Melinda Johnson has been a bilingual teacher at West Chicago Elementary District 33's Currier School for eight years -- including seven in first-grade classrooms. Before coming to Currier, she spent five years teaching kindergarten and fifth grade.
Although she's a native Spanish speaker, she hasn't always taught bilingual classes. It wasn't until she returned to teaching after staying home to raise her children that she realized using her second language would be an asset to her career.
Q. What's your secret to success when it comes to working with such young students?
A. It goes without saying that you need to have a great deal of patience, especially early in the school year. Aside from being patient, teachers need to view things through the lens of a 6- or 7-year-old.
Lessons should be simple, to the point, with many examples, and include students as much as possible. Another important factor is to honor my students' culture. I do this by including authentic stories and books from Mexico during lessons and encourage my students to share their special holidays or weekend celebrations at home.
Q. What's your favorite part of teaching first grade?
A. My favorite part of teaching first grade is observing my students' honesty and inquisitive nature. I never know what they are going to say from one moment to the next.
It is usually during a lesson that those unpredictable outbursts occur, exposing their honest and inquisitive nature. At the end of an exhausting day, it is a reminder of why I continue to teach first grade year after year.
Q. What's your best piece of advice for parents of first-graders when it comes to helping their children in school?
A. The best thing parents can do to help their child succeed in school is to read to them as often as possible and encourage them to read books on topics that interest them.
Parents should also be encouraged to read books to students in their native language, especially if this is the only language spoken at home. This will improve their listening comprehension and help improve reading skills in their second language.
Q. Who was your most influential teacher and why?
A. The most influential teacher in my life was Mrs. Labinsky, my third-grade teacher at Nixon Elementary School in Chicago. She made learning interesting by going beyond the textbook and telling us real stories about the people we were learning about in social studies. She also took an interest in our lives and showed us she really cared.
Q. What's one thing your students would be surprised to learn about you?
A. When I am not planning, grading papers, or doing coursework, I watch telenovelas. Aside from it being very engaging, it helps increase my vocabulary in Spanish and has taught me more about my students' Mexican culture.