Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Fire:
Reflections of a First Year Immersion Teacher

The ACIE Newsletter, November 2004, Vol. 8, No. 1

by Molly Anderson, Foruth Grade French Immersion Teacher, Normandale Elementary, Edina, MN

Tonya Dexter, third grade bilingual teacher, reads a story to a group of her students

Molly Anderson and her fourth grade French immersion students.

It’s funny, but I never thought I would be a teacher. And here I am, a first year teacher at Normandale French Immersion Elementary School. Years ago I graduated from the University of Minnesota—Twin Cities and set out East to enjoy a rewarding career in public relations. As it turned out I didn’t find that job to be so rewarding. I moved back to Wisconsin, stayed with my parents, and rethought the course of my life.

I had always loved French language and culture. Because of this love, as well as my successful experiences working with kids, I began to consider the teaching profession. I chose to return to the University of Minnesota in the Second Languages and Cultures Postbaccalaureate Program to earn my licenses in French and ESL. In all honesty, I only wanted to teach French, but I knew having two K-12 licenses would make me more marketable.

Once I became a language-teacher-to-be postbac, I certainly never thought I would be an immersion teacher! Throughout my fifteen months in this language teacher development program, I geared my thoughts and studies towards secondary language teaching, mainly because that is what I knew best. I grew up learning French in the traditional secondary setting and, for a French-loving person living in the Midwest, this was, I thought, the best opportunity for me to use my French and work with kids.

First exposure to immersion
My first glimpse of immersion education occurred during a visit to Normandale Elementary School to observe a second grade class for an assignment. I was blown away by the speaking ability of these immersion kids. Seven- and eight- year-olds were carrying on conversations that I wasn’t capable of until high school and college!

I was impressed with the concept of immersion and teaching language through content. Until then content-based instruction had been an abstract idea we had discussed at length in our seminars at the university. Though we had studied how to integrate content into a traditional language-learning environment, our discussions had also considered the challenges of teaching a language in both immersion and traditional language learning settings. As anyone who has taught a world language (in any setting) or done research on language learning knows, one of the main challenges of the traditional setting is getting students to speak fluently. The challenge of the immersion setting, however, is getting students to understand new concepts and correctly use grammar. The impact of the difference between these two challenges is something I am still only beginning to understand.

Unbeknownst to me, my observation of second grade would not be my last time at Normandale. Just before my final student teaching placement I attended a job fair in downtown Minneapolis where I met several of the Human Resource staff for the Edina Public Schools, as well as the principal of Normandale Elementary. I felt very welcome and comfortable talking with the staff and jumped at the chance to interview for an opening at their French immersion elementary school. Though I was excited (and nervous) to interview, I was still not sure I wanted to teach in an elementary setting. As I said, throughout the past year I had geared myself towards secondary language instruction. In addition, I knew that the licenses I was about to earn—K-12 French and ESL—did not qualify me to teach elementary students. If I were offered a job, and if I were to accept, I would have to return to school—again—to pursue an elementary license.

Choosing immersion
As it turns out, the interview went well and I was offered a job as one of four fourth-grade teachers at Normandale Elementary. Despite the additional schooling this decision would require, I accepted the position for two reasons. First, teaching in an immersion school helps me attain two important life goals: to have a career that I love and of which I am proud and to improve my own French language skills. Second, the more I thought about immersion education, the more I realized that working in an immersion school was the only way for me to teach a foreign language. I had always assumed that I would teach French in a traditional secondary setting where students are in French class for less than one hour per day. After spending time in the immersion setting I realized that immersion is the best way for students to learn a second language because they use the language throughout the school day in authentic content-based contexts. As I thought more about language teaching I was excited about the prospect of speaking entirely in the second language and teaching language through important and meaningful subject matter study (something my postbac classes had consistently urged me to do).
My decision to move toward immersion teaching was cemented when I spent three weeks student teaching at Normandale at the end of the 2003-04 academic year. Once again, I was impressed that the students could speak so well and learn the same district-mandated 3rd grade curriculum, only in a second language. I was awed by the genuine warmth of the students, staff and community at Normandale, and by the end of the three weeks I couldn’t wait to start my first year of teaching with my very own immersion classroom.
These first three weeks of school have been a struggle, but they have also been some of the most rewarding weeks of my life. Every day I am learning from my teammates, my students and myself. I think my learning curve is steeper than that of my students this year! It promises to be a year full of learning and growth. I am excited to be at school every day and have the opportunity to engage in meaningful conversations (in French!) with my students and colleagues. Though I never thought I would become a teacher, let alone a French immersion teacher, today I can't imagine any other place I would rather be.