Many of the teachers I have had the pleasure of interviewing have talked about the challenges they face in the classroom like guiding and managing behavior or maintaining enthusiasm for their work. Tracy Howard, our August Teacher of the Month talked about another challenge she ran into—a classroom full of children who didn’t speak English—and how she worked through it.
Tell me a little bit about your program, Tracy.
I work for Community Action of Southern Kentucky in their Head Start program. As an agency, we help families find the resources they need to become successful. One program we provide to the community is Head Start, which allows children from low-income families prepare for Kindergarten. I’ve been working in Warren County in this Head Start program for six years teaching 3 to 5-year-olds. We have seven different preschool classrooms in the building with up to 20 children in each classroom.
That's a lot of children in one classroom. What are some ways you support that many children?
I do a lot of small group work and try to individualize lessons depending on the child’s needs. For example, we were working on a buildings unit and asked the children to create their own house. Some of the children have strong fine motor skills, so I set up their table with scissors. Others tore their paper, and I worked with some children doing hand-over-hand work.
What other challenges do you face in your work?
Our program supports migrant and seasonal workers and refugees, so we have a lot of children who don’t speak English. This past year, almost all of the children in my classroom started the year with little to no English language skills. At the beginning of the year, there were a lot of tears—both the students and mine. Starting school is stressful for children, and when you don’t speak the same language as your teacher, that stress level is much higher. I struggled finding ways to provide comfort and support for these children—let alone teaching them our curriculum.
I had to use gestures and pictures. I also worked with some of our families and asked them to teach me basic words and phrases that I could use to provide some comfort. I invited some of the parents to join me in the classroom to provide some support. Their help made me feel so much more relaxed. Using these tools, I slowly built bonds with all of the children in the classroom and saw them flourish.
We were learning about farms and I realized that the children didn’t know what a cow was. I couldn’t bring a live cow into the classroom, so I built one! I set up a section of the classroom with hay, some farming tools, and this cardboard cow. You could even milk it! I painted t-shirts for the kids to wear so they could pretend to be cows. It was wonderful, and the kids loved it. I learned that I had to be much more creative in my teaching.
I started thinking about how I would feel if I were a child put in a room where people look different, they don’t understand me, and I don’t understand them. Once the children were more comfortable, there was room for them to learn.
I understand your program uses the CLASS tool. How do these language barriers impact your CLASS scores?
Our program uses CLASS to assess program quality and inform professional development. We’ve noticed that our back-and-forth exchanges are especially difficult with the language gaps in our classrooms. As the year goes on, our kids become more comfortable and begin to pick up more and more English, so the exchanges improve. It's amazing to see the results of our work in our CLASS scores. Because we support ages 3-5, it’s great to have the children back from year to year so we can build on the learning from the past year.
What do you think makes you an excellent teacher?
Creativity. I use my creativity to build and make things to use in my classroom to help express what we are learning about.
What advice would you like to share with other teachers?
I think I’m a much better teacher after this year. I was incredibly stressed and frazzled at the beginning of the year. The fact that my children didn’t speak English was tough. I couldn’t comfort them. I knew I needed to make everything work, and I had to work really, really hard. I shifted my focus and priorities from what I had done in previous years to the interactions in the classroom and building relationships. I had to get creative.
I saw so much growth in the kids—whether they spoke English or not. The new activities and relationship-building that we worked on opened up the classroom and brought us all together. I feel like I’m reinvigorated as a teacher and can’t wait for next year.
When things get tough, you can’t give up. You have to be open-minded and maybe change the way you do things. Change is a lot easier if you take a step back and look at the bigger picture. The year was so scary but it made me a better person and teacher.
So, it’s June and you have just wrapped up the year with your students. They have made tremendous progress over the course of the year. The routine of the day flows naturally, the expectations about what is and isn’t appropriate behavior is fairly clear to all of them (and to you), and you leave the school year feeling confident that they are ready for the new challenges that lie ahead. You go into the summer months looking forward to a much needed break, but also looking forward to your new group of students in the fall.
As a Certified CLASS Affiliate Trainer, I enjoy reading the discussion posts and responses in the CLASS Learning Community. It gives me further insight into the areas that teachers have questions about, and the responses and techniques that members of the community are sharing with others. Usually I just sit back, read along, and take it all in.
Then recently someone posted, “I'd love some great examples of what Quality of Feedback looks like when you're working with less verbal children. For instance... creating an effective feedback loop off of what a child does more so than what he or she says.”
Many teachers will agree that their first year of teaching can be one of the most grueling, challenging, and stressful experiences for them as they take on the task of educating our youth. In my first year of teaching, I was not familiar with the CLASS tool and its impact in the classroom. I was not aware of the dimensions, indicators, and the tremendous power of interactions. Looking back, I recognize the many ways the CLASS tool was reflected in my classroom, but I also see the value in how familiarity with the CLASS tool could have benefitted my classroom. Although many external forces impacted my role as a high school Spanish teacher, the CLASS tool’s invaluable purpose could have made a profound impact on my first year teaching.