Every semester when I start teaching a course, my first goal is to build a community where everybody feels that they belong as equals, including me. I’m convinced that the best way to learn is in a collaborative environment without professor-student hierarchies, or competitions for the best grade. I like to think about the class as a team working together to accomplish a mission: people with different skills, but helping and supporting each other, sailing in the same boat. In that way, no matter if we have to figure out “weird” grammar rules, say unpronounceable words, understand a difficult metaphor or a civil war in Europe, we are not alone, we can make it.
If you approach students as partners they will feel you are there to guide them through the jungle of grammar or textual analysis, and not like someone who just gives grades. I also encourage students to guide each other, providing opportunities for them to correct one another so they can internalise the logic of language as they help a classmate. Building a team also implies getting to know your students. That’s why listening sometimes is more important than giving lectures, since it allows you to find ways to engage them in the content of the class. Language is a great subject to do that, since it’s everywhere—whether you like music, sports, art or videogames. When you are passionate about something you want to learn how to talk about it, even if it’s in a foreign language. So I try to open up spaces throughout the course where students can share their personal interests and topics they are concerned about. For this reason, I use real world materials for my classes, and bring subjects that they see daily in the news to the conversation, especially those related to Spain, Latin America or Hispanic populations in the United States. Recently we have discussed Catalan independentism, Venezuela, DACA or the border between Mexico and US. I give them time to discuss these issues, always respecting different opinions but avoiding prejudices or stereotypes through knowledge, and encouraging them to do some research before the debate. I want students to realize that learning a different language not only opens their minds to new cultures, but also to different ways of thinking about reality, and to better understand the world as the global community to which we all belong.
In literature courses we also discover how language can be an instrument for questioning reality and observing it through different filters. Through textual analysis, I encourage students to think independently and draw their own conclusions. In order to do so, I work with them individually on their essays and am always available for office hours. I go beyond this by facilitating dialogue in class about the different perspectives and interpretations that one text can have.
Since 2012, when I began teaching Spanish language, literature, and culture courses, I have learned that humour is a powerful tool for an instructor. Because of my experience as a playwright I know that comedy is a very efficient way to engage an audience. And in fact, a class is very similar to a theatre, especially a language class where everybody is a performer and you have to create a space where they don’t feel shy or insecure. I always encourage creativity and imagination, regardless of whether it’s for analysis of a poem or a role-play in a Spanish language class. I like to approach language as a game, where mistakes are ok, because we are just playing and there is always another round. I design different materials, games, contests or songs to practice grammar structures, instead of drills or fill-in-the-gap exercises. I’m always looking for new strategies to make complex topics more accessible and enjoyable. I feel that teaching is one of the most rewarding activities that I have done in my life, I have discovered it as a real vocation. I always feel that I receive more than I give to my students. I enjoy every class, even the one on the “subjunctive,” and I think it’s because I feel like part of the team. I may have more knowledge of Spanish, but I am learning too. In every class I discover new things through my students, who they are, what they love, or what they do. I also learn about myself as an instructor. In this way my students teach me how to teach and every semester I incorporate new techniques and different approaches to adjust to each group, trying to constantly improve. Ever since I started a career in education, I have realized more and more that being a teacher is and always will be a “work in progress”.