EVOLUTION OF AN EDUCATOR: Reflections on my final year in the K-12 language classroom

Becky Searls, Instructional Coach & Educational Consultant, Elevating Educators; Former Spanish Teacher at Upper Arlington City Schools

I recently left my job as a Spanish teacher! It was a bittersweet decision, because I absolutely love sharing languages, Spanish-speaking cultures, and my own travel abroad experiences with my students. The constraints that go along with a career in K-12 classroom teaching, however, were preventing me from finding long-term happiness in my work.

You may be wondering if I tried anything before throwing in the towel, and I can assure you I did! The year before last, during the 2016–2017 academic year, I took a self-designed traveling sabbatical and got to visit schools all over the world, making it to 13 countries in 12 months to learn about a variety of education systems and helping teachers facilitate meaningful global connections for their students! While it was an invigorating break from typical classroom routine to see what teachers around the world were doing, I found that my sabbatical did not re-invigorate me.

Typically, from August to June of each school year, I drop off the face of the earth due to the limitations and workload associated with classroom teaching. Then, each summer, along with most teachers, I struggle to go from a schedule that is so demanding that it doesn’t allow for regular bathroom breaks to one that is made up of nothing but free time. For me personally, the difficulty of being a public-school teacher has not been the nature of the work, nor even the amount of it, but the lack of autonomy in how and where I work along with an absence of balance which has made the profession more and more unsustainable.

Autonomy and balance do not currently seem to be priorities for teachers in American public education. Believe me, I’ve compared our teaching assignments in North America with those of educators around the world and, on average, we face 5-10 more hours of student-facing instructional time per week and a greater expectation to do the rest of our work–grading, planning, etc.–on campus, with collegial collaboration so highly encouraged that it can sometimes be difficult to carve out a moment to ourselves to use the restroom during a typical school day! So, I took a leap of faith and quit my job. After 11 years teaching high school and middle school Spanish, I walked out of my classroom 3 months ago, turned in my school laptop and keys, and walked away from the only career I’ve ever known. While I’ve left my classroom behind, I still hope to make an impact, maybe even a broader one in some way, on the field of education (more about that at the end of the article).

Before my final memories of my time in the K-12 classroom fade, I wanted to take a little time to reflect on how I finished out my eleventh and final year in the classroom and why I’m proud of having followed through on my commitment to finish strong.

I suspect in any job, that once a person has made the decision to go, it can be tempting to simply go on autopilot and finish out one’s time half-heartedly. While there were certainly times in the last year when I felt uninspired or lacked motivation, I am proud to say that I finished my final year with kids with much the same work ethic and drive that I started with more than a decade ago.

Here are some of the highlights of my final year with students in the classroom:

• I shared takeaways from what I learned during my Fulbright to Ecuador and Peru last summer with the community and in so doing reflected on ways I wanted to implement changes to my teaching in the year ahead — see: This Week News Article: Andes Trip Challenged UA Teacher.
• I implemented #flexibleseating in my classroom and created a “passport” system for my middle school students to try out different learning spots from a variety options including lap desks, elastic bouncy chairs, bean bags, yoga mats, and wobble stools. Students rated each option and reflected on their preferences, realizing that they may like a certain seat best due to its comfort or proximity to a friend, but require a different spot based on the learning task at hand. Self-regulation increased drastically.
• I travelled to Japan and did a FaceTime with my kids (Used “etiquette for videoconferencing” created by our great library Media Specialist at Jones, Michelle Lombardi!) We were able to tie in Spanish concepts we were studying at the time such as weather and telling time to talk about what time it was (the next day) in Japan and typhoon season!
• I spoke at the ACTFL (American Council on Teaching Foreign Languages) National Convention and welcomed over 100 attendees to our session on Mixing it up with Movement! I was surprised and delighted that after the conference, three of the suggestions I gave teachers (loco lunes, música miércoles, and baile viernes-starting each Friday’s lesson with a zumba dance) became weekly staples in my own classroom for the remainder of the school year!
• I took what felt like a risk by sharing culturally significant content that was more tangentially than directly related to my curriculum for my OTES (Ohio Teacher Evaluation System) lesson this fall. And I still managed to achieve the highest “accomplished” rating! Students learned and practiced Ecuadoran Kichwa traditions and Day of the Dead customs that I learned during my Fulbright last summer. For the first time, I was more focused on the meaning and culture behind my lesson than on jumping through hoops for a particular score on a teacher evaluation rubric. I’m embarrassed to admit that this was kind of a big deal for me to finally have my priorities in order (only took a decade!) to care more about the content of my lesson and how the kids responded it than I did about my rating. Students find ways to game the system of school, and teachers (too often) do the same!
• I helped to fully fund a podcast for teachers by teachers and I aided in launching the Inspired Proficiency Podcast, hosted by Ashley Uyaguari, my ACTFL co-presenter! She has already created a full season of high-quality episodes on everything from student motivation to interpersonal communication to brain breaks and more to inspire proficiency-based world language educators and season 2 is underway now!
• I brought “The Great Kindness Challenge” to my school! Every year, we choose a building goal to work towards as a learning community and this year our theme was “Kindness is our Culture”. The Great Kindness Challenge promotes the belief that kindness is power and that as an action is repeated, a habit is formed. This belief, along with a Kindness Challenge Checklist encourages students to repeat kind act after kind act, actively putting our school goal into practice alongside millions of other students in thousands of other schools around the world.
• I re-started my Japanese studies and found a weekly conversation group with a Japanese couple in Columbus! While this is not directly related to the classroom, I found many opportunities to discuss my challenges as a language learner with my students, which in turn drastically increased my empathy towards them!
• I tried out Breakout EDU as one of many ways to keep students engaged right until the end of the school year! Breakout EDU lets you turn your classroom into an academically-focused escape room by facilitating games where players use teamwork and critical thinking to solve a series of challenging puzzles in order to open the locked box. My students used colors, numbers, dates, and food vocabulary as part of their Breakout!
• I contributed to the future of the teaching profession by taking on a student teacher, Anna! Anna refreshed me during my toughest months of burnout (without even knowing it, as I didn’t tell her I was planning to quit until the end of her time with me), and I was able to share all I’ve learned in the last 11 years in the classroom with her during second semester. This was a gift, as it allowed me to reflect back on how far I’ve come and ensure that I was making the right decision to go, having fully thought it through. Anna has all of the instincts needed to be an amazing teacher and it was an honor to share my classroom and students with her. It was also a fun bonus that I was able to gift her almost all of my classroom supplies and teaching materials, items I no longer have need of or use for, but which would have cost her hundreds if not thousands of dollars to acquire during her first years of teaching!
• Perhaps the thing I’m most proud of is having designed an international service learning project to help a school in Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria. I kept this going all year, for example, by sharing current events as they unfolded and discussing contributions from prominent Latinos towards hurricane relief efforts (among them Lin Manuel Miranda, Daddy Yankee, Mark Anthony, and Jennifer Lopez). I even built in authentic speaking practice through FaceTime calls and guest speakers with Puerto Rican contacts we were able to find through members of the Partnerships Make a Difference Organization!
• After learning more about the situation and needs on the ground in Puerto Rico, my students conducted a school supply drive to tie in to their own learning about school around the world and school supply vocabulary, and collected 9 boxes of materials for the school, wrote Spanish pen pal letters to an authentic audience of peers and students in Puerto Rico, and raised $1,440 with the help of our PTO to ship the supplies to the island.
• They also engaged and educated the community about the importance and impact of service-learning generally and the situation in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria through a local newspaper article! To say my heart was very full would be an understatement.
So, 2017–2018 was my final year in K-12 education as a classroom teacher. While none of the things I did above were done completely on my own and I almost always had support from other amazing educators, many of them would not have happened without my time, energy, and contribution. I will miss (and not miss) so much of what it is to be a classroom teacher, from building meaningful relationships with my students (miss) to grading during nights and weekends (not miss).

“What’s next for you, Becky??”

That’s the big question! I don’t think I’ve heard this question so much since I was graduating from high school! For now, my plan for the next step of my evolution as an educator is to move forward with exploring educational consulting and instructional coaching. I’ve started a business called Elevating Educators with the intent of providing high quality professional development, coaching, and consulting services for teachers, schools and districts, specializing in proficiency-based world language curriculum and program design and implementation.

No matter where or when you are in your evolution as an education profession, know that what you do is incredibly important and worthy of elevating. And, whatever you do, please do it well. It may not be easy, but in the end, it will be worth it. You may think you’re doing it for others (and you are!) but, if you ever leave the classroom, and look back, you’ll realize that it was just as much for yourself. Start strong to finish strong. Have a wonderful school year and please don’t hesitate to reach out if you would like proficiency-based world language support one on one, for your team or department, or school this year!

This entry was posted in Fall 2018, General, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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