Southeast Student Plunges Into Spanish Language, Culture to Become Better Teacher


HeatherRay_WTDWedSoutheast Missouri State University graduate student Heather Ray of Portageville, Missouri, has traveled to Peru and back this summer and participated in the Southeast Regional Professional Development Center’s Migrant and English Language Learner (MELL) summer school program, all in an effort to immerse herself in the Spanish language so she can better connect with her students in Hornersville, Missouri, when classes reconvene this fall.

Ray, a 2015 Southeast graduate of the College of Education’s alternate certification program and currently pursuing her master’s degree in secondary education, spent three weeks earlier this summer in Cusco, Peru, as part of a Spanish Immersion Program with Maximo Nivel, a professional organization operating locally-based educational institutes in Central and South America.

For Ray, who just completed her second year of teaching seventh and eighth grade science at Senath-Hornersville Middle School, learning Spanish is important for her to communicate with her students and their parents. The middle school serves a large farming community with many migrant workers, and for children and adults alike, English can be a difficult second language.

“My first year of teaching, I started picking up on some concepts that the students are missing in the traditional classroom,” Ray said. “I saw that when they didn’t understand something, they would translate it back to Spanish, but when they would do that, it would change the meaning.”

Teaching seventh grade physical science would be especially difficult because many of the lessons are very concept based. On two separate occasions, she noticed her students would translate “weight” to ”peso,” and “mass” to ”mesa.”

“When my students would say these Spanish words to me, I only knew them based on my English understanding of ‘money’ and ‘plateau,’ and then this would lead me to tell my students their understanding was wrong,” described Ray. “This in turn, created a whole lesson of misunderstandings.”

When she searched on the Internet for these and many other words, she realized the meanings wouldn’t always sync. She wanted to give her students more so that ideas wouldn’t be literally lost in translation.


Heather Ray with her host family’s daughter Martha Morales Yepez (right) and two Maximo Nivel immersion program students, Alexis Mont and Beth Rotenberg.

“For me as an educator, wanting to push my students into success, this was not acceptable, and I chose to do something about it,” Ray said.

She said she knew she could fix this one lesson, but wondered how many other lessons were being compromised because of her lack of understanding of the students’ culture and language.

In Peru, Ray lived with a host family, who only spoke Spanish, and she received daily four-hour lessons with private teachers.

“You realize how many words you don’t know when you go to form a whole sentence,” she said.

Being surrounded by a new language and culture was difficult but she said she wanted to challenge and force herself to learn. She felt the program brought her closer to how her students feel every day in Missouri.

“It was great because this is what my students are immersed in,” she said, adding her students speak English at school but return home where “it’s all Spanish. I can tell where those moments in the classroom are getting lost or confused because they almost have to reset every time they enter or leave their home.”

During her three weeks in Peru, Ray also got to visit the local markets and shops as well as many historical and beautiful places near Cusco, including Machu Pichu, Rainbow Mountain, Sacred Valley and Moray archaeological site.

“It was a great moment for me as a teacher to realize how stagnant it can be sitting in a classroom every day,” Ray said. “It can be easy to fall into a routine that stays the same, but to realize how much a lesson can be broadened with a little bit of change” was enlightening.

One of the most satisfying aspects of the three-week program, she said, was the chance to help native Peruvians learn English. One of her private teachers invited her to a session he was teaching a local group on how to pronounce “th” sounds. This is difficult for native Peruvians who don’t have that sound in their language, she said.

“For instance, I was always ‘Heater’ not ‘Heather,’” explained Ray. “They were so excited to see me come in the room and sit down with them. They took me in with open arms.”

Heather Ray with one of her Peruvian teachers, Julio Cesar.

Heather Ray with one of her Peruvian teachers, Julio Cesar.

They asked her to check their homework and she would practice words and pronunciation, something that was difficult for her too, said Ray.

“It was a great moment for me to feel so comfortable with a crowd that you don’t know and be able to share things like that and not be embarrassed,” she said.

Her own difficulties learning a new language could be stressful, but those experiences will help her grow to be a better teacher, Ray said. One session during her final week in Peru with a new private teacher helped her realize the importance of connecting with her students.

“It overwhelmed me so quickly because I couldn’t understand what he was saying, and I felt myself shutting down, thinking this is not how I’m going to learn,” remembered Ray. “But that was a good moment for me as a teacher because I can reflect back to moments I may have went too fast with my lesson or been in the front of the classroom drilling my students. How often do I do that to my students and how can I frame my lessons to steer clear of this habit and recognize the signs a student is shutting down?”

Upon her return in mid-June, Ray was excited to put everything she had learned to use and participated in the MELL summer school program, a month-long educational program. She communicates with her host family and is taking daily Spanish lessons online and with a private tutor.

In late August, when she returns to teaching, she says she can’t wait to show her students how much she’s learned. She looks forward to making a difference not only in the classroom, but with the parents who won’t miss those opportunities to hear of their children’s success because she can’t speak to them.

“Just knowing I can have a positive impact” is important, Ray said. “My students’ ability to adapt is what truly amazes me. But the larger lesson they are teaching is to not become stuck in one mode or one culture. It is our responsibility to grow, change, and most of all appreciate the differences among us. ”