We Spanish teachers know that enthusiasm for our work is important.
But is it enough?
Not even close.
Teaching Spanish is much more than just a job. Whether you call it a vocation, a calling or a passion, teaching Spanish requires a unique skillset that goes way beyond effective lesson planning (although of course that’s essential, too!).
So what else can we do to be the best Spanish teachers we can be, whether engaging a diverse group of students or customizing a lesson to specific learners?
Check out these 13 concrete steps you can take to be a good Spanish teacher every day—and to keep improving and growing as the semesters pass.
But first, let’s set you up for success. Before we jump into our checklist of great Spanish teacher qualities, we’ll explore some context for a productive, happy classroom.
See Your Classroom from Your Students’ Eyes
The best Spanish teachers understand that the student experience in the classroom has a significant impact on learning. New and experienced teachers who cultivate empathy for their students are able to tune into their experience.
Remembering these key points may help you to better tune in:
- Classrooms can be exciting, but they can also be scary. When I was a student, I absolutely dreaded some classes. Each classroom presented different social dynamics and bewildering interactions between students and teacher, and like most kids, I wasn’t always sure how to act.
Combine this with the natural fear of looking silly or making mistakes while speaking in Spanish, and no wonder students sometimes get distracted and anxious. Anxiety in kids can sometimes look pretty weird.
Keep an eye out for signs of underlying anxiety, such as excessive giggling, a rude tone, attention-seeking behavior or extreme shyness.
- Students come to class with a lot going on. If your class meets the first period of the day, and a student has had a rough morning, he or she will bring that sense of frustration to your classroom. So when they don’t seem like themselves, it may have nothing at all to do with you nor with Spanish.
The same goes for afternoon classes. I remember the times when a bad exchange with a teacher in a previous class or a conflict with a friend in the lunchroom made for some hard afternoons. Stress over forgotten work or missing textbooks, or different issues altogether, can also distract a student from what you’re teaching.
- Past experiences can influence present experiences, positively and negatively. I vividly remember feeling humiliated whenever I made a silly mistake in front of my peers. If a student has ever been made to feel foolish or self-conscious in a previous Spanish classroom, that history can bode poorly for future classes until that student regains a bit of confidence.
Therefore, you’ll want to focus specifically on creating a supportive, friendly and collaborative environment to encourage that student to take the risks that learning Spanish requires.
- Positive classroom environments make for positive student attitudes. I’ve noticed that when a student acts out, all the others watch me closely to see how I’ll react.
During the times when I did get visibly flustered, the other students sometimes took advantage of my temporary uncertainty. These students sometimes got even more unruly, leading to other students feeling anxious as they felt I’d lost control of the classroom.
When I was able to manage the situation better by reframing the moment in a positive way (or, better yet, in a humorous way), the students could relax back into their learning knowing that the teacher was not going to let them down.
After all, students often take their cues from the adults in the classroom.
Acknowledge the Challenges of Teaching Spanish
- Teaching a foreign language to non-native speakers is a complex process. If you’re working in a traditional school, another challenge is that other classes compete for student attention and focus. Foreign language learning requires students to build on prior knowledge, which requires a lot of patience and repetition.
Teaching tips on being enthusiastic and passionate are ubiquitous, but what if you’re slightly introverted or just a little bit tired? It can be exhausting and complex!
- Didactic approaches (grammar and vocabulary) vs. task-oriented learning: which is best? Some old school teaching methods may no longer be best practice. The didactic techniques focused on grammar and vocabulary early in language learning are controversial nowadays.
Project and task-based learning, mainly in the form of small group activities and other student-led practices, are gaining popularity.
Keep track of what does and doesn’t work for your classroom. Stay on top of new methods and, as long as you do your research and prepare ahead of time, don’t be scared to try some innovative or unconventional techniques.
- Burn-out is real. High-energy lesson plans that engage students and promote Spanish conversation practice often can be draining to prepare and to enact. Offering your students a variety of activities that may or may not succeed right away can be emotionally taxing, and coaxing reluctant conversationalists into chat can take a toll.
These challenges are important to acknowledge, both to yourself and possibly to trusted colleagues who can offer helpful support and advice.
Make Time for Self-reflection
Reflecting on what you bring to the classroom can be a very useful exercise, for new teachers as well as seasoned ones. To stay motivated in your work and constantly improving, it’s important to regularly ask yourself:
- What are my strengths and limitations in the classroom?
- What limitations are most important to address right now?
- What’s my temperament in the classroom?
Don’t forget to take stock of what you have to offer. (It’s probably more than you think.) Create a list of all the positive qualities you bring to your students every single day just by showing up to do your job to the best of your ability. This exercise can do wonders for your self-confidence, which is an important element of being the best teacher you can be.
How to Be a Good Spanish Teacher: 13 Rules to Live By
1. Set a Good Example of Classroom Behavior
Students often take their cues from the adult in the room, so be aware of their eyes on you.
For example, if you regularly arrive to class late and flustered, the students will register that delayed starts to learning are acceptable and normal. If you’re there before the students arrive, with an objective for the day clearly written on the board, students will see that work begins as soon as they set foot in the classroom.
Model the behaviors you would like to see in your speech and actions.
2. Build and Maintain Rapport
Rapport is particularly important in a Spanish classroom where students need to risk making mistakes in order to progress.
On the first day of class, learn all of your students’ names and use them all so that each student feels that you’ve noticed him or her. Get to know your students as individuals: be discreet in your greetings with students who might seem reticent and warm them up gradually, and match extroverted students in their exuberance with jolly high fives and big smiles.
Amicable and open relationships between students in a classroom are just as important as solid student connections to the teacher.
3. Identify Your Students’ Learning Styles
Taking the time to learn how your students learn best and enjoy learning can pay dividends in the long term.
A quick written survey at the beginning of a semester can give you all sorts of insights into how your students learn best: who loves a group project? Who likes to draw and incorporate a bit of creativity into their learning? Who prefers to sit at the front of the classroom to avoid distractions?
Try this online learning style quiz for a quick, efficient way to home in on your students’ abilities and preferences.
A bit of investment at the beginning of a term to find out who needs what can save a lot of frustration on both your and your students’ parts in the long run.
4. Talk Openly About Classroom Expectations
Students nowadays often come to class feeling entitled to open and frequent communication with their teachers. You can use this to your advantage, as discussions about expectations are key to a mutually respectful classroom.
Students will appreciate knowing in advance what you want and expect from them, and they’ll feel positively if given an opportunity to voice their preferences.
You can express your desire for punctual start times and positive attitudes, for example, and they can express their need to receive their marked assessments within a reasonable time frame.
Not every student request will be met, obviously, but just the chance to discuss is worth a lot in terms of classroom harmony.
5. Make Room for Student Input as You’re Teaching
Make friendly eye contact and pause the lesson to listen when students need to communicate with you about their struggles and frustrations.
Don’t worry if this process breaks your teaching momentum at first; it may take some practice and getting used to, but you’ll soon learn to roll with the interruptions and perhaps even welcome them.
In fact, this can create essential space for your students to practice natural Spanish speech day-to-day in your classroom. Don’t hesitate to open student questions up to the class as a whole for a collaborative Spanish discussion.
Questions and worries truly are positive things as they reflect student engagement, and besides, meeting your students where they are is important in terms of relationship-building.
6. Offer Specific Positive Feedback
Students can benefit enormously from compliments that offer them insight into exactly what they did right. Positive feedback can guide students toward repeating the right behavior in the future while building their confidence.
Give students sincere feedback that pinpoints concrete behaviors and actions. Even something as seemingly small as a student nailing a difficult pronunciation can be worth noting. Throughout your semester or year, remind students of past successes and offer them achievable goals on a regular basis.
Showering the students with praise all the time can backfire, however, so save the big enthusiastic celebrations for challenging concepts and situations. Remember that specific positive comments mean so much more than general platitudes.
7. Assign Small Group Work
Small group work that encourages conversation is a growing trend in Spanish classrooms at the moment, and for good reason.
Plan ahead and think through the assessment of the group work as well as group dynamics. Students can learn a lot from their peers if group members are selected thoughtfully, and many students enjoy the social interactions of small group work.
Careful planning ensures that this time away from the teacher’s individualized focus turns into valuable learning time and not social hour.
8. Have Fun with Your Students
Boring classes are the worst.
But sometimes, from the teacher’s point of view, boring classes may also be unavoidable. How can you keep things interesting when teaching the subjunctive from every possible to angle to ensure understanding?
Keep it light, laugh at students’ jokes and acknowledge their attempts to be playful, when appropriate (and only when you mean it—kids are amazingly adept at noticing and judging inauthentic behavior). Kids naturally enjoy play, even when it’s verbal, and real camaraderie between a teacher and his or her students can make learning memorable and fun.
9. Always Be Ready to Teach
A bit of a no-brainer, but it has to be mentioned. Only teach what you know is correct and avoid winging it.
If you’re trying out a new lesson plan that you’ve never taught before, bring two or three additional plans with you in case your Plan A takes less time than you think. This saves you from feeling anxious (which usually shows) and prevents loss of valuable teaching time.
Pay attention to the learning games and activities that your students love and memorize their instructions so you can have them at the ready if you need them. Hold yourself to a rigorous standard of preparation before class meetings so that ultimate teacher readiness feels normal and automatic.
10. Check in on the Classroom Mood
Schools are complicated social environments, and often word travels fast, especially if the information impacts other members of the student body in a direct way. If the mood of a class seems different than what you normally experience, ask what’s going on.
Perhaps a friend is hurt or in trouble, or some significant drama has played out in the cafeteria or playground. They may not tell you all the details, but just the fact that you noticed a change and spoke up sends a message that you’re paying attention and that you care.
11. Don’t Take Changes in Behavior Personally
Two of my favorite great truths about teaching converge with this tip. First of all, great teachers are often sensitive beings; being sensitive to their environments and to students and colleagues in the first place has allowed their greatness to develop. Second, students of all ages can be unbelievably insensitive to their teachers!
Don’t forget that acting out and other negative behaviors can often mean a student is feeling pressured in some way, and it could easily have nothing to do with you. It might be worth trying to find out if the stress stems from your class or something else entirely.
Make a practice of keeping an unemotional eye out for changes in individual student behaviors. Hold it all at a healthy distance remembering that, sometimes, unruliness masks anxiety.
12. Focus on the Big Picture
Students need to make mistakes to learn, especially when learning Spanish.
Correcting every single error in pronunciation and spelling as they occur can be disheartening to learners. Shy students may withdraw even further if they’ve taken a chance by speaking up only to be corrected publicly in a disapproving way.
Apprehensive students especially need to be given extra space to make mistakes, so reward their participation and save the criticism for brief and infrequent private conversations.
Set clear and achievable learning objectives for every activity, and let some errors slide if they don’t impact the achievement of the main objective.
13. Let Students Take the Lead Occassionally
All teachers know that teaching well and effectively can be exhilarating, but it can also be exhausting. Implement practices into your teaching that ensure that the kids are doing the so-called heavy lifting while learning.
Is it time to sing in Spanish? Have your most extroverted student lead the singing. He or she will benefit from the pronunciation practice. Is it time to read out loud? Ask volunteers to do the reading. They’ll gain confidence hearing themselves speak in Spanish.
Never expend energy of your own that students can expend for you while learning and participating.
That winds down the practical checklist I have to offer, but this list is by no means complete.
Seasoned Spanish teachers everywhere have many a useful tip to offer, so perhaps you can select the most applicable and useful tips for your classroom and build on them. As the proverb goes, Rome wasn’t built in a day.
So, give yourself a pat on the back for working to improve and press on to become the best Spanish teacher you can be!
Lynn Ramsson is an educator who enjoys working with students of all ages. She has taught in Virginia and California, and now, she writes from the south coast of England where she lives with her family. She travels to Spain as often as she can, in search of the perfect gambas al ajillo.
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