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Language teacher helps students by working with words

Tips to become a language teacher

Alex P. Sena, a language teacher and artist, shares his story of overcoming poverty thanks to his love of language. He explains how education saved him, and he hopes to help others in the same position as he was once in.

What is your job title and what industry do you work in?
Spanish and French Instructor

What’s your ethnicity and gender? How has it hurt or helped you? If you ever experienced discrimination, how have you responded and what worked best? Do you speak another language, and has it been helpful in your career?
A US born and raised citizen of Hispanic origin, I have experienced discrimination all my life in one form or another. I was discriminated by my own people because I grew up Protestant and then by Anglos because of my color.

What makes me an anomaly is that I did not denigrate myself because I grew up skinny. I took up bodybuilding not only to improve my body but also to take on the gangbangers who were intent on killing or hospitalizing me. They came to respect me after three years of running from them, which I used as part of my cardiovascular workouts.

I speak both English and Spanish as a native speaker and now, after plenty of higher education, I speak French. I became a professor to overcome poverty: imagine working in the hot cotton fields chopping or picking cotton from age five to seventeen just to clothe myself and to have food on the table. After forty years of teaching English, Spanish and French in college and secondary schools, I have to say this amounts to a “rags to riches” story, and having so much word power has been an advantage and extremely helpful.

How would you describe what you do? What does your work entail? Are there any common misunderstandings you want to correct about what you do?
I have been an HR generalist, a freelance translator, an artist, and an instructor of Spanish and French, the latter for pretty much all of my life. As an instructor, my job is to assess the level of proficiency students have in English, Spanish, and French; on an individual level, I help students surpass any weaknesses to ultimately become fluent in the language. This cannot happen without the strong elements of motivational persuasion techniques, which are credible and effective.

Today, young people in many school districts have the misconception they cannot master the language and are in school as tourists. It is up to the teacher (me) to convince them that they will master the language, sound authentic, understand the language, and respond correctly every time with the proper techniques I provide. This builds confidence and proficiency simultaneously. The misconception that to teach someone a foreign language is a simple thing is something that I would like to correct.

On a scale of 1 to 10 how would you rate your job satisfaction? What might need to change about your job to unleash your full enthusiasm?
I would rate my job satisfaction of being a language teacher between eight and nine. It would be a ten if somehow, in the midst of training students, the school administration would also be more receptive to foreign languages as a whole. As a teacher, I always felt that if the administrators actually learned Spanish (for example) as part of their administration training, their jobs would be easier. After all, most of the schools in the southwest United States are rapidly multiplying with Spanish-speaking populations.

Imagine you are a troubled Hispanic student in the office of the principal or assistant principal in a school. You do not understand English. How would it feel to have a person of authority speaking to you in your native Spanish? It would blow your mind away—the principal actually took time out to want to understand Spanish and your culture. To me, it would be unprecedented to know that my principal actually has my back and understands me as a Hispanic.

If this job moves your heart – how so? Ever feel like you found your calling or sweet spot in life? If not, what might do it for you?
I found my calling some time ago when I selected my chosen profession as an English, Spanish, and French Instructor. I understood this because I grew weary and downtrodden as an impoverished five-year-old working in the brutal heat of the cotton fields: I sought the solace of my elementary school, where I reveled in learning my lessons when I was not laboring with my back and hands.

My teachers saw in me a young prodigy who excelled in diagramming sentences and painting their bulletin boards—for which I was paid I might add—and literally basked in their wonderful protection and admiration. What it did for me was to awaken a forever lasting hope in my heart and soul that I was worth something for the world and my family who, as it turned out, desperately needed the help. I became the leader of my siblings, whom I inspired to go to college.

Ultimately, I graduated college and became a professor at my alma mater, again because of the encouragement of my brilliant professors who saw in me the epitome of their success. I truly hope that those who are reading my words now, whoever may be struggling with life, will see my transition from poverty into an academic life as an inspiration. Never giving up, I was made to feel that I would always succeed, that my life would get better because of my personal efforts in the face of abject poverty, and that the many attacks from gangbangers and all those whose own poverty would drag them into the abyss I refused to go into.

Is there anything unique about your situation that readers should know when considering your experiences or accomplishments?
I have always been considered unique because I think out of the box. In the struggle to overcome poverty, it is much easier to lay down and die; it is much easier to take all the negative words and derision from others, including your own siblings and relatives, and accept them at face value.

I always felt that I was different because I refused to accept my fate of poverty and somehow had the innate ability to want to learn. I loved words in all their marvelous wrappings: idioms, flavorings, and inspirational words did magic in my head, in my soul, and transported me away from the brutal, painful heat of the cotton fields where I refused to lay down and die. Instead, words (and later painting and sculpture) veritably transported me to ultimately make me who I am as a teacher, writer, and artist.

At the age of three, for example, refusing to accept I was the son of an alcoholic, I merely created my own fantasy world of superheroes in comic books that I designed and sold for a quarter. I later realized my beautiful father was ill and was my own superhero for never missing a day of work just to provide a roof over our heads. That realization is in and of itself quite an accomplishment. I feel fortunate that I have come to realize this so that I no longer feel sorry for my life. If we fail to understand what is presented right in front of our eyes because of self-denial, self-pity, or the derision inflicted by people who say they love us just to control us in a negative manner, life’s lessons come hard.

How did you get started in this line of work? If you could go back and do it differently, what would you change?
My love for teaching came at the early age of five or six when I realized that my teachers were the role models for the job I really wanted to do. They instilled in me a love of learning, a love of words by virtue of not only of diagramming sentences but also helping me realize that I was truly a bilingual child who had two languages stirring in my brain synapses and who exuded knowledge of two cultures. They had to teach me in a new way, but they took the job on because they came to realize I was training them as well.

What did you learn the hard way in this job and what happened specifically that led up to this lesson?
I knew early on that I wanted to be a teacher of languages. My mom got me a set of Brittanica Encyclopedias early on, and I studied intently all about the different languages. Nothing really ever prepared me how to disseminate the information, that is, how to go about helping my students become fluent or how to help them master the language.

The biggest lesson I learned was that I really had to come across some specific skills in order to accomplish the goal of making my students fluent. This was not going to happen if I assigned them worksheet after worksheet to take home and then bring back to class to turn in without having covered every single detail about the assignments, something that is being done whole-scale in classrooms today. The single most effective technique is to simply go over each worksheet in their foreign language; you must totally immerse them, including every single one-on-one tutoring session you must follow up with.

The latter is probably the very best thing to do in every class, especially as it relates to giving assignments and validating the work (more so in the total immersion mode) and thus ensuring fluency and mastery of all the essential elements of the language.

What is the single most important thing you have learned outside of school about the working world?
Outside of school, I have learned that you do not learn and that we must motivate students, meaning we must counsel them properly and individually many times and not just about foreign language study. Often times it entails developing observation skills that far exceed knowledge attained through college coursework, such as realizing that the reason students are unable to focus on their language study is a horrid home life. The student becomes distracted and unable to function (to do homework, for example). The language teacher cannot ignore any facet of the student’s behavior that would impede progress. Therefore, it would behoove the teacher to refer the student to counseling and ask that the observations of the student be reported properly.

What’s the strangest thing that ever happened to you in this job?
I will never forget the time I was teaching at the military academy in New Mexico when a student ran up to me with his Spanish book wide open and a powdery substance spewing from it yelling: “Major Sena, look!” For all I knew, I was about to be accosted by a prankster, but then I realized that the other cadets who lived near him had discovered that he had never opened his Spanish book to study and had inserted his dead white rat in his book to dry into powder. It taught him lessons: locate his rat to determine if it was alive and, equally important, crack his Spanish book occasionally to study.

In retrospect I recall this putrid smell near the cadet as I walked near him in the language lab, dismissing it as the mere smell of tar being emitted from the roofs that were being tarred at the time. Worse yet, I had surmised that it had to have come from the ink bottle that was poured into the cadet’s earphone unbeknownst to me as he attempted to listen to his lesson. The ink had slowly oozed onto his uniform whereupon I had dismissed him to go the lavatory to clean himself up. When he returned back to class, he discovered the powdered rat.

Needless to say, all those cadets suspected of having a hand in the cruel prank had to walk their share of rotations in the quadrangle as punishment, some of them past Christmas.

Why do you get up and go to work each day? Can you give an example of something that really made you feel good or proud?
I get up every day facing a new challenge. When you work with students, you may not have a powdered rat to interrupt you every day, but you may find one key ingredient that got one student motivated to learn one concept in the language really well. That one concept could open up a plethora of knowledge that is just waiting on the surface of mastering the language.

I have always felt good and proud when that one concept, that one idiom, that one contrastive difference, say, between the verb structures ser and estar truly came to light, all because of my having put together the right combination of exercises, exerting the right amount of total immersion, and helping the student completely understand. The second it occurs is when the light bulb goes on in the eyes of the student who spontaneously produces the correct response every time. Because I helped that happen, my heart wells up with pride. And when it occurs with an entire class, we have a world-class epiphany going!

What kind of challenges do you face and what makes you just want to quit?
A language teacher faces the one challenge of motivating students to learn every day. If you do not take the time to learn how to motivate and to at least acknowledge that you may be the problem or that the student’s problem may be much larger than what’s in your bag of knowledge, you might feel like quitting and trying something else.

How stressful is your job? Are you able to maintain a comfortable or healthy work-life balance? How?
No teaching job is stress-free. It just comes with the job and the territory. I have always maintained that you must take walks, work out at the gym, talk to somebody about what you do to find the balance needed. Having always felt the need to seek balance by doing an activity that was a complete distraction (something mentally or physically recreational that kept the balance), I always found reading books unrelated to teaching foreign languages, writing poetry, painting, and exhibiting my art work in libraries as a complete distraction. I have always returned to the classroom fresh and awakened, ready to handle anything.

What’s a rough salary range for the position you hold? Are you paid enough and/or happy living within your means?
A rough salary range for the position I hold has been from $55,000 to $65,000. In today’s world, it would not be enough without my wife’s salary, plainly stated. Language teachers are not paid enough, period.

How much vacation do you take? Is it enough?
Three months throughout my career taken in the summer seemed enough.

What education and skills do you need to get hired and succeed in this field?
You need at least a masters degree both to get hired and to succeed.

What would you tell a friend considering your line of work?
I would tell a friend to consider all the elements of teaching that are not delineated in the college coursework. If my friend were considering to teach in high-risk areas, I would suggest researching what it would be like to work with those populations.

I would also suggest taking all the necessary coursework to take on the rigors and challenges of working with disadvantaged children but to always keep a positive outlook. Although my friend may be the only role model these students will know in their lives, my friend will surely be the only role model the students will have during that school year. If the child is bilingual, my friend should remember that the child may very well be another Alex P. Sena who was considered a child prodigy.

If you could write your own ticket, what would you like to be doing in five years?
I would like to travel to places I have never been, to paint, and to write about what I see and hear.

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