My name is Tiffany Pistole and I was a horrible Spanish student. I just didn’t get it. I started college with a plan to be an English teacher. So how did I end up here?
(It’s a long story)
In 2004, at the age of 19, my husband convinced me to study abroad in Spain. “It’ll befun” he said. We had gotten married in 2002 only a month after we graduated high school (and are still married today). We applied for the foreign exchange program at our local, rural, university. Accepted to the program in 2003, we would be the first married couple accepted to the study abroad program at Shawnee State University.
Since neither of us had travelled much outside of Ohio, it made perfect sense to move to a foreign country where we didn’t speak the language at the age of 19, right?
We both enrolled in the same introductory Spanish class at Universitat Juame I. Despite studying for hours, I just didn’t get it. I was the class idiot. I never knew what was going on or what the teacher was talking about. My teacher knew English but refused to speak it, which only frustrated me more. But I loved the city. I loved the culture. I loved the friends we made. And I refused to give up.
After six months in Castelló de la Plana, it was time to buckle down and finish my degree. I took one Education class and hated it. I still wanted to teach, but decided the Education Program was not for me.
I switched from Education to General English, planning to get my license with my Master’s degree. As an English Generalist, I had room to pursue additional electives. My advisor was NOT supportive. Besides advising me not to go to Spain in 2004, she all but told me to give up. She discouraged me from increasing my course load, and hinted that I wasn’t cut out for teaching, or the Honors program, or grad school. At least once, she changed my major and I had to go to the Chair of the Department to change it back. She wouldn’t sign off on my increased course load and I had to get permission from the Dean to take additional hours each quarter so I could graduate on time.
Flash forward to 2006. I graduated from the Honors Program! I earned my Bachelor of English with minors in Spanish, TESOL, and linguistics! Ha!
My husband had graduated from the university with a degree in Social Sciences a year earlier and had spent a year applying for graduate schools. His goal was to become a History professor at the university. His academic advisor suggested the University of Aberdeen in Aberdeen, Scotland. So, in September 2006, we packed our bags and set off for a 9-month adventure in Scotland!
Unsure of what I would do while my husband was in class all day, I had decided to make a last-minute application for the Theology program at Aberdeen University. My application was accepted just in time to apply for a student, rather than a visitor’s visa. At Aberdeen (although I was clueless at the time), I studied under two of Scotland’s most honored and respected intellectuals: Dr. Simon Gathercole and Dr. Peter J. Williams (Dr. Gathercole is one of the translators for the New International Version of the Bible while Dr. Williams aided in the translation of the English Standard Version).
At Aberdeen, I decided to take classes in New Testament Greek. In stark contrast with my experience trying to learn Spanish, I excelled in Greek and quickly became one of the top students in my Greek classes!
Unfortunately, as much as I loved Koine Greek, I didn’t keep up with it once we came back to the States. But, I do hold a 2-year degree from the University of Aberdeen and would love to take the classes needed to earn my Bachelor of Divinity with a focus on Greek (…one day).
In 2007, I decided to start substitute teaching. The plan was to sub until I could get hired as a high school English teacher. Although I didn’t have my teaching license, Ohio had adopted the Alternative Licensure Program–a program that would let me start teaching while I took classes leading to licensure (which I would pursue in the form of a Master’s Degree).
I established myself as a substitute at a small, but charming, school district. One day I was approached by the superintendent. The district was in need of a high school teacher for the following school year and wanted to know if I was interested!!! But the position wasn’t for an English teacher. They needed someone to teach Spanish.
It wasn’t the English teacher job I was hoping for, but it WAS a full-time teaching position. So, I threw myself into studying for the Spanish Praxis exam and, whenever I wasn’t substitute teaching, I shadowed the teacher who I would be replacing when she retired that May.
Then in February 2008, I got a phone call from another district that needed someone to fill-in as a long-term substitute teacher from March until May, and instead of shadowing a Spanish teacher, I BECAME a Spanish teacher!
Me and one of my students, Josie, pause for a picture. Her hand is covered in glue from making piñatas. 2008 or 2009
When my time was up as a long-term substitute, I returned to district I had been planning to work for the following year. But when I went to sign the full-time contract I had been promised, I was told the district only had the money to hire a part-time teacher. I was crushed. No insurance. No benefits.
In order to qualify to become licensed under the Alternative Licensure program, I was required to be teaching full-time. This seemed like a dead end. Until I got a call from the district where I had worked as a long-term substitute. The teacher I was filling in for wanted to take a year off to stay home with her baby and they wanted to hire me for one year as a full-time teacher!
So my choices were: Take the part-time position at the district I loved, but felt betrayed by and work my butt off to get my Master’s Degree in a year (circumventing the Alternative Licensure Program) or take the one-year position that was full-time, but only for a year–which could mess up my chances at becoming licensed if I didn’t find another full-time position the next year.
After discussing my options with my husband, I took the one-year, full-time position and started my first full-time teaching job in August 2008. At the end of the school year, I was approached by the principal and assistant principal. They said they really appreciated me filling in for a year, and would like me to come back the next year! The teacher I had been filling in for had requested an additional year of leave, but the school district had denied her request. Instead, they had told her if she did not come back that school year, they were going to offer me her position. At the time, I took that as a huge compliment–they liked me so much that they didn’t want to see me go! In hindsight, though, I doubt that was the case (a topic I might discuss in a future blog post).
After a couple of great years, and three not-so-good years, I decided to walk away from that job. But in those five years, I earned my Master’s Degree, gave birth to my two wonderful children, and developed a love and passion for teaching Spanish.
I remembered the shame I felt as the “class idiot” in Spain and determined never to subject my students to the same humiliation. It’s for that reason that I’m still hesitant to jump on board with the 90/10 target language crowd.
For the first three years of teaching, I had no textbook. I requested one every year, but my request was denied. All of my teaching materials were ones I either made myself, or purchased with my own money. It was hard, but I am so thankful that my textbook requests were denied. It gave me the freedom to teach TO the students instead of teaching AT them. It was a lot of trial and error. I spent hours at the school making worksheets. This was before I’d ever heard of Teachers Pay Teachers, Comprehensible Input, Facebook Teacher Groups, or the “throw away your textbook” movement.
In 2013, I walked away from high school teaching and embarked on two new adventures: being a stay-at-home mom to my children (Lily was born in 2011 and Micah in April 2013) and adjunct teaching at the university where I had earned my Bachelor’s Degree seven years earlier.
As it turns out, the faculty copier was directly in front of my former advisor’s office! The same advisor who had been so discouraging during my four years of undergraduate school was now my colleague! Looking at her office door every day encouraged me to remember how far I’d come. It also reminded me to be an encourager to my students–to push them to do well and succeed.
Looking back, my journey is nothing like I had planned. But every curve and bump in the road helped to make me the person and teacher I am today.
My struggle to learn Spanish helps me to relate to students when they are struggling. I can look at them and honestly say “I’ve been there. I know how you feel, and I can help.” The three years I struggled without a textbook pushed me to design my own content. Leaving my high school job and teaching at the university level helped me to see that, often, we as high school teachers are not doing enough to prepare students for college.
My journey hasn’t been easy, but it has been worth it. It is my desire and my passion to use what I have learned to encourage both students and educators to work hard and never to give up. Teachers–keep learning, keep collaborating, keep creating. Your students depend on you.
The journey is never easy. But I can promise you that it is always worth it.