My Students Are Lucky to Have Me

I think that my students are lucky to have me. I really do. I’m now creating the final exam for my language courses. Creating an exam for a language course is a huge headache. An exam needs to test all of the language skills simultaneously: reading, writing, listening comprehension, grammar, and vocabulary. The final exam doesn’t test speaking skills because we have a separate oral exam for that. Speaking in a language course is too important, in my opinion, to be crammed into the final.

Each assignment has to contain a certain percentage of new words that students are not familiar with. The goal is to create a situation where they can handle unknown words and deduce their meaning from the context. All of the exercises have to be connected in some way and have to test more than one skill. They should also cover everything we have learned. Making these activities is a humongous pain in the behind.

So the reason why I say that my students are lucky is that I prepare two such exams for each course. They are identical in structure and in the material they cover. One is a mock final exam that we do in class before the week of the finals. During that activity, I approach each student individually and help him or her make a list of what they need to go over before the exam. Then, when the day of the final arrives, they feel very comfortable with the format, nothing unexpected happens, and even just that security of knowing precisely what will happen during the exam and what activities it will contain makes students feel more relaxed.

And what do you think I do during the 2,5 hours that the exam lasts? Sit there, reading a book? Yeah, right. I barely even manage to spend 15 minutes altogether sitting during an exam. I walk around the classroom and help students. I believe that learning is a lot more important than assessment. If we have 2,5 hours together, why spend it doing nothing but assessing? If a student makes a mistake with, say, the personal “a” at the beginning of the exam, s/he will then reiterate that mistake 15 times in a row. How is that helpful to anybody? If, however, I point out the mistake from the beginning, the student can self-correct.

Helping doesn’t mean giving out the correct answers, of course. Normally, I just point at the mistake and make big eyes. Or I underline it and say, “Ay yay yay.” That is always enough to get a student to think instead of just reproducing a mistaken response.

I wish I had a prof like me when I was learning Spanish. In the only Spanish language course I have ever taken, the prof never got out of his chair. At all. I, on the other hand, walk up to 5 miles inside the classroom during each teaching day. I know for sure because I’ve been wearing a pedometer and creating a graph.

In case it isn’t clear why I’m writing this, the post is my response to people who say, “Why do we need to pay so much (ha, ha!) to people with PhDs to teach these language courses when any native speaker can do it?” I have four native speakers in my Advanced Spanish course and they are thanking me profusely on a regular basis for helping them to learn to read and write better in their own language.

I’m very annoyed with the person who made this comment to me today. And it isn’t the first time either.

12 thoughts on “My Students Are Lucky to Have Me”

  1. I’m jealous. As a student at a fairly large research university, I can honestly tell you that most of my professors don’t give a damn how well I do in their classes and whether or not I actually learn anything.

    Granted, it’s been getting better as I go through college and take more upper-level courses.

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    1. Thank you. 🙂 I know that students appreciate my efforts. Now it would be nice if colleagues from other departments didn’t drawl, “Teaching languages! I wish my job was as easy!”

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  2. I wish I’d had a professor who was that helpful for me learning a foreign language. My biggest issue is that I’m terrible at figuring out words from context – even in my native language! If I miss a word, I lose the whole sentence, sometimes more than that. So it’s a major challenge. I’m doing OK with romance languages, because I can usually figure out a word that I don’t know from its Latin roots, but languages are hard! And your students are definitely lucky to have you. 🙂

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    1. “My biggest issue is that I’m terrible at figuring out words from context – even in my native language! ”

      – I’m still not very good at helping students with this. But I have a colleague who is amazing and she gave me books and materials on the subject, so I’m learning.

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  3. Let me guess: this person who told you teaching languages is “easy” is a native English speaker who speaks no other languages and had no desire to learn any. If I’m right then I’ll bet you also that he or she did not make very good grades in their English classes, don’t like to read, and have a very limited vocabulary.

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      1. Sadly, yes. It’s an unfortunately common type here in the USA, where “get your nose out of that book and go out and play!” is considered a perfectly fine thing to say to your child.

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  4. I also do all of the things you describe (and it is so much work!) and those types of comments drive me insane. Along with “how can you teach a language when you’re not a native speaker?” and “how can you be a language professor when your PhD isn’t in literature?”

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