If I’d known 26 years ago, as a Freshman in high school, walking into Madame Goff’s French classroom how my life would change because of it I would have said, “Tu blagues!” (“You’re joking!”). As a little girl, I loved languages. I loved anything French because of ballet and at 10 years old, I decided that I could teach myself German. So, I asked my parents for a Teach Yourself German in 10 Minutes a Day book. Well, as you can guess, that went nowhere, but a love of language has always been deep in my heart.
French took hold of me and at university, I majored in French and Secondary Education with a focus on Foreign Language Pedagogy from Kindergarten through High School. I went on to earn a Master’s degree in French and Language Acquisition and it was during this time that my love of teaching really blossomed. Not only did I have incredible professors in our department at Kansas State, but they nurtured me to find my way in teaching and encouraged me to take risks. During the summer of 2002, I had the opportunity to study at CAVILAM in Vichy, France. It was a course designed for teachers of French as a Second Language (FLE) and it was there that I learned about teaching with an element of surprise, to use real materials instead of artificial classroom pre-made ones, to touch the emotions of the students and to encourage mistakes and risk taking rather than focus only on perfection.
I came home with a new set of eyes. After teaching at Kansas State as a graduate student, I entered the high school classroom as a French teacher. It wasn’t easy. I was confused and frustrated that I had students who really didn’t want to learn. (Insert laugh–I know, I was young.) I couldn’t believe that I couldn’t inspire each and every one of them. Then, I got it. Not every child wants to learn and that’s ok. It’s not a reflection of the quality of the teacher if every student has a perfect grade. Rather, a teacher is a guide who teaches that it is essential that every student learns to be a part of the group, respectful, and responsible for the work that he or she does or doesn’t do.
Fast forward to meeting my husband at university, who happens to be Czech, and my path turned away from Paris to Prague. Moving to Europe and already being bilingual I thought, I have strategies and will be speaking Czech in a year or two. Hah! I was in for a big surprise. But, it was the best thing that could happen to me and my teaching. Prague is now known for being very English friendly, but when I moved here in 2006 and to the suburbs, it was a very different place. During the first year, my goal would be to go to the grocery store to buy something successfully, greet people and remember to weigh my fruits and vegetables. My mother-in-law, who doesn’t speak English, gave me cooking lessons so my food vocabulary was getting pretty good, but I still couldn’t say much. After crying at the kitchen table at my in-laws’ house because my father-in-law asked me a question that I didn’t know how to answer, I was given Czech lessons by my language school and everything started to change. My teacher taught naturally, gave the grammar context and meaning and she even prepared me in Czech to be ready to have my first child in a hospital where only my doctor spoke English! There were some funny, or maybe more correctly, cringe-worthy experiences there!
Well, as much as my language improved, it really took off as our oldest son was taking a bit longer than expected to aquire Czech. We speak English at home and the kids speak Czech with their grandparents and at school. But, that saying that kids are like sponges is misleading. We found help, for both of us, with a speech therapist who led us to better understand the structure of Czech and its grammar. Suddenly, my teacher eyes were opened to another way to learn and teach language!
Now, I can say that though my Czech is not perfect, I am fluent. Learning and acquiring Czech has been one of the most difficult tasks of my adult life, but because of learning later in life and in a combination of natural and classroom settings, my teaching has developed for the better. Knowing what I know now after living abroad and learning the language along the way, has let me focus on what is most important and that speaking from the beginning is essential.