Professional Development Lessons from the Foreign Language Classroom

 March 29, 2023

declension chart for 'the' in German
Declension chart for the definite article in German. Source: Wikimedia Common

Being a successful German teacher requires a very specific set of skills. You have to be able to pronounce words like Eichhörnchen, the German word for squirrel, and remember the six different German words for the and when to use which one. Moreover, you have to be able to teach students to do the same! This might seem like an arcane set of skills only of use in the classroom or when speaking German. But in fact, I’ve found that the lessons I’ve learned from teaching German have shaped how I think about professional development. Here are four insights I have gained from the foreign language classroom that have been essential not only to my development as a teacher, but to thinking about how to plan my future career trajectory and achieve my professional goals.

1. Getting Started (Even When You Don’t Know Exactly What You’re Doing)

When teaching German, I generally follow what’s called the communicative approach, which focuses on learning language by using it in real-life contexts. As part of this approach, I try to use as a little English in the classroom as possible, even on the first day of class! I typically begin the first day of the semester by greeting the students and introducing myself in German. After modelling the proper linguistic formulations, I prompt students to do the same, typically using lots of gestures and repetition. While communicating in this way can be surprisingly effective, it requires creativity, an awareness of non-verbal communication cues, and, most importantly, a willingness to use the language even if you don’t entirely understand what is happening or what you’re saying.

For many students (myself included), learning-by-doing in this this way can be uncomfortable. They want to have it all figured out before they form their first sentence. But in language learning, as in career planning, it can be good to get started even before you know exactly what you’re doing. The different career options you have available to you and the steps you need to take to take to achieve them can be overwhelming, and it’s sometimes hard to know where to start. But that’s ok! Attend a professional development workshop, set up an informational interview, or start developing a new skill. You don’t have to know exactly where you’re going in order to take the first steps toward getting there.

2. Planning Ahead While Leaving Room for Spontaneity

A 60-minute language class period goes by quickly and there’s a lot that needs to be accomplished, but it can often be hard to predict how much you can get done in an hour. While I’ve gotten better at predicting how long different activities will take, I tend to err on the side of planning too much rather than too little, so that we never run out of things to do. Planning lessons in this way sometimes requires quick thinking and making decisions on the fly. Can I abbreviate this activity and still achieve what I intended to? Can students complete this task as homework? Does it make sense to skip an activity so that we can be sure to have enough time for something else more important?

While sometimes it might be nice for a lesson to be planned perfectly to the minute, allowing for this degree of variability has its advantages. By responding to the needs of my students, I can do an impromptu review of a grammatical concept or linger on an especially rich classroom discussion. Approaching lesson planning in this way hones my skills in time management and prioritization on the fly, but it also provides a useful model for thinking about career planning. Yes, you need to make goals and identify the steps needed to archive them. But if you plan out your career trajectory too exactly, you will rob yourself of the opportunity to adjust as needed according to the situation and take advantage of unexpected opportunities. Things never go exactly as planned, and the ability to deal with that rather than trying to plan every last thing down to the minute, can add energy to your professional life, just as it does in the classroom.

3. Focusing on the Long Term
Nathan Drapela teaching German 101
Nathan in the German 101 classroom
Photo credit: Margaret Swanson

Even though students begin communicating in the target language on day one, language learning can be a slow process. While some people claim to be able to learn a language in a matter of months, most of us mere mortals need much longer. The U.S. Department of State estimates that it takes a native English speaker 900 classroom hours to reach a “professional working proficiency” in German. Beginning language learners will rapidly expand their vocabulary and knowledge of grammatical structures, but at a certain point, progress becomes less obvious. I’ve experienced many such plateaus in my own language learning and I often recognize similar patterns in my students at the intermediate level.

Persevering through these apparent plateaus requires a focus on the long term. Whether you’re learning a new language, trying to become a better public speaker, or developing your skills as a leader, it may not be obvious how far you’ve come until after the fact. But by setting clear, incremental goals and regularly assessing your progress, you can better attune yourself to the progress you’re making every day. An individual development plan consisting of SMART (Specific, Measurable, Accountable, Realistic, and Time-Bound) goals can give you a framework for recognizing and evaluating your development even when it’s not as fast as you might like. While the payoff of your hard work may not always be immediately obvious, self-reflections, regular assessment check-ins, and proper long-term planning can keep you focused and motivated even when the instant gratification of a new skill isn’t forthcoming.

4. Emphasizing What You Can Do Rather than What You Can’t

Given the slow nature of language learning, there will often be times when you simply don’t have the linguistic capabilities to fully articulate a certain idea, especially at the early stages. Language teachers typically try to structure learning so that students start with the most basic elements and slowly add more complex ones along the way. For instance, we usually start with the present tense, waiting several weeks or even months before introducing the past tense, and even longer for things like conditionals. At times, this strategy can be frustrating for students, particularly those who are excited about the language. To counteract this frustration, it’s important to assess what you do know instead of lamenting what you don’t. My students sometimes ask how to say a particular English sentence in German only to find out that they haven’t yet learned all of the grammar necessary to do so. I encourage them to instead start with the things they can say, which is often more than they even realize!

Applying for jobs can be a similar experience. When looking at a job posting, it’s easy to hone in on the skill sets you don’t have. But if you start by articulating what aspects of the job you can already do, you might realize you’re more qualified than you think. This strategy can be useful even if you’re not quite ready to apply for your dream job. Maybe you do need a few more years of experience. Still, it can make sense to step back and assess what you already have the ability to do right now, and then use it. By identifying and building on your strengths, you may find that before long that distant goal is no longer a reminder of your limitations, but a reality.


Nathan Drapela
Nathan Drapela

Ph.D. candidate, German Studies

Nathan is a Ph.D. candidate in German Studies and the 2022-2023 Graduate Student Affairs Intern in The Graduate School. He has taught in a variety of contexts, from secondary schools in Austria to the German language program at Duke. In Fall 2018, he was ranked among the top 5% of undergraduate instructors at Duke and he is the 2020 recipient of the Frank Borchardt Teaching Award. Nathan is completing his dissertation on walking in 19th and 20th century narrative prose. Outside of the classroom, you can find him backpacking or exploring North Carolina on his bike.