I'm a French teacher being forced to teach Spanish! The only good thing about teaching Spanish is Ricky Martin!" says Danielle Edwards, who has been with Edwards-Knox Central School District in upstate New York for 16 years. She's only half kidding.
When you are born to a French-speaking family, your father and other relatives teach French, and you are raising your son to be fluent in both French and English, it's pretty safe to say that a penchant for the language will always be in your blood.
At the time Edwards was hired by the small district to teach French, it was the only language offering. Several years later, when a Spanish program was launched, Edwards says she asked the superintendent if she should continue her studies to become certified in Spanish, as well. "He said, 'No need. We'll always have French.' "
Then French began falling out of favor at the school. High school Principal Jeff Davis says that eventually the district could only support one language program, and a decision was made that it would be Spanish. Now the French program is being phased out, and Edwards must earn that Spanish certification after all. "If I didn't switch, I would lose my position," she says, adding that she has two years to complete her studies.
Five years ago, Edwards says she could have taken a course here and there to become certified. Today, with a young child and another on the way-as well as her teaching, which means days split between Edwards-Knox and a neighboring district-she doesn't have much extra time. But she's doing what she has to do.
The whole experience, she says, "really shattered my self-worth within the school. I feel like I've totally lost my connection." The trips to France and other things done to help students get to know and love the language and culture were all for nothing, she says. "It really, really was devastating."
Edwards is not the only foreign language educator whose livelihood is in jeopardy. "Maybe once or twice a month, I get a message from a teacher saying, 'Our school board is going to be doing away with French,' " says Jayne Abrate, executive director of the American Association of Teachers of French. Programs are often saved when teachers are vigilant, but the end result is not always so rosy.
Having to retrain teachers is just one negative result of the trend toward Spanish as the overwhelming K-12 language program of choice. "It is a major issue in the profession because it really does seem to be taking over completely," says Nancy Rhodes, director of foreign language education at the Center for Applied Linguistics.
SPANISH BY DEFAULT Close to one-third of all public high school students in the U.S. took Spanish in 2000, according to the most recent American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages enrollment survey. The next most popular language was French, with just 8 percent enrollment.
When schools are required to offer a language, "it's always Spanish," notes Helene Zimmer-Loew, executive director of the American Association of Teachers of German. For districts adding early childhood programs, some choose French or an Asian language, but generally Spanish has become the "default language," says Carol Klein, executive director of the American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese.
This was hardly the historical status quo. In the early 20th century, Latin and German got top billing in schools, with about half of students taking Latin and one-quarter taking German, according to 1905, 1910 and 1915 ACTFL surveys. And Spanish? "When our group was established in 1917, nobody was studying Spanish," Klein says.
Language experts don't dispute that Spanish is useful in the U.S., where Hispanics are the largest minority group. But at what cost is its overwhelming popularity to other languages, to the Spanish teaching profession itself, to our country's future and to students who want to take a language that clicks personally?
MIXING IT UP In a profession where educators must stick together to survive, what the foreign language education associations seem to agree on is no surprise-that districts should offer students a choice of languages. "There is no inherent benefit to learning Spanish over French or German or Japanese, or even Latin," says Abrate.
"We encourage school districts to offer as many languages as they can, starting as early as possible and lasting as long as possible," says ACTFL President Martha Abbott, who is also director of high school instruction and K-12 curriculum services at Fairfax County (Va.) Public Schools and a former Spanish and Latin teacher.
Proficiency is the name of the game, and one of the most obvious reasons for playing is a patriotic one. "We are not a bilingual country. We are a multilingual country," Abrate says. Rhodes adds, "Who knows what our [future] language needs are going to be?"
"When you're talking about national security, the needs change relatively rapidly," Abrate says. It used to be Russian, now it's Arabic and it will likely be Korean soon. Ten or 12 years down the line, "you never know what language might be needed," she says.
Even if those needs aren't anticipated by districts now, students who have mastered a second language find it much easier to pick up a third or fourth, Abbott says. When districts offer a strong mix of languages, students have the chance for language layering, or taking advanced courses in a second language while starting a third.
Unfortunately these opportunities to learn additional languages are relatively rare. "America in general has put a low priority on language instruction," Klein says. "We came up short on September 11th."
But if Rod Paige has his way, changes are on the horizon. "All future measures of a rigorous K-12 education must include a solid grounding in other cultures, other languages and other histories," explains the U.S. Secretary of Education in a recent press release highlighting international education priorities. "In other words, we need to put the 'world' back into 'world-class' education."
Part of educating worldly students is helping them connect with a language and culture of their choice. "Not every student is going to ... develop an affinity to Spanish," says Abrate. "It's almost like dealing with food or a work of art. Some people have an affinity for certain artists or certain types of food. [Students who have] an affinity for the language they're studying will make much more progress."
Districts may reap the reputation benefits of offering a language mix. For example, Zimmer-Loew says that students interested in German like its perceived difficulty level. Schools with "a well-established, highly academic program with an excellent reputation" tend to go beyond the Romance languages to offer German, Russian, Japanese, Chinese or other languages for students who want a challenge.
What if a district simply can't support multiple language programs? "If it's only possible to do one language but do it well, then one language will do. If it's at all feasible to do more than one language, that's the better offer," Klein says.
DECISIONS, DECISIONS Do it for the right reasons. That's key in selecting which languages to offer in a district, experts say.
Public surveys are helpful in gauging interest, right? "If you do a survey, Spanish will always come up [on top]," Abrate says. "You're feeding into stereotypes about which languages are needed and why to learn a language. People don't always know."
How about choosing a language where teachers are available? Wrong assumptions about the numbers of teachers with Spanish certifications can also drive decision-making, Abrate says.
The selections should, instead, consider the size and ethnic makeup of the community, experts agree. And the decisions don't necessarily have to be district-wide. In diverse Fairfax County, for example, a mainly Korean neighborhood is the reason one high school offers that language, Abbott says. Three high schools have Arabic programs, and two have Chinese, also because of ethnic pockets. At the elementary level, the district has 13 partial immersion programs where students learn the regular content of certain curriculum areas through the second language. French, German, Japanese and Spanish are offered, so parents can opt to apply their children to a school with their language of choice.
No matter what languages are chosen, keep the higher education community in mind as a resource. Foreign language specialists can assist districts in identifying national trends, professional development and program implementation, says Teresa Kennedy, editor of a newsletter published by the National Association of District Supervisors of Foreign Languages. As an assistant professor of foreign language/bilingual education at the University of Idaho, Kennedy has a good idea of what the higher education community can provide.
CUTS LIKE A KNIFE "When budget cuts come, it's one of the first things to go," says Abrate of foreign language programs. Despite languages being a core subject in No Child Left Behind legislation, they are still seen as fringe programs. One reason they're vulnerable, says Abbott, is that language positions are generally itinerant ones.
Administrators and school boards tend to base language program cuts on budget, with input sought from the schools and the community at large. But sometimes the administrators with the most stake in the decision are left out. One district foreign language director, for example, recently discovered her district was considering an elimination of French and German programs at the middle schools, with only Spanish remaining. "I cannot understand why I was not included in these 'committee meetings' when it directly falls under my supervision," she says.
The greatest impact of programs being phased out is felt by teachers themselves. Say a district decides to expand its Spanish program to include elementary grades. The easy answer is to shift teachers around to fill the new positions, Klein says. But if a teacher is retrained to maintain a place in the district, "the likelihood of burnout is going to be great. The kids are not going to get a fair shake," she says.
Abrate says that retraining French teachers is not a widespread problem, but it's a serious one when it occurs. Educators choose a particular language because of love and admiration for it and its culture. Asking them to switch "would be comparable to asking a biology teacher to start teaching physics. They're [both] science but it's two different disciplines."
German teachers tend to be certified to teach another subject-such as social studies or even math, says Zimmer-Loew. When their language programs are cut, it's often not a matter of retraining. But it is a heartbreaker. "There's a greater psychological connection to another language than to some of the other subjects in the curriculum," she says.
When districts feel they have no choice but to "recycle" their language teachers, experts believe an understanding about the burden of their request is crucial. Can release time be offered for the teacher to take courses in the new language? Can a mentor partnership be put together, perhaps through a local college?
Klein knows of one Spanish teacher who started out teaching German. The district got her a stipend to study in Spain, where she took Spanish classes taught at first in German. Little by little, she began taking Spanish-taught classes. "It's not automatic," Klein points out.
Janet Ross Snyder, originally a Spanish teacher, was asked by her Kansas district to replace a retiring French teacher. With just 16 college credit hours of French, Snyder spent the summer in a French immersion program, then began teaching French. In her spare time, she would listen to French radio stations online, read French and write to every willing French-speaking pen pal she could find.
"After all the time and effort I've spent trying to learn French, I still don't feel as comfortable in that language as in Spanish and I don't feel I could teach French as effectively as I could teach Spanish." Now she's living in Canada-teaching English.
GOOD NEWS, BAD NEWS As more and more districts move toward Spanish as their foreign language focus area, Klein's organization is all too aware that all districts seem to be stuck without enough Spanish teachers. "German and French teachers are probably saying, 'You're cutting off your nose to spite your face,' " she adds.
Districts shouldn't just hire anybody to fill open slots, she cautions. The perception may be that Spanish is easy, but Klein points out the reality:"Spanish is easy to do poorly."
Another misconception hurting the Spanish teaching profession is that they've got it easy-because "students are coming in droves, there's not a whole lot we need to do to attract them," Klein says. "That's not an incentive for excellence."
She likens it to a church with a mortgage. Parishioners do everything they can to pay off the debt. Once that mortgage is paid, the congregation falls apart in some ways because the motivation is gone. In the Spanish profession, the push for new ways of doing things is gone.
On the plus side, however, the focus on Spanish has brought a traditionally ignored area to the forefront. Heritage learners, or students with Spanish-speaking families, have different educational needs. When districts must integrate these students, it's a huge challenge for teachers.
But language educators are realizing that heritage learners bring abilities and enrichment to the class. There are "ways to utilize heritage learners as your resource people, not as your problems," Klein says, adding that it's all the more reason to ensure Spanish programs are taught by qualified teachers. "You have to be savvy about how to bring out the best of the various groups."
Melissa Ezarik, firstname.lastname@example.org, is features editor.