“I don’t feel so alone anymore!”

At the beginning of this semester I tried something new with our language faculty.  I should mention that the beginning of every academic year seems to be an endless torrent of meetings, orientations and what feel like brain and butt-numbing meetings.  I wanted this year to be different, so I tried something new.

Last spring I asked the faculty to reserve the date of August 25th using a little save the date card that we got printed up. As best as I could tell, from the vantage point of April/May, that date was not yet spoken for by some other group or meeting, and it was close enough to when the term began so I could try to claim it. It’s a good thing I did because that week became insanely over planned soon thereafter.

I knew there was benefit in bringing people together. I also knew there was a problem with talking AT them for hours on end, especially given all of the meetings in that week.  I thought about getting a guest speaker, an “expert” to impart their wisdom…and then I thought no… the expertise is already here.  Our faculty are smart, capable, knowledgable people who are great at what they do.  I just had to find a way to find a way to make all goodness visible.

One of the best rules of teaching I ever learned was this:  sometimes the best thing you can do as a teachers is simply know when you have to get out of the way.  So that is what I did.

Each participant was asked to prepare two learning outcomes for a language class that they were teaching this fall, an idea of one or two assignments you might ask your students to do to approximate those goals, and finally, thoughts about how you might assess whether they got there or not.

We had an outstanding number of faculty show up (over 30!) from all levels and languages.  And the last thing I was going to do is talk at them for 4 hours.

Instead what I did was the following: I asked them to go around the room and share with the group what they taught and what was something they wanted to learn more about (in terms of their teaching practice). The responses were varied but some of the recurring themes were dealing with very expensive but not very good textbooks and workbooks, developing writing, how to teach Heritage Speakers, teaching culture, making grammar relevant, accuracy (knowing the rules and when to apply them), and speaking the language beyond the classroom.   There was lots of nodding of heads and agreement as we went around the room.

I then asked the group to break into three groups, the 1st year teachers,  the 2nd year teachers and the 3rd year or beyond teachers. In these smaller groups I wanted them to share those outcomes they prepared as well as what their common challenges or points of intersection (or divergence) might be.  And one more thing: everyone had to share an idea and steal an idea before they broke for lunch.

They met for an hour.  And then those conversations flowed into lunchtime (which we had brought in).  I asked each group to post on the whiteboard 2 or 3 key points from their discussion for later review.

We spent the final hour looking at what the highlights of each group’s conversation.  Some great ideas were shared. And stolen.  They spoke about what they learned from one another and how eager they were to implement these ideas in the classroom. And to continue the conversation with their colleagues.

As an incentive to keep them talking about teaching, I offered to reimburse them for lunch if they went out and met as a group and chatted with people outside of their department.  To date one group of teachers (German, Italian and Portuguese) has done this.

At the end, people remarked to me how energized they felt by this event, and by how much they had learned. And then at least two people confided in me (not using the exact same words, but similar sentiment): “Thank you for doing this.  I no longer feel so alone in my teaching.”

And that, right there, is why we will be doing this again, and again.  So everyone can learn and share…but also so no one feels alone anymore.

Barbara has been working for a small liberal arts college in the cornfields of Ohio for about 15 years. In addition to teaching Spanish she runs a somewhat unconventional language center. Prior to this adventure in higher ed she taught high school Spanish and loved it. She wishes she had more time in her life to play with her dogs, write, read, swim, do yoga things and watch the Red Sox. Preferably not all at once, although that could be interesting. To see her online portfolio please click here!

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