For the first two hours of our acquaintance, I believed this was a fact. You see, when I met Debbie, she was teaching a class about language teaching and speaking excellent French the entire time. She was so good, in fact, that by the end of the class, even the neophytes were making a bit of correct (if comically basic) French conversation.
But here’s the thing: Debbie Spear is not French — she’s American. She was simply using a technique to take my group out of our comfort zone — a method of immersion teaching that helps students understand what it’s like to enter a learning environment with no prior knowledge of the subject matter. In addition to being engaging, it was successful. That’s how Debbie works. Like all of the teachers at Wetzel Languages, she uses her own knowledge and experience to enrich lessons so that they’re authentic, captivating and effective.
For nearly nine years, Debbie has worked as a language teacher and cultural trainer at Wetzel. She kindly let me pick her brain about her experience with culture and language education.
How did you get into teaching? When did you start at Wetzel?
About nine years ago, I began volunteering at Greenville Literacy. I gained my TESOL certificate shortly thereafter and have been working as an instructor and volunteer ever since.
What are your certifications?
In addition to a degree in English, I’ve got a masters in Library Science and a TESOL certification.
What lesson do you most enjoy conducting in language classes? In culture seminars?
I really enjoy introductory lessons — meeting new people and working with them to make culture shock useful. I’m not originally from the South, and I use my own experience with Southern culture to help newcomers understand. It can seem like an entirely different country here, but I feel lucky to have landed in a place with such a strong cultural identity and history.
What materials do you use in the classroom?
I always make sure to have a good grammar text on hand. Depending on the student and level of understanding, I use Southern-themed pieces — oral histories, contemporary notions, and articles from publications like The Economist or The New Yorker.
For your language lessons and intercultural training seminars, you have students from varied backgrounds. Tell me about some positive and negative issues you’ve encountered with diverse students.
I’ve had mostly positive experiences. Aside from the very few cases of arrogance or hostility, I find that people are willing and eager to expand their knowledge of the English language and American culture. I try to keep things interesting by introducing them to Southern food and traditions, and I have to say that my experience has been supremely positive and that I’ve felt more at home since being welcomed into the community here.
Tell me about some of your travels. How do you use those experiences to enrich your teaching method?
I’ve lived in France, but I have to admit that it was slightly more jarring to move to the American South. I suppose I was expecting the cultural shift in making an international move, but I hadn’t predicted how different it could be simply moving to a different region of the U.S. Having settled into different cultures lets me empathize with those who are relocating. I can help them get a positive experience out of something that can be nerve-wracking at times. Also, because I’ve experienced immersion into other languages, I can more easily predict and therefore avoid linguistic errors.
I’ve heard you speak French, but are there any other languages in your repertoire?
At one point, I was almost adequate in Spanish. I began learning it years ago to help me communicate with students. I’m currently working with Italian and German and have dabbled in Hebrew, ASL, and even Farsi. Thinking about languages is my hobby.
In your opinion, how can students make the most of their language and culture lessons?
My advice to language learners is to get involved in the community wherever you are. Surround yourself with English speakers and bring your questions into class, however small.