jen Schongalla

 “…it made me feel like the language wasn’t just a class. I was adding more to my character.”
A barometer student wrote this last June in the end-of-year reflection. It pretty much made my year.  No, it pretty much made my career!!! After 20+ years of teaching, last spring when I jumped into TCI in the final quarter of the year, it was my first taste of pure authenticity in the classroom. It was the first time I have ever been excited about “what I am supposed to be doing.”
I fell into teaching after stumbling through my five-year undergrad plan, changing majors once a year, and then going directly from the BA (finally settling on Math after bouncing from Biology to English to Chemistry) into an MA program in Spanish. Just so I could go live in Madrid for a year.  I really had / have no clue about “what I want to be when I grow up.” This cluelessness and related anxiety have plagued me for most of my life. Only in the last few years have I come to see my unrelenting curiosity as a gift rather than a curse.
Growing up in a bilingual home (Dad was Cuban; his mother, my “Ita” lived with us) did not prepare me for teaching languages. Dad being a Spanish instructor  at various high schools and universities was not a particular influence either (or so I thought for many years). I cannot ever remember harboring a desire to teach anything, let alone Spanish! But life has a funny plan for us while we wander around.
Anyway, after returning from 18 months in Madrid I figured I’d teach for a couple years until I figured out what else to do. Each year was “going to be my last year.” I spent at least the first 10 years belittling myself constantly because “I’m not a real teacher so why am I doing this.” Of course a “real teacher” had lesson plans, followed them, gave tons of challenging homework and projects, commanded respect and even a bit of fear from her students. I couldn’t seem to do any of this in my Spanish classes. I swung wildly back and forth between “trying to be more academic” and “trying to give them a real experience in the language.” It basically sucked and I thought it was because I was a loser.
I always hoped there was something more than inertia, fear or laziness that kept me coming back year after year, starting off again with a clean slate each September. “OK, this year I’m going to be like “teacher x” and keep it simple and march through the book.” That would last about 3 days. Maybe I just really loved the students and their energy and the feeling of possibility. I longed to be able to plug into this energy somehow “legitimately, in Spanish.” I tried zillions of things. Fun, meaningful, student-centered, oh and a lot of totally sketchy activities…but unfortunately none leading to any shred of proficiency. That was my “at least they are learning SOMETHING” rationale.
The advantage to never really having a plan, is that I was always open to trying something new, since nothing ever seemed to work. So when I first attended a workshop and learned a story in Swedish something clicked. A few years later I found myself in a one-day workshop with Blaine. Amazing. Transformational. A big “yes!”  I jumped in immediately, attempting to transform 4 classes simultaneously after the one workshop. I crashed three weeks into it because of a situation with a powerful vocal parent who called me up and yelled at me on the phone, accusing me of “picking on” her child.
Freaking out, and getting no support from the school, I cowered and just went back to the book. Mostly to put a wall back up. That was a very bleak year. I had finally found a way I loved to teach, but I allowed myself to be bullied out of it. This was five years ago, and between then and now I focused on finding another path. I worked with a life coach, got a yoga instructor certification, prepared to transition into something else. I figured I had tried everything and it just wasn’t working for me to continue teaching.
Fortunately last year I found Ben’s website and began my latest incarnation as a cyber stalker. I was about to begin my last spring and wanted to at least be “legit” in my final semester of teaching. Motivated primarily by the fact that I was going to be teaching a colleague/friend’s daughter and didn’t want to be remembered a lame ass teacher, I downloaded tons of stuff, bought and read books, ordered novels. “Hey, wait, I thought I was quitting?!”
I can’t put my finger on exactly what triggered my new obsession with teaching, but I know it is not “oh I found a new method,” or anything like that. I think it is just about connecting with kids authentically, dropping all the barriers I tried to keep in place for so long. I decided to teach with CI in all of my classes, not just the new semester of 7th graders. I hesitated at first. Could I really change everything late in the year? Encouraged by Ben and by responses to a plea on this blog, I began “Extreme Makeover 2011” last April and have never looked back.
Of course I am still a total newbie. I am struggling, feeling clumsy but happy because it is real! Instrumental in this transformation has been this group. I feel like I have a whole network of experts and friends to consult anytime I need to. It is my first experience collaborating with other language teachers. My school is small, rural, isolated. Oops forgot. I am supposed to tell where:  Sant Bani School, Sanbornton NH. I am one of two people in the department. I teach Spanish 2 and 4 and also French 1, intro French for 7th grade and French 2. This is a full teaching load, but I’m only 75% part-time. That is a whole other story. I’ve never really gotten any guidance because we all do so many other things besides our “primary jobs” so my whole career really has been about just surviving the frenzy, collapsing into summer, then doing it all again. Hence the “part-time” cuz I’m trying to model boundaries. Ha.
My current struggle is, well, all of it I guess. I find myself speeding too quickly through the stories. I’m providing too many cute answers instead of waiting for student responses. I’m not getting  nearly enough reps in PQA before jumping in. I still suck at circling. I talk too quickly. I can’t get the tenses right and end up doing it backwards (story in present and reading in past).  Also I am (still) trying to do too many things in a given week. Ben has said it before:  the old dilemma of “how am I going to fill the time?” has given way to the new issue of “wait, class is over?!?!”  But that’s a happy trade. And even though I see that it will take a long time to get into a rhythm, I am energized to stumble along. It’s such a refreshing feeling, so different than the resignation and “just get through the day” that was the old “normal.” Plus it just feels way more badass! Not sure why, but it does ? I am so grateful to all of you. That is an understatement of colossal proportions. There are no words to express this gratitude. I get so much encouragement and confidence from being a part of this dialogue and I look forward to being on this road trip with you!
Jen Schongalla



10 thoughts on “jen Schongalla”

  1. Jen your voice here, your spirit of adventure, your stance on this whole thing, is representative of so many of us who also never could fit into the old teacher mold, who thought blindly that the real teachers were the people who did it the way the textbook companies told them to. My own experience is pretty much identical to yours. What you wrote above is just so refreshing to read. If those of us who don’t fit the old mould (sic) can really make a career out of this without using draconian methods, then it indicates real change for the benefit of real kids every day in future years. It is indeed a real shift.

  2. Wow, Jen! It looks like we have more in common than just our names. Although this is only my 3rd year and you are much more a veteran teacher (I bow down to you) I have felt the same way. I feel like I’m not good enough because I have always been wishy-washy about this profession…but now I think I see that I have felt this way because my nature is to just enjoy the kids, have fun and show them the sparkle of language. The traditional “book method” has not allowed me to do that these last 2 years. I am so glad to have read your bio. I don’t feel as alone in my thinking. This last week, it has been very hard to bring myself into the building because I am doing this new thing and probably poorly, and I’m alone in my efforts, and I have a natural inclination to be very insecure and down on myself.
    I’m so glad to “meet” you here. Also, I did include my own bio but didn’t know I should be so specific. I teach in Hackettstown, NJ. I wish you were closer!

  3. I, like Ben, feel a strong sense of common experience with you, Jen. While I’ve known that teaching was my intended gig, it took me several years of trying and “failing” (I always got good feedback but felt unsatisfied with my own performance) in different contexts and using different “approaches” (really just a composite of strategies that weren’t coherently or intentionally connected to one another).
    But we’re on a beautiful path now.
    You use the word authentic. I love this word. So much of today’s educational setting in so incredibly, infuriatingly inauthentic. My daughter’s second grade math lesson MUST be the same as all other 2nd graders in over 15 elementary schools in St. Paul on any given day. Thank you Mr. Gates and the Broad Foundation. How could this inauthenticity be good for anyone? How could a teacher treat kids authentically in this type of scenario?
    You talk of collapsing barriers between you and your students. Those barriers are real, if unseen. We all feel them. Some of us actually try to build these instead of breaking them down. We don’t have the confidence or the competence to trust authentic relationships. They’re messy, like language acquisition. they’re imperfect, like grammar acquisition.
    Some try to keep them up because don’t there have to be barriers? I mean, it’s about my content, not my students, right? I’ve given the same test for 15 years and now all these kids are failing? what’s wrong with them? (tongue in cheek, of course)
    It’s so false and lacking in empathy and other human qualities to force kids into compliance in order to get a grade – in order to get a favorable recommendation from high school so a college will accept them. There are those who play this game with their students’ lives when what kids need are authenthic relationships with caring adults so they too can learn to be caring, empathetic, successful adults.
    Thank you, Jen for your bio. I think I’ll re-read it often.

  4. I had to laugh when you said you’d tried everything. I have many different textbook sets, even though Russian doesn’t have as many as the rest of the “normal” languages. I was on a national board, and worked to help write textbooks, so either I was getting free class sets of the ones I helped write, or was begging free sets from publishers at conferences. And then we had the year where we got tons of money and everyone got to order all the textbooks they wanted for language (but we had to do it in a hurry), so I ended up with a closet full, especially after three programs closed down in town and sent me their books too!
    And guess what…not one of those textbooks “worked.” I kept trying to do a little out of one, a little out of another. My line in those years was that even as a teacher, I could learn something new from any Russian 1 class, so I was hoping that by doing the same topics (mostly grammar ones) in five or six different textbooks, kids would eventually get stuff. Nope. Never worked. And so much of your story is like mine was.
    The only thing I don’t have right now is the total joy that the kids are learning so much. I’m used to it! But I shouldn’t be. Susie used to warn people that they wouldn’t be so surprised the second year, but that they still had to be amazed for the kids. Reading your account makes me remember to be amazed, surprised, and delighted.

  5. “And even though I see that it will take a long time to get into a rhythm, I am energized to stumble along. It’s such a refreshing feeling, so different than the resignation and “just get through the day” that was the old “normal.”
    I totally agree with you here Jen. Sometimes I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing and that I’m doing a terrible job, but with time it will be better. Loved your bio!

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