Our Featured Teacher series introduces world language educators from across the country. We kick off the series with Elena Spathis, who teaches Spanish at Pascack Valley High School in Hillsdale, New Jersey. According to colleagues and students who nominated her, she is an inspiring teacher who brings out the best in her students. Read our Q&A with her below. Do you know a world language educator you would like to see featured on this blog? We’d love to hear from you!
“I try to place culture at the core of every lesson.”
Wayside Publishing: What language do you teach? Do you speak any other languages?
Elena Spathis: I teach Spanish at the high school level, and am certified to teach English as a Second Language as well. I speak Greek fluently as I am of Greek heritage. I also completed a minor in Modern Greek Studies while in college.
WP: How long have you been teaching?
ES: I am currently about to complete my fourth full year of teaching.
WP: How did you become a language teacher?
ES: I became a language teacher because of my deep interest in the Spanish language and the cultures of the Spanish-speaking world. I grew up in a traditional Greek family that frequently traveled to Greece so I was always fascinated by other languages, cultures, and countries. I have always been an avid traveler. I love seeing and experiencing different parts of the world.
WP: How did you learn Spanish?
ES: I picked up Spanish fairly quickly in high school. My prior knowledge and proficiency in Greek definitely worked in my favor, as I feel that my mind had always been trained to recognize patterns between languages.
WP: What is your approach to teaching a foreign language?
ES: There are so many different layers of my teaching philosophy as a language teacher. I think it is of the utmost importance to create an appropriately challenging but comfortable environment. While I strive to encourage my students to think critically, I also want them to enjoy learning a new language and have some fun with it. Establishing a rapport in which I can challenge my students while also sharing laughs with them is a must. Another rule of thumb I follow is to repeatedly practice and recycle the target grammatical structures and vocabulary. Students need time to process and practice new material in a variety of different ways in order for it to stick! We as language teachers need to give our students the time and opportunities to “do” something with the language. I spend a lot of time planning my thematic units, and always start with the end goal in mind. I use as as many authentic resources as possible at all levels, ranging from podcasts to videos, works of art, news articles, and songs from the Spanish-speaking world. I try to place culture at the core of every lesson. From my perspective, I am not only responsible for teaching my students a new language, but also for making them more culturally competent and aware. I hope to engage and inspire them to learn more about the world.
I am not only responsible for teaching my students a new language, but also for making them more culturally competent and aware
WP: What is the best and the most challenging part of teaching a foreign language?
ES: The best part of teaching a foreign language is that I am able to equip my students with a skill that they can use for the rest of their lives. I can also make them more culturally aware. The most challenging part is convincing them how powerful knowing another language can be. I wish that more of my students recognized how valuable and necessary it is to become bilingual (or multilingual!)
WP: Why do you think it’s important for students to learn a second language?
ES: In our increasingly interconnected and globalized society, knowing a second language is not just an asset, but a necessity. It is critical for future generations to be able to communicate in a language other than their own, and to understand and appreciate other cultures. Holding the belief that everyone in this world should speak the same language is not realistic or feasible, as our society as a whole is becoming more diverse. It is time that we all made the commitment to learn another language, or at least about a culture different than our own. I feel that language has the power to unite us, and can help to foster a more peaceful, promising future for all.
WP: Tell us about your travels to Spanish-speaking countries!
ES: I have traveled to Spain and Mexico. I completed some of my undergraduate coursework at the University of Salamanca in Salamanca, Spain as part of a study abroad experience through my alma mater, Rutgers University. This was one of the best experiences of my life, as I was finally immersed in the language and culture that I was preparing to teach. To this day, I still emphasize to all of my students that studying abroad is one of the most special, life-changing experiences. I was truly able to learn about the Spanish culture because I experienced it every day. Spain will always hold a place in my heart. I then traveled to Mexico with my graduate program cohort—all of us were future language teachers. I was able to connect with fellow teachers-in-training at the University of the Yucatan, which was another wonderful experience. I am looking forward to my many future travels in the Spanish-speaking world, and hope to head to Cuba, Colombia, or Argentina soon!
WP: How do you keep your skills and your teaching fresh? What tips would you have for other teachers on pursuing professional development opportunities?
ES: Immersing myself in conversations with native speakers, listening to music/podcasts, and reading in Spanish are all ways to keep my language skills fresh. Brushing up on research related to second language acquisition, taking a close, hard look at my own classroom data, and maintaining constant dialogue with trusted colleagues and professionals within the field of language education keep my teaching fresh. I often think out loud, run ideas by my trusted colleagues, and brainstorm with them. I like asking for suggestions or new perspectives, especially when I feel stuck while planning. In terms of professional development, I personally like to attend sessions focused on topics that I possess little to no knowledge about, and would advise all teachers to do the same. I would also encourage teachers to first consult the people they directly work with, as observing other dedicated, knowledgeable teachers is a simple way to get inspired. Exchanging ideas and being able to take and apply suggestions by trusted, respected teachers and professionals within the field is needed in order to make progress. A major trap that many teachers fall into is a fear of change. Often we become so stuck in our routines and personal philosophies that we neglect to consider research, data, or alternative perspectives. For example, while taking constructive criticism or considering new suggestions are not always easy tasks, we need to accept that none of us knows it all; we can ALL get better, and we should all listen to each other.
“Al mal tiempo, buena cara.”
WP: Do you have a favorite moment from your classroom?
ES: While I have had my fair share of lackluster or frustrating moments in the classroom, I also have accumulated so many meaningful, fun ones. I love it most when students come to class excited the next day to share with me that they used the language or understood it in an authentic setting. I remember one of my students who happily reported to me that she was able to communicate with store customers in Spanish, while another had shared that he was able to finally speak to his grandparents in their native language. Those are the moments I focus on to motivate me and inspire me.
WP: What is your favorite resource for teaching?
ES: For my level I classes, I love using Quizlet/Quizlet live and Pear Deck interactive slides to practice target grammar structures and vocabulary. I also use YouTube to search for advertisements/commercials in Spanish, which I tend to do with my novice learners. This is Language is another great tool for quick videos and follow-up activities at all levels. With my level IV Honors classes, I like using the Radio Ambulante podcast series, as they are engaging, authentic, and appropriately challenging. I have also referred to readings, resources, and strategies presented in textbooks such as Tejidos. For all of my classes regardless of the level, I consult Flickr to compile compelling, real pictures related to the topic of study. I find these pictures to be great talking points, and can lead to rich discussions out loud, or to interesting pieces of writing.
WP: Do you have a favorite word or expression in Spanish that does not exist in English?
I have a poster on the board with one of my favorite phrases: “Al mal tiempo, buena cara.” This phrase conveys the message that even in dark or difficult times, it is important to remain brave and maintain a positive attitude. Some days are gloomy, stormy, and rainy, but other days are so pleasant and sunny that we forget about the rainy times—what a great message for all of us to keep in mind, students and teachers alike!