by Haily Pribyl-Shay
Although there were numerous moments of pure fear and embarrassment this past semester at Leal, there was not a day spent without heartfelt gestures from students and staff that made me feel at ease. I became familiar with the routines of my teachers. I also understood what my purpose was in the classroom and how I was best able to help the students.
My routine usually began by sitting at my table in the corner of the fifth grade classroom. I would observe the class and wait as they finished up their Daily Oral Language exercises. The fifth graders would then be split up into vocabulary groups to check their homework, and I was assigned a student to help with their homework in spelling or vocabulary. After working with the fifth graders, I would head to the second grade classroom. There were two other volunteers in the classroom when I was there, so we usually spread ourselves out amongst the different activity stations. At first nervous and intimidated by my first grade students, I quickly learned how I could make the most of my time in the classroom. Working with students one-on-one helped to rapidly develop my speaking skills while also boosting my confidence as a volunteer in the classroom. This gave me a more specific purpose, which helped to focus my attention and make the most of my time spent with students. For example, helping children count coins in small groups, I learned the importance of patience and encouragement. While some of the students did not want to participate in the activity or simply did not follow directions, I began to get frustrated. I was having trouble thinking of commands to ask them to nicely put the coins back or count the money I had laid out in front of them. I felt almost helpless not being able to communicate with my students, and I was frustrated with myself for not knowing how to say what I wanted to. These types of situations persisted throughout my volunteer days, some more challenging than others. Though looking back, I am thankful that I was able to learn from my mistakes and better understand what I need to work on as a Spanish student.
As the days dwindled down and I was fast approaching my last day in the classrooms, I attempted to make the most of my experiences at Leal. There was one moment in particular that helped boost my confidence as a language learner and further reiterated why I enjoy working in the classroom. I was working with a group of fifth graders in the hallway, and I was not sure what one of the students should be doing with me because his homework had already been completed. Speaking in Spanish to another student across the table, he said that he needed to finish his art project for another teacher. I understood what he had said and assured him that it would be ok if he finished it quickly. Although that was a small and insignificant moment for the student, I was proud of myself for understanding what he had said. Trying to understand various age groups of Spanish speakers was more challenging than I thought. Many times, I had no trouble in understanding what the second grade teacher said because I am used to hearing my professors at U of I speak in much the same way. Being able to observe these differences and learn first-hand what it takes to communicate on a regular basis in a second language, I was given a unique and gratifying opportunity that has undoubtedly helped me grow as a Spanish speaker. I think that I learned just as much, if not more, from the students as they had learned from me. I hope to be able to use these skills and my newfound confidence as a Spanish speaker in future volunteer or teaching opportunities.