How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.
It had been a tiring day of parent-teacher conferences for Amanda Duncan, a sixth-grade dual language literacy teacher at Foster Elementary in Arvada. Then the last family of the evening snapped things back into perspective.
The mother had walked two miles through the snow with her sixth-grade son, pushing the baby in a stroller. She told Duncan that she and her husband hadn’t been able to pursue their education, but wanted something different for their son.
“Will you make sure he stays successful?” the mother asked Duncan. “All our dreams are on his shoulders.”
Duncan, who was named the 2017 Bilingual Teacher of the Year by the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education, talked to Chalkbeat about why that conversation was a valuable reminder about the role teachers play in shaping the future.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.
Why did you become a teacher?
I really didn’t set out to become a teacher. I was always interested in other cultures and languages, and in college I considered majoring in anthropology, then public health. Finally, I settled on Latin American Studies. During my last semester, we had to write a mini-thesis about any topic that interested us, and I chose bilingual education — a controversial political topic at that time (still is!).
After graduating, I began working in a middle school English as a Second Language classroom as a paraprofessional, and realized that it felt right being in a school in a diverse setting. I enrolled in a one-year program to get a teaching license and haven’t looked back. I love how teaching makes you an integral part of the community. It allows you to create change in the world by helping students realize how valuable and unique they are.
What does your classroom look like?
My classroom has charts made by the students or me in English and Spanish. There is a lot of intentional use of color to denote important language frames or highlight vocabulary. Since everyone in the room is a second language-learner at some point during the day, I try to provide lots of visual support both with pictures and key words so they have something to latch on to if they are unsure of some word meanings.
For years I was always saying, “It’s Spanish time, I don’t want to hear English right now!” But over time, I had to accept that there is no way to turn off the other language in your brain. So as long as we are using one language as a springboard for understanding or creating in the other, I find value in letting kids use both languages at the same time. It is a natural thing our brains do anyway!
It is a fine line, though. Since we are an immersion program, it is vital that we really hold students to a high standard of production in their second language. But each child builds their second language differently, just like any type of learning. Some need to rely more heavily on their first language to avoid being overwhelmed by the second language. Others are very bilingual already and need to be reminded to continually use Spanish in an academic setting. Even the youngest students know that English is the language of power, and it can easily dominate even in a Spanish immersion classroom. The teachers at my school work tirelessly to constantly lift up the value and beauty of Spanish, so that students will undertake the extra effort of learning through two languages.
I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?
Students. Hahaha! No, but really, the students are what keep me coming back day after day. Even after 20 years of working with children, they continue to surprise me with their creativity and initiative. I am constantly inspired by the stories they and their families share with me, their daily struggles and perseverance.
At times I feel exhausted by this job, but then I think of how hard many of our families work and the obstacles they are facing, and I am humbled. Teachers have a tremendous responsibility to give our students the best preparation possible so they can be successful in this country. Our community is counting on us and we cannot let them down.
What is one of your favorite lessons to teach?
One of my favorite units to teach is the personal narrative. I love helping students see that their regular lives contain incredible stories. Sometimes they are heartbreakingly sad. Other times they are ridiculously funny. I love helping them learn techniques to take a seemingly regular moment and create a terrific piece of writing. We do this by studying mentor texts (including those by former students) and I demonstrate my own thinking as I write my own story in front of them. I also incorporate drama into the writing process. and we have learned techniques to help students really immerse themselves in their memories. It is powerful to watch students create a “freeze” of their memory — making themselves into a statue that shows the feelings and the moment — then write. They also interview each other to dig even deeper into that moment in time. Their writing improves exponentially and they are so proud of the results.
How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
When a student doesn’t understand, I first have to figure out why. Were they listening? Is there a misconception? Was my lesson confusing? Did it not meet their learning style? Are they distracted by other things going on in their life? My response depends on what the root cause is for not understanding.
How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
Any time a teacher redirects a class or a student, it’s a million times more powerful if she gives the reason why they are being redirected. For example, “Table 3, please focus your talk on the lesson. If you talk about other things right now, you will lose your train of thought about the lesson and you won’t produce your best quality of work when it’s time to write.” or “So-and-so, if you are talking while I am giving directions you will not know what to do, and if you don’t know what to do you will not learn this critical skill that will help you be successful in middle school and beyond.” Kids need to know that the rules are not about the teacher having control. Rules are there to protect and enhance the learning environment for everyone’s benefit.
How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
I think the first step to building relationships with your students is having a genuine curiosity for who each one really is. You need to laugh at the annoying traits that kids exhibit at different stages of life, maybe roll your eyes about it with colleagues later, but also just enjoy watching the kids figure out who they are and who they want to be. My favorite strategy is paraphrasing what students say. It’s helpful when they are upset, or when the problem they are having is confusing or convoluted (No! Not in 6th grade!). It lets students know you “get them”. I also think it’s super helpful to tell them about a time you struggled with a similar issue, and explain how you learned to deal with it. It helps them feel connected. And if you haven’t experienced something like they have, just really saying with your whole heart, “Wow, that sounds so hard to deal with. I am not even sure what to say, but know that I am with you and I am thinking good thoughts for you.” It helps kids feel less alone.
Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
One story that sticks with me is from a couple of years ago. It was the second night of parent teacher conferences, near the end of the evening. I was tired, feeling good because conferences had gone well, but also feeling overworked and exhausted. It’s easy to feel a little sorry for yourself.
It was a February evening in Colorado, so it was very cold and snowy. I just wanted to be home and curl up on the couch with my family. I peeked into the hall to see if my 7:30 p.m. appointment had arrived, and there was my student Oscar with his mom and his baby sister in the stroller. Their cheeks were rosy-pink and they were unwrapping themselves from their many jackets. They had walked to conferences from their home about two miles away in snowy 20 degree weather.
Oscar’s mom and I introduced ourselves, and she apologized for missing the fall conference, but that was right when her daughter was born.
“Ms. Amanda,” she began in Spanish, “I just want to know if Oscar is doing well in school. Is he respectful to you and his classmates? Does he work hard?” I assured her that Oscar was a model student. “You see, Ms. Amanda, Oscar is the hope of our family. My husband and I weren’t able to study as much as we would have liked to. And now, we work so hard. I work all day and my husband cares for the baby, then I come home and he takes our one car to work at night. But we want a different life for Oscar. Will you make sure he stays successful? All our dreams are on his shoulders.”
This particular story sticks with me because of the cold night, because of the baby, and because I was feeling sorry for myself right before this conversation. But we all hear stories like this all the time. They remind us that we hold in our hands the future of many families, generations even. We cannot let our community down.
What are you reading for enjoyment?
“My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry” by Fredrik Backman
What’s the best advice you ever received?
My mom was also a teacher and she always reminds me to take time for myself and my family. There is always more that you can do as a teacher. Don’t get too bogged down in trying to make every single lesson perfect. You need to say, “That is enough for today,” and let it go. Guess what? The sun will come up tomorrow and your students will still learn plenty. Especially if you are able to come back fresh and be willing to give your heart to them.