Before the dreaded shingles, I participated in a #langchat with other foreign language educators from Ohio and other states. The topic was target language use in the classroom. While I pride myself on being a well-prepared and reflective practitioner, by the end of the hour-long chat, I felt completely demoralized. The methods and tricks being shared to do EVERYTHING in the target language all sounded wonderful, and engaging, and I mentally compared myself to these other teachers, questioning my own practices. I don't know the teaching situations of those participating, but honestly, it seemed like they must be on a different planet! Some did mention the obstacles of disengaged students, and uninformed parents who don't understand why Spanish should be taught IN SPANISH, but I did not see anyone else recounting the same hurdles I see in front of me every day. I found myself questioning my abilities, and my commitment to a key tenet in foreign language education - maximum target language use.
After some hours of reflection (can't do much else sitting on the sofa, sick), I realized the answer is simple: my target isn't language. I take my job seriously, I am very well trained (see bio at right), I read materials relevant to my field daily, stalk French news sites on Twitter, give IPAs, have a Linguafolio-based curriculum...but au fond, I am not at work every day because I am focused on my students' French proficiency. I am a teacher because I am committed to service to others, and I believe teaching is how I am called to serve. French happens to be what I have been trained in academically. So when I have students in my classroom with emotional trauma, learning disabilities, unstable home situations, mental health struggles, food and housing insecurity, behavioral challenges...making sure they reach the designated proficiency level in French seems relatively unimportant compared to helping them cope with life successfully! So faced with the choice of redirecting behavior via a TPR explanation in target language, or pulling a student in the hallway for a quick conversation in English to see if s/he needs to talk to the social worker, or needs a snack, or needs a walk to cool down, caring for that student's needs will trump 'maintaining target language' every time. Every time. And yes, although I am constantly searching for ways to engage students IN FRENCH, my desire to help the kids be emotionally and physically safe will ALWAYS trump any checkbox in the OTES evaluation rubric.
I had been reflecting and worrying about my adequacy of target language use for several weeks after that langchat. But then, unexpectedly, I hit my real target. I had a young man in class who was chronologically a senior, but had struggled academically for years and was extremely credit deficient. I think he was in French because of lack of other elective choices, or hadn't liked the Spanish teachers, but it wasn't because he was fired up to learn French. We had some unpleasant moments, but I had made it very clear that I expected him to be successful the way I expect it of all my students, and I asked him to be a leader, as an older male in a class with some younger boys who were struggling with the transition to high school. He still had struggles, but had shown compassion and responsibility for others when I had asked him to step up, and he started participating more successfully in class. One day he came to me and asked permission to work in the classroom with a teacher who was doing some remediation work for his other classes. I consented, because I was concerned for his other grades. I went after my classes to make sure he had indeed reported to her. The other teacher told me, "Oh yes, he did. You know, he has a hard time sticking it out in his other classes, but he always wants to be with you. He doesn't want to miss French."