Teaching philosophy

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.

Brené Brown on vulnerability

First off I must apologize for my long silence. Life has been a bit crazy lately and I promise to explain soon. In the meantime I really want to bring this video to light.

While the pendulum of history continues its inexorable swings, it never moves back to the same place. I say this because I am confident, hopeful that the world is slowly becoming a better place. If you are quiet for a moment and tune out the nonsense and the screaming, there are plenty of signs we might be on the mend. But I am not here today to list everything I find encouraging on our planet, just to highlight this wonderful video.

You see, I was chatting with the bright and talented teaching fellow Andrea at work the other day about being open to love and to life and she mentioned this Ted Talk.

Of course, one of my spiritual guides Richard Rohr (see previous post about his teachings) also talks about vulnerability. Here he mentions it in the face of trauma:

It was in this process that I came upon what I call the axial moment in which our most intimate experience of who we are turns, as on a hidden axis of love, down through the pain into a qualitatively richer, more vulnerable place. It is in the midst of this turning that we discover the qualitatively richer, more vulnerable place is actually the abyss-like, loving presence of God, welling up and giving itself in and as the intimate interiority of our healing journey.”

I am not going to ramble on and on about it, I am just going to leave it here and you can watch it. Let me know your thoughts on the comments area. Enjoy!!

On teaching and learning

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.)