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Retaining Foreign Language Teachers As Difficult As Finding Them

Robbie Feinberg
Maine Public
Greg Reed teaches Spanish to middle school students at Buckfield Junior-Senior High School.

Maine’s public schools can’t find enough foreign language teachers, and they’re having a hard time keeping those that they do hire.

In the second of a three-part series on the issue, Robbie Feinberg reports on how cultural stresses and heavy workloads are both factors in this critical shortage.

In the town of Buckfield, north of Lewiston, Greg Reed leads his middle school Spanish class in a round of animated call-and-response, throwing his hands in the air to emphasize the words.

Reed is proud of his Hispanic heritage. He spent more than a decade advocating for migrant workers in the fields of Aroostook County. When he switched to teaching at Presque Isle High School, he took his students on a field trip to meet those workers.

“The migrant workers asked them all sorts of questions, about their lives, backgrounds,” he says. “And it was so foreign, because they knew one area of northern Maine. So they both were exposed. It helped the student and the migrant workers.”

But Reed says as a teacher in northern Maine, he never felt comfortable sharing his heritage, particularly around some community members.

“We had some foreign exchange students in Presque Isle,” he says. “And I could hear teachers say, ‘Well he can’t speak English worth a bean. So he ain’t worth me teaching him.’ I’m flabbergasted to hear that. I just want to jump and say, ‘Are you kidding me. That’s your job as a teacher. He’s paying a lot of money to come here and not just from you, but everybody. Just the fact that he can’t speak or pronounce correctly, doesn’t mean you have to belittle what he doesn’t know.’“

Now, Reed has moved on to Buckfield, where he says he feels accepted. A district official in Presque Isle declined to comment on Reed’s story, but educators say they believe that cultural stresses are one of the factors having a chilling effect on the search for foriegn language teachers in Maine.

Jay Ketner, the world language specialist for the Maine Department of Education, says it’s not just that there aren’t enough qualified teachers.

“We have 500 individuals currently teaching a language. However, we have 1,092 individuals who are currently holding valid certification to teach a foreign language,” he says.

Ketner says that means there are 600 certified language instructors who are choosing not to teach.

“Some have moved into administration but maintain the certification,” he says. “But all of those 592 teachers surplus teachers who are holding that certification have left the classroom. So teacher retention is an issue in this. So to address the shortage, we need to bring in more teachers, but we also need to retain more teachers in our schools.”

However, retaining teachers is easier said than done. Nationally, 8 percent of all classroom teachers leave the profession every year, according to a recent report from the Learning Policy Institute. The reasons range from low pay to insufficient prep time.

Marty Abbott, the executive director of the American Council for the Teaching of Foreign Languages, says those same issues affect foreign language teachers, who can often use their skills to find other, better-paying jobs.

“Naturally, people are going into a wide variety of fields where we do need their language capabilities,” he says. “But we also need their language expertise to become teachers as well.”

If you ask foreign language teachers in Maine, they’ll tell you that their biggest challenge is workload. At the elementary and middle levels, many work in four or five schools at a time, which makes travel and planning difficult.

Even at the high school level, teachers say the demands are high. Janessa Trebouet, who teaches high school French in Brewer, says that the school has asked her to teach two different levels of French at the same time, in the same classroom.

“Well, at first I was really perplexed about how I’m going to do this,” she says.

Trebouet says she’s trying to be creative in solving the challenge by sending French 3 students out into the hall while the advanced students work in the classroom. But she says students aren’t satisfied with this workaround.

“I think my students are more upset about the combined classes than I am,” she says. “My French 3 students feel like the class is ten times harder than it is because they’re mixed in with kids above their ability level. They’re really intimidated. And my [French 4] and AP students are worried that they’re not going to get the necessary knowledge they need to pass their AP tests in May.”

The other challenge some teachers point to is a mindset, both locally and nationally, that questions the importance of learning a foreign language.

“Well you must have heard the joke. What do you call someone who speaks three languages? Trilingual. What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual. What do you call someone who speaks one language? American,” says Jane Smith, chairwoman of the modern language program at the University of Maine in Orono. “It’s just something about Americans, that we have this mindset that we don’t need to bother … Some argue that’s how it should be. But that’s pretty myopic thinking, especially as we become more interconnected with every other place in around the world.”

And Smith says she’s seen how that mindset affected two of her students: both French speakers, originally from Africa, who taught in rural Lincoln.

“I know they left that area because culturally, it was hard for them,” she says. “They also were surprised at the attitudes of students, that they don’t need to learn. There wasn’t that eagerness for learning. I know other teachers north of Bangor have lamented at how hard it is to motivate students. For them it’s completely foreign. Well, we need to do what we can to make it not so foreign.”

So how do you change an attitude that’s embedded in much of American culture? There is one approach that some teachers point to — starting early.

Once a week, Sachiko Clough walks into an elementary school classroom at the Marcia Buker School in Richmond to teach Japanese. Even though the language is so foreign to these students, Clough says she’s able to connect and engage through pop culture — Pokemon and anime.

“Especially that first year, they get really excited to learn something new,” she says. “I want them to keep that excitement and motivation.”

The goal, she says, is to make students feel comfortable with foreign languages when they’re only 7 or 8. That way, when they’re high schoolers, language won’t seem so foreign.

“The point is, if they don’t like it, they’ll never learn it,” Clough says. “If they lose interest, they’ll never learn. They’ll never reach proficiency.”

This early approach has been embraced by another rural state: Utah. The state launched an initiative back in 2008 to create “dual immersion” classrooms in about 20 percent of Utah’s elementary schools, where staff teach the class in a language other than English.

The initiative costs about $3.2 million a year, or about $100 a student, says Gregg Roberts with Utah’s Department of Education. He says that investment will make thousands of students bilingual by the time they graduate.

“We realize that Utah is a small state, so for our survival, we must have multilingual, cultural skills,” he says.

Ketner says Maine hasn’t really considered this approach. But Portland Public Schools has one immersion classroom. And other districts say they’re looking at immersion locally as a way to create structural changes in language instruction across Maine.