are going to do over the weekend, and on Mondays everybody talks about what they did. The students are encouraged to make announcements and to keep us posted of important developments in their lives. We talk and talk, about food, restaurants, sports, music. While this paints a “fun and games” picture of my classes, it is used to offset the stiff payload of work packed into the course. My passionate sharing builds an intangible bond between the students and the culture. Being multicultural, I have had to cultivate a strong, effective bridge that conveys my enthusiasm for cultural differences.

As much as we want to implement scientific approaches to language learning and teaching, and to a certain extent we can, the basis of teaching has to come from an organic desire to learn ̶ from curiosity. Our jobs as teachers revolve around making that need happen. The motivated student must be kept motivated, while the unmotivated student has to be inspired to want to learn. That is best done through building a rapport. It will rarely come from a book, or from a lecture, or from technology; it will happen from a relationship.

After two days of faculty meetings and an apparently endless number of  year-end parties I can finally say my academic year is over, and what a year it has been. Granted, the first year at any job is always going to be hard. Add to that coaching two varsity level sports, editing my dissertation for publishing, a new town, a new state, and more importantly a new climate zone – Sub Tropical, and it was quite an experience.

Naples is the southernmost town on the West Coast, the Gulf Coast of Florida. The city did not really develop until the second half of the XX C with the advent of air conditioning. To this day it is still very much a resort town which booms in size from December to May with rich northerners, mostly from the Mid-West spending the “season” here. They have beautiful homes and cars, go to overrated and overpriced restaurants, and play golf, lots of golf. There are 80 golf courses in Naples, apparently the highest concentration of golf courses per capita in the US. The beach, did I mention there is a beach? The beach is miles of silky while sand, and since it is protected by the Gulf, it has quiet waters with small waves. It is a beautiful town with palm lined streets and gorgeous homes. The municipal tennis courts around the corner from my apartment have decadent clay surfaces. There are cute coffee shops, bars, cigar bars, and even some interesting restaurants. Half an hour driving and you are in the Everglades, the world’s largest Sub-Tropical jungle, infested with alligators, Florida panthers, etc.

In my June 2016 post The Job Search Part II, looking for jobs in secondary schools, I write how what attracted me to Naples was Seacrest’s educational philosophy. With time I will reflect on my teaching experience, on coaching girl’s varsity soccer and tennis, on living in Naples and so many other thoughts that I need to marinate.

The way the weather breaks down is that June to September is hot, humid, rainy and stormy. But the rest of the year it is “Endless Summer” always the perfect weather to enjoy the outdoors. I enjoyed riding my bicycle, running, walking on the beach, as well as riding Rocinante to work every day.

One of the highlights of my first year here has been discovering Artis Naples. Artis Naples is the home of the Baker Museum, a cute, little museum with some interesting pieces, and of the Naples Philharmonic and their fantastic concert hall. One of my fears coming to this remote corner of the world was that I was not going to find the cultural stimulation I had in Boston, Madrid or Chapel Hill. I was mostly wrong. Someone had told me that if I wanted to enjoy any culture I had to drive two hours across Alligator Alley to Miami, when in fact, groups like Miami City Ballet, or the Vienna Philharmonic come to Naples!

The season started with some nice amuse-bouche chamber music concerts in the museum. But the real season started with Elgar’s moving  Cello Concerto. After that it was Grimaud playing Brahms, Joshua Bell playing the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, Opera Naples performing Turandot in the Fall and The Magic Flute in the Spring, Handel’s Messiah, Dvorak’s Eighth Symphony, Abbado conducting Beethoven and Wagner, the Vienna Philharmonic, and the ballet Giselle –which is one of my favorites. Some concerts, like Anne-Sophie Mutter I had to miss due to coaching. Fortunately the folks at Artis are very nice and you can call in and change your tickets if you need.

On top of that the museum has a free late night on the last Wednesday of the month, so you can just go walk around, something I did most months!

A lesser known cultural gem in Naples is Opera Naples. They operate out of a refurbished warehouse in a bit sketchy industrial area of town. The artistic director is Ramon Tebar one of those wunderkinds who was conducting orchestras at 12 years old. He is a hot-shot from Valencia, another reason to love him! On top of the two operas performed at Artis, they did a few events at their home. Master classes and recitals with mezzo-soprano Renata Scotto, recitals by Gregory Kunde…

Sadly, there does not appear to be much more to choose from beyond this. The locals seem more interested in the size of their homes and their cars to be really culturally restless. Also, since the town lacks a university there are not many young people. There seems to be mostly families with young children or older folks, but little age diversity.

With my busy schedule, I had little time to explore the area, so that is one of the many things I am looking forward to.

Ah yes, that time again when one has to start thinking of finding a job. Since this will be (Insha’Allah) my last (academic) year at UNC. I have to start thinking of what I will be doing come September of 2016…

One of the few things I am certain of is that I am passionate about teaching, especially my language, my culture, my literature. I am hopeful that someone somewhere will need a Spanish teacher with over ten years teaching experience and a PhD in Spanish Literature for next year.

Narrowing down my job options, I would love to be the coordinator of an American university’s study abroad program in Spain – ideally in Spain, near my family. But I know I will thrive teaching at a small liberal arts college or at a secondary school where I can also be a “dorm parent” and coach, what they call in the business a “triple threat”.

Where? You ask. Well I must confess I have fallen in love with the South – who wouldn’t? and I do love the East coast, its history, culture, and relative proximity to Europe. But I would love to explore new grounds: Asia, Korea or Japan, the Middle East, Africa, Oceania, and of course old Europe, make me an offer!!

Experience? In my first job I was in charge of training / coaching / herding? the summer interns that came to Grantham Mayo and Van Otterloo in Boston. From then on in the late 80s I have always enjoyed the training and mentoring part of my jobs. During my stint as a stockbroker in Madrid since I was not doing much in the teaching/coaching/mentoring realm I volunteered to teach English at the Colegio de Huerfanos de la Guardia Civil in Madrid  As a sales manager I was in charge of team training and later as consultant I would do the same around Latin America. Once I had my own company from ´94 to ´04 I loved all the training that happened for new employees. We even organized yearly retreats with a coach to help us improve. In 2005 I started my professional teaching career teaching at public schools, private schools and at UNC for the last three years.

They say in Spain “el movimiento se demuestra andando” (something like movement is proven by walking) so here are a couple of videos of me trying to teach. One at Walnut Hill, the oldest private arts school in the US and my first semester at UNC. In case you are really interested I have also included my abridged CV, feel free to ask for any more info!!

Antonio Balsón CV Academic -abridged-

This has been a very difficult semester from a teaching standpoint. I feel that my teaching capacity, ability and integrity has been questioned. So looking over stuff that I have written about teaching, I found these thoughts that I wrote last year to apply for a teaching conference (I later found out it is basically only available to All But Dissertation candidates, so I have to wait). At any rate, here it is:

It took a mid-life crisis for me to realize that my true calling in life was teaching. That was nine years ago, and I have not looked back since. Teaching, I discovered, is my passion, my raison d’être. Although I recognized my enthusiasm for literature when I read Hemingway and Borges in high school, it took me twenty-two years to learn what I wanted to do for the rest of my life: To return to the classroom as a teacher and to devote myself to work in a field about which I feel so strongly.

Sharing is what motivates me. Sharing my knowledge, my culture, my language. My first full-time teaching experience was in a budget challenged district, where I confronted underperformance and violence. I had to press charges against one of my students for assault and battery (one of my dad’s journalist friends even wrote an article about the event – somewhat distorted, as journalists do), one of my best students was stabbed to death by her brother, who was then shot by the police instants before he tried to kill his other sister, dining room fights were de rigueur. Although I did not realize it at the time, these challenges, made me grow and mature. It was a baptism of fire of sorts and I was happy to pay my dues and earn my stripes. It also taught me what is really important as a teacher. From there I went to Walnut Hill, an independent upper school in suburban Boston (and the oldest independent arts high school in the US) where for five years I honed my craft and eventually led the Spanish Department. Before coming to UNC, seeking a challenge, I moved to Buckingham, Browne and Nichols, in Cambridge, an elite independent school with a rigorous curriculum. There I had the privilege of coaching soccer, fencing and tennis, of getting involved in Community Service, and even teaching a Senior Seminar on Spanish film.

In my first semester at UNC I found that teaching at the college level requires a more intense and in-depth approach. Due to their higher maturity and experience level, the students are more demanding academically. This calls for more preparation and sharp execution and delivery from the instructor. The students have a clear idea of what they want, they have been in school for over twelve years and our duty as educators is to deliver.

Hand in hand with good teaching, goes meaningful, practical, applied professional development. Ever since Walnut Hill sent me on a new teachers retreat organized by the Association of Independent Schools of New England (AISNE), I have been a strong supporter of learning and improving the craft. In this respect, my twenty years corporate and business experience came in handy, applying motivational techniques, mentoring and fostering teamwork. Another byproduct of my business experience is my devotion to Kaizen, the Japanese technique of continuous measurable improvement. In this vein, as a department in Walnut Hill, we mapped the full Modern Language curriculum, involved the students in year-end course improvement meetings, even held a Modern Language “Summit” inviting other academic and arts department heads as well as teachers from other schools to define and improve our department.

What little I know about being a good teacher I learnt from being a bad student. I was never a good student, so good teachers were very important in my schooldays. They marked my life, they made a difference. Going back to school as an adult for my Master’s and my PhD renewed my interest in teaching technique, what works and what does not.

Real learning happens from a place of wanting to learn, so a place of openness, of certain vulnerability. Getting the students to that place requires a relationship of trust, understanding and fairness, and that is what I build from day one in the classroom. First day of class I stand by the door – having memorized all students’ names from the roster photos – and greet by name and shake hands with every student. Then we go over the expectations for the class with a fine tooth comb, in English so there are no misunderstandings later. This avoids misunderstandings later on and sets the tone. From there comes a fine balance of fun and hard work. Showing up early to the classroom to chat with the students and set up a music video in Spanish for them as they walk into the room and settle down. At the end of the year when I informally ask them what they liked and disliked about the course, so many of them mention the Spanish music videos! Then there is the grammar. I always go over the grammar, which they should know by now, but just so I know that I have gone over it with them and they do not have the “oh I never learned that” line. And talking, everybody talks about what they are going to do over the weekends, and on Mondays everybody talks about what they did over the weekend. We talk and talk, about food, restaurants, sports, culture, whatever. Once we spent a whole class period talking about bullfighting, something that I am passionate about.

So basically, as much as we want to implement scientific approaches to language learning and teaching, and to a certain extent we can, the basis of teaching has to come from an organic need/want/desire to learn. Our jobs as teachers revolve around making that need happen. The motivated student must be kept motivated while the unmotivated student has to be inspired to want to learn. That is best done through building a relationship, it will rarely come from a book, or from a lecture, it will happen from a relationship.

Putting my money where my mouth (pen/keyboard) is, here is a video of me teaching Spanish 203 an intermediate level in the Fall of 2012, my first semester at UNC. (Yes, I do have a FERPA release form signed by every student.)