No Substitute for Inspiration

No Substitute for Inspiration

Would this teacher's prayers for help in reaching her distracted students be answered?

Artist's rendering of a chalkboard with a drawing of a teacher labeled Senora

Substitute. Every high school student knew what that meant: a chance to goof off until the “real” teacher came back. Not in my class, I thought as I prepared for my beginner Spanish students.

I was working a long-term job, filling in for a teacher on maternity leave until the New Year, and this class was my biggest challenge. I had years of full-time experience, lots of practice teaching language. Yet I couldn’t seem to get through to the kids in my third block.

The bell rang and the kids wandered in, still deep in the conversations they’d started at lunch. The first period after lunch was the worst time for concentration. “Settle down,” I said. They dropped into their seats. Right away their eyelids started to droop.

“Don’t get too comfortable,” I said. “We’re going to do some trabalenguas—tongue twisters. That will improve your pronunciation.”

“But Señora Allen,” a lanky boy in the back row said. “We just had lunch. We need a siesta.”

“There’s always mañana for exercises,” his friend beside him agreed with a yawn.

We had the same argument every day. Teenagers just couldn’t digest their lunch and learn Spanish at the same time. “We need to wake you up,” I said. “Let’s sing a song.”

The class groaned. Their regular teacher relied more on the textbook, but I found art, music games and group activities much more effective. In my class we left our books closed and tried simple conversations. We played bingo with colors, days of the week or different foods. We sang songs in Spanish.

Usually all the activity kept the kids focused. But not in this class. When we finished our song, I turned to write on the board. Immediately I heard whispering and—even worse—the telltale rustling of paper that meant the kids were passing notes to each other instead of paying attention.

Cell phones had been banned from the classroom, thank goodness. But that didn’t stop kids from texting the old-fashioned way, on scraps of paper.

“I think we need to go over the rules of this class again,” I said sternly. As I listed them off on my fingers, the kids repeated them with me. “Pay attention to the lesson, only one person talks at a time, do your own work and no writing or passing notes in class !”

I spent the rest of the hour walking up and down the rows. The second I stopped moving the notewriting would start.

By the end of the class I was the one who needed a siesta. Sometimes teaching was like performing, and a difficult audience made it all that much harder. They weren’t bad kids, I knew. There were a lot of things contributing to their lack of attention.

It was a beginner class, so all the material was new. Some kids picked it up more quickly than others. Plus there was that after-lunch laziness. Add to that an unfamiliar teacher who did things a new way and these teenagers had almost too many reasons not to pay attention.

I’ve got until Christmas break to get through to them, I thought as I packed up my materials for the day. God, help me reach them!

I returned to school the next day determined to take control of the class. There were some bright spots. Some of the kids got really into a new word game. The next week I invented an exercise where students had to write about a random person cut out of a magazine.

What did the person like to do? What were his goals in life? Who were her friends and family? Everything could be written in the present tense to make it easier for beginners. That exercise yielded some great work.

Unfortunately, only a few of the students here and there seemed consistently interested. As great as it was to have a few of my students come in for tutoring, midway through December the class as a whole seemed just as disengaged as ever.