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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  • This is wonderful. I really enjoyed reading this. I admire those who are translators in the world. It gives room for people to grow. I, too, want to become a translator/interpreter. It has become one of my passions. I love to see the excitement in others faces when they realize that I can understand and communicate with them. It’s an amazing feeling; helping others is a passion of yours that I share.

  • This definitely hits home for me. I have not been discriminated against too much and even when I have I am confident in my goals and abilities to not let it get to me. My parents on the other hand have been discriminated so many times. They don’t speak English and have very low paying jobs as a housekeeper at a hotel and driver for the trash trucks. My parents have told me numerous times they didn’t want to learn to speak English fluently because then my brothers and I would only speak English and lose the Spanish. My parents are in this country solely for me to go to college, they wanted my brothers and I to have more opportunities as bilingual citizens. Apart from being fluent in English and Spanish I have also studied French and become quite good at it. This is another reason this hits home. I wanted to learn more languages seeing the opportunities to be able to communicate with more people. I am planning on being a teacher and using my gift of language to help my students and their parents learn. There is a positive correlation between students and their parents working together for academic achievement. I have worked with many students through the opportunities my college provides me and even though Texas teachers don’t get paid much, I am set on molding young minds and helping families get the experience my own had watching me walk that stage in high school to receive my diploma as a distinguished grad. I agree with his comment about administration learning how to speak Spanish. Texas has so many students and parents that only speak Spanish and yet it is difficult to even enroll students because of this language barrier and it robs parents from their involvement in programs like the PTO which is supposed to help the students, teachers, and parents.

  • Amazing! I see myself reflected in this story. I also grew up in a latino community in Florida and, as a teenager, I also worked in the fields picking tomatoes every weekend, holidays, and vacations. Although at the time I hated to do this type of work, I feel it gave us a different perspective about life in the US. I also saw my teachers as role models, specially Phil Workman, our bilingual teacher in middle school.

  • Thank you for sharing this compelling story of your life of finding words, which, in turn, helped you find yourself and help others through teaching. I found your post very humbling, thank you for sharing. I also empathized directly with your background. I myself am “mixed” blood – half of my family being white settlers from Europe and the other being Latin America. I also follow my heart as a writer/teacher, particularly pursuing issues of race, identity, and social discrimination of ethnic minorities.
    What I love most of all, along with your drive and determination, is your way of using language to reach people, particularly young people, inspiring them to develop their humanity and language and inter-personal, inter-cultural communication skills.

  • I found the sotry of your struggle very relateable even though your life is very different from the one that i have lived so far. i found myself being able to relte to you even though we are of two completely different races and backgrounds.

    I feel that we have the same drive and determination to make a difference through language. antoher person’s language and the way that they communicate with another person is an extremely big part of who a person is and to able to share this with someone else is something that should be charished by everyone.

  • Your story is very inspiring to me! I am currently study Translation/Interpretation and the University of Arizona. I know looking at my childhood that I was blessed learning both English and Spanish. My father is an immigrant from El Salvador and never learned to speak English. I know that seeing the struggles with language that my father had there are others who are in similar situations.

    In school I remember seeing the kids who would come to school and not know any English yet. I would always try to help out when I could. I feel that these two events have really helped to push me to want to become an Interpreter to help other communicate. Many people can take this to be a simple thing but to many it is intimidating.

    With the example you gave of the Principle at a school learning how to speak another language does make a difference. Being able to relate to a student in their preferred language could make them feel all the better and looking at this from a larger perspective then just in schools. This story has really helped to give me more motivation to want to become an interpreter to make a difference and break down language barriers.

  • Like Mr. Serna, discrimination has always been a part of my life. My first experience with discrimination was in class at the age of eight. I was drawing stick figures of my family when suddenly one of my classmates stopped me and let me know that I was coloring them wrong. He took away my black crayon and gave me a brown one. That was the day I learned that being
    Mexican-American was not considered the norm in United States.

    There have been times in my life where I have felt ashamed of whom I am. I remember having constant thoughts of wanting to change myself and “adapt” to society every time someone made a racial remark. As I matured though, my tolerance level grew with me. Then one day in 2004, while I was watching television, everything changed. I was going through the channels when I accidently ran into Salma Hayek’s interview on Inside the Actors Studio. To be frank, I began watching the interview because I found her attractive. What kept me glued to the screen though was the adversity she said she deals with, even with a celebrity status. She stated that instead of letting others bring her down for being a Mexican actress in United States, she took pride in herself. From that point on, I decided that I was going to use negative comments as fuel to prove my disbelievers wrong.

    As I read this article, I found myself agreeing with everything Mr. Sena said. I felt so reassured
    knowing that someone who was discriminated at could end up being successful. My biggest fear is that I will not find success due to my heritage. Not only did he prove that those discriminated against can be successful, but he successfully overcame an even grander stereotype. He proved that those who have suffered from the world of poverty can end in the lands of success, which I believe is the biggest statement of all. Mr. Sena is a true inspiration, it’s people like him that gives the Latin world hope for a better tomorrow.

  • Poverty seems to follow me wherever I go. Poverty isn’t the only thing that has been with me throughout my entire life, my life has also been filled with challenges. I came to this country when I was six years old. The transition was difficult and overwhelming to say the least. As a child my new environment consisted of a different culture and way of life, filled with complete strangers, along with a new language. Being undocumented has affected my life in countless ways. Basic goals such as obtaining a job, a driver’s license, and pursuing my college degree have been extremely difficult. But, I’ve worked hard to become a productive member of my community and school and have been very successful academically, socially and athletically.

    In order to get through this first year, I have slept in cars and pursued my studies without the monetary support of my family. My status makes it impossible to receive traditional financial aid and coming from a household of five people with a yearly income of less than $13,000 makes it extremely challenging—even more so when our home is in the process of being foreclosed. There is an everyday struggle to put food on the table.

    In order to save money I commute to school. As a football player, our team activities such as working out, watching film and practicing are long, beginning at 6:30 am during the season and 5:50 am during the offseason. When I am too exhausted to drive back home, I sleep in my friend’s dorm. When this is not possible, I spend shivering nights sleeping in my parents van in order to get enough rest to function the next day and save on gas money. Despite the hardships my work has paid off. I made the Dean’s list for Academic Achievement the entire year while winning our football league championship, being named a scholar athlete, and competing in the NCAA playoffs.

    The long nights, personal sacrifices, and hectic athletic schedule have been arduous. However, knowing that without your financial support I will not achieve my goal and be the first in my family to earn a college degree is even more difficult. Now, more than ever, I remain committed to my studies. My tuition bill exceeds over $8,000 for this year and time is running out as I must make good on monthly payments, which is stressful because I can lose my classes during the school year if I cannot come up with the monthly installment.

    Over time, I’ve grown and matured, learning very valuable lessons. Understandably, the most important lesson I’ve learned is that in order to achieve what you want sacrifices must be made. My mother had to sacrifice leaving me for four years and suffered just as much as I did, all in order to give me a better future. My stepfather showed me responsibility and sacrifice when he worked two full-time jobs just to give our family a better future. From my stepfather I learned that a father isn’t the person who gives you life, but the person who is there for you and will guide you through life. A human life is similar to a plant because if you put a plant in the soil you can give it life. Anyone can do that. But you need to give it nourishment and sunlight to make it grow and live.

    Despite the poverty and challenges in my life I hope to one day be able to have a story as successful as that of Alex P Sena. My personal drive has pushed me beyond my capacity to move forward and persevere. My circumstance is not easy, but I know my struggles will make my college degree even more valuable. I have come far and plan on going further by setting the example for my siblings and my community that a college degree is possible.

    • Thank you for kind words! My world as a child was suffocating my psyche because I was gifted, and therein lies my very own formula for success. Plus, my father always told me to fear nothing and noone.
      Those words of wisdom elevated me from dire poverty, his alcoholism, my dark skin, jealous siblings and relatives, racist classmates,teachers and administrators. I gave myself permission to allow my giftedness to kick in and to embrace it all, which made me a better human being and a better educator. I hope this provides some solace.