At TpT, we’re lucky to have a community of incredibly dedicated educators with a wide range of expertise, knowledge, and experience to share. This month, as part of our Teacher Voices series, we had the chance to speak with Keira from La Misi De Español about her experiences as a Spanish language and literature teacher in Puerto Rico. She shared her biggest lessons learned this year, and her tips for classroom community-building.
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I’ve been a secondary level Spanish teacher in Puerto Rico for over 9 years, the first one of those at a private school. I’ve taught every level from 6th to 11th grade, and since 2015 I’ve been teaching 6th and 7th grade exclusively.
Tell us a bit about you and your background.
I was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, grew up in the beautiful North coast town of Dorado, and currently live with my husband in the heart of San Juan. I’m the youngest of three sisters, and the second teacher in the family. My big sister, who has been teaching English language learners (ELLs) in Minnesota for 20 years, is my inspiration, and I’m an auntie of her 4 year old son.
I’ve always been a very creative soul. From taking painting, sewing, and florist classes, to decorating cakes and making hand-made invitations to blogging, I can’t stop learning. I’m amazed at the capabilities of human hands and intellect. I once considered studying to become a fashion designer, which is funny to me now since I hate shopping and I’m not really concerned with my style. I decided I didn’t want to leave Puerto Rico to study fashion design elsewhere. I like to think of myself as an artist. Currently, I focus my art on graphic design, but mostly as a hobby.
What drove you to become a teacher?
Having so many interests and hobbies, I went through high school totally confused about what course of study to take. I excelled academically throughout my schooling and had the top score on the college entrance test. I know I disappointed some of my teachers and counselors when I decided I wanted to become a teacher instead of another higher-paying job.
There was one teacher, though, that encouraged me, and it was my Advanced Placement Spanish language and literature teacher in 12th grade. I decided to become a teacher thanks to Mrs. Camacho. She was elegant, knowledgeable, fair, sweet, soft-spoken, and I just learned SO much from her. She helped me truly fall in love with Spanish language and literature. I wanted to do what she did, so I completed my Bachelor’s Degree in Secondary Spanish Education.
How have your experiences shaped you and your teaching practice?
I think the experience that mostly shaped me as the teacher I am today was having the worst first few years as a new teacher. It started with a nightmarish hiring process in Puerto Rico, and continued when two different school administrators changed my role as they saw fit during the year. I dreaded going to work, even with a five-minute commute. I actually resigned halfway through my second year. It was sad; I thought I had wasted my time at university and I never saw myself going back to school.
During a four-year hiatus, I started volunteering at an American Sign Language congregation, and eventually, I learned enough to start working as an educational interpreter. So I went back to school, in another role, as a silent observer, and its halls started calling me back.
I jumped at the opportunity to go back to teaching when a Spanish spot opened mid-year at my last placement as an interpreter — a fantastic school where I’d actually done my student teaching 7 years before. I quit interpreting and taught a wonderful group of students from February to May. I was hooked. I was more mature than four years before, the school was actually right for me, and I’ve been teaching there ever since.
This is my sixth year at my dream school, which has a specialized Visual Arts program. I’ve developed my teaching style to appeal to students who have qualities and interests similar to mine. I strive to engage them and work really hard to have them enjoy class. My students often help me shape the way I teach certain skills or certain topics. It’s a new adventure every year.
This year has brought about so many changes for teachers. What are some lessons that you’ve learned that might help other teachers?
Oh, wow! For one, tech is not the enemy. It’s the thing that currently connects me to my students and that is very valuable to me. I also see more clearly the “normal” benefits of tech in an educational setting. I’m excited to see how it can aid in my teaching of the writing process, since writing is my favorite thing to teach always.
Another lesson is that I do not need to be an “extra” teacher, all the time. I’ve always taken pride in being unique, a bit quirky and creative, but that usually takes a lot of effort. Well, it takes three or four times the effort during distance teaching, and that is not sustainable. I’ve had to become comfortable with doing a little less, maybe even a bit mediocre by my standards. Turns out most of the time, that is more than okay. I have to take care of myself, too.
Finally, I’ve learned a lot about being an effective leader. Leadership has never been a role I consciously feel like I look for; I always thought of myself as more of a follower. But I can honestly feel like this year, I’ve taken quite a bit of leadership roles, some of my own creation, and some imposed. I’m learning to believe in myself a bit more, definitely.
Can you talk to us about your approach to teaching? How do you build positive and inclusive classroom communities?
I’ve always had high expectations for my students, and I make them know that I believe in them from the get-go. For the past few years, I’ve been starting my class each August teaching them a bit about growth mindset, before going into any Spanish topics.
One big thing for me is that I have no rules in my class, but four simple principles of conduct. I have to give credit to my sister, who recommended this approach to me. They are: “Towards myself, towards others, and towards my environment, I practice Respect, Responsibility, and Safety, and Excellence.” This covers pretty much any rule ever imagined, but is much more flexible and participative. I added a fourth principle to my sister’s suggestion, which is “Excellence.” Not perfection, but excellence. Do and give your best always. Having these principles has been very positive. They are easy to remember, and when one is broken, it presents a great opportunity to critically analyze what went wrong and be able to do better.
I also try to smile and bring a smile to my students every day, no matter how tired I am or how bad my day has been. I use a lot of humor in class and make fun of my own mistakes, so they know my class is a judgement-free zone.
How have you adapted your teaching approach to the virtual / hybrid classroom?
Our school is fully virtual on Microsoft Teams, and we’ve been teaching live, for four one-hour periods a day on a block schedule. My approach has been pretty much trying to do what I normally do, but with much less content, lots and lots of smiles, making sure they are OK, and letting them know I understand their tech problems, frustration, and exhaustion. I also try to casually demonstrate how to work on the different apps as I screen share, so they don’t have to see tech tutorial after tech tutorial, but instead can learn by watching me. I’ve been giving them options to turn in their work in the format that best fits them. They don’t all have the same device and some are even using just a smartphone, so I need to be flexible.
What are some simple actions that educators can take to build relationships and community with their students, even if they’re not in the same space? Where do you suggest they start?
Keep it simple. Ask them to share something they are proud of. Give them feedback. Show interest. Listen to their stories. The question “Who else?” can be especially helpful to get other kids talking and connecting with their peers. Give a few minutes of your period, if you can spare them, to just talk.
What are a few things you do to help your students feel included and represented in their learning materials and in your classroom?
Learn their name. Never say, “It’s just too hard,” or “You know what I mean.” Really, learn their names, and try to learn them as soon as possible.I challenge myself to learn it in the first week of school, but I usually have it by the end of the first period. It’s been harder during virtual learning, but I’m trying. Every few days, I try to really look at their faces and call them out by their name.
One thing I love to do is to include their names in stories, sentences, and examples I use to teach something. Also, include their hobbies, their favorite artists, and anything that can help establish that you “get” them.
Are there additional resources that have helped you that you’d recommend other teachers checking out?
I’m not a big nonfiction reader, but I do love my friend Rebecca Saltzman’s new podcast “Ready, Set, Teach.” It’s geared towards new teachers, but everyone feels like a new teacher this year, so check it out! She’s a natural.
If there was one thing you wanted other teachers to take away from your story and your experience, what would it be?
I like to think that resigning was the best thing that happened to me as a teacher. Failing once at something is not the end. You’ll learn and be better because of it.
Try new things, embrace opportunities, and don’t bring yourself down. We can do more than we think we are capable of.
What else have you been up to lately?
This summer I used my time during the COVID-19 lockdown to create something I’d been thinking about for some time, but just didn’t have time to do — I created the first Spanish-language course for Spanish-speaking TpT sellers. My course stems from all I’ve learned as a Hispanic teacher selling on an English platform. It’s a beginners-intermediate course, with the best of what I’ve learned, adapted to the unique characteristics of a Hispanic audience. I also sprinkle in a whole lot of my experience in graphic design so that my students make truly great and beautiful products, and actually sell them. I currently have over 50 students and although the timing might not be ideal because most of them are active teachers in the most difficult year ever, they’re excited to learn and work on the course. I’m super excited for what the market for Spanish-written products on TpT might look like in a few months!
Last but not least — what’s one thing that makes you smile? 🙂
Some good Puerto Rican coffee. It reminds me of my grandma.
I am a self-defined extroverted introvert and Spanish teacher from Puerto Rico. Although shy in social situations, I am motivated and transformed by my students to engage them in learning and having fun with language and literature. I love teaching writing, integrating the Arts into my lessons, and finding humor in everyday situations.