Alex P. Sena, a Language Teacher and artist, shares his story of overcoming poverty because of his love of language. He explains how education saved him, and he hopes to help others in the same position as he was once in. Read on to hear his full story of how a life of labor eventually turned into working with words.
What is your job title and what industry do you work in?
Spanish and French Instructor
What’s your ethnicity and gender? How has it hurt or helped you? If you ever experienced discrimination, how have you responded and what worked best? Do you speak another language, and has it been helpful in your career?
I am a U.S. born and raised citizen of Hispanic origin. I have experienced discrimination all my life in one form or another. I was discriminated against by my own people because I grew up Protestant, then by all the Anglo world because of my color.
What makes me an anomaly is that I somehow did not denigrate myself because of how I looked, only because I grew up skinny. So, I overcame that by taking up bodybuilding, not only to improve my body, but to take on the gangbangers who were intent on killing or hospitalizing me. They came to respect me after three years of running from them, all of which I used as part of my cardiovascular workouts.
I speak as a native speaker, both English and Spanish, and now, of course, after a lot of higher education, French. I became a professor to overcome my poverty: imagine working out in the hot, cotton fields chopping or picking cotton from age five to 17 just to clothe myself and to have food on the table. After forty years of teaching English, Spanish and French in college and secondary schools, I would have to say that all that amounts to a “rags to riches” story and that having so much word power has been decidedly to my advantage and extremely helpful.
How would you describe what you do? What does your work entail? Are there any common misunderstandings you want to correct about what you do?
I have been an HR Generalist, a Freelance Translator, an artist, and an Instructor of Spanish and French, the latter for pretty much all my life. As an Instructor, it is my job to assess the level of proficiency that the student has either in English, Spanish and French, and then individually help the student surpass any and all weaknesses to ultimately become fluent in the language. The above cannot take place without the strong elements of motivational persuasion techniques that are credible and effective.
Today’s youth in many school districts have the misconception that they cannot master the language and are there as tourists. It is up to the teacher, me, to convince them that with the proper inside techniques that I provide, they will master the language and not only sound authentic, but that they can understand the language and respond correctly every time. This builds both confidence and proficiency simultaneously. The misconception that to teach someone a foreign language is a simple thing is something that I would like to correct.
On a scale of 1 to 10 how would you rate your job satisfaction? What might need to change about your job to unleash your full enthusiasm?
I would rate my job satisfaction at being a teacher in the 8-9 category. It would be a 10 if somehow in the midst of training students the school administration would also be more receptive to foreign languages as a whole. As a teacher, I always felt that if the administrators would actually learn Spanish, for example, as part of their administration training, that their jobs would be easier. After all, most of the southwest schools in the U.S. are rapidly multiplying with Spanish-speaking populations.
Imagine having a troubled Hispanic child in your office as the principal or assistant principal and know intricately what the problems are for this child in terms of his/her not knowing English and having a person of authority speaking with you in your native Spanish? It would blow the student’s mind away: that the principal actually took time out in his/her career to want to know Spanish and the culture of the child. This would be unprecedented to know that my principal actually has my back because I am understood as a Hispanic professional.
If this job moves your heart – how so? Ever feel like you found your calling or sweet spot in life? If not, what might do it for you?
I found my calling some time ago in selecting my chosen profession as an English, Spanish and French Instructor. I came to that knowledge because I grew weary and downtrodden as an impoverished five year old working in the brutal heat of the cotton fields who sought the solace of my elementary school where I reveled in learning my lessons when I was not laboring with my back and hands.
My teachers saw in me a young prodigy who excelled in diagramming sentences and painting their bulletin boards, for which I was paid I might add, and literally basked in their wonderful protection and admiration. What it did for me was to awaken a forever lasting hope in my heart and soul that I was worth something for the world and my family who, as it turned out, desperately needed the help. I became the leader of my siblings to whom I introduced going to college.
Ultimately, I graduated college and became a professor at my own almamater, again at the encouragement of my doting and brilliant professors who saw in me the epitome of their successes in their having taught me well. I truly hope that in others reading my words now that they, too, whoever is struggling with life, will see my transition from poverty into my life in academe as an inspirational thing. I never gave up, I was made to feel that I would always succeed, and that my life would get better because of my personal efforts in the face of my abject life of poverty and the many attacks from gangbangers and all those whose own poverty dragged them into the abyss from which I refused to go.
Is there anything unique about your situation that readers should know when considering your experiences or accomplishments?
I have always been considered unique because I have always been able to think out of the box. In the struggle to overcome poverty, it is much easier to lay down and die, it is much easier to take all the negative words and derision from others, including your own siblings and relatives, and accept them as face value.
I always felt that I was different because I refused to accept my fate of poverty. I somehow had the innate ability to want to learn. I loved words in all their marvelous wrappings: idioms, flavorings, inspirational, words did magic in my head, in my soul, and transported me away from the brutal, painful heat of the cotton fields where I refused to lay down and die. Instead, words and later painting and sculpture veritably transported me to ultimately make me who I am as a teacher, writer and artist.
At the age of 3, for example, refusing to accept my trysts as the son of an alcoholic father, I merely created my own fantasy world of superheroes in comic books that I created and sold for a quarter, realizing later that my beautiful father was ill and was my own superhero for never missing a day of work just to provide a roof over our heads. That realization is in and of itself quite an accomplishment. I feel fortunate that I have come to realize that so that I no longer feel abject and pitiful about my life. Life’s lessons come hard for all of us if we fail to understand what is presented right in front of our eyes because of self-denial, self-pity, or derision inflicted by those who say they love you just to control you in a negative manner.
How did you get started in this line of work? If you could go back and do it differently, what would you change?
My love of teaching came at an early age of five or six when I realized that my teachers were my role models for the job I really wanted to do. They instilled in me a love of learning, in my case, love of words by virtue of not just diagramming sentences, but also helping realize that I was a true bilingual child who had two languages stirring in my brain synapses, and one who exuded knowledge of two cultures. They had to teach me in a new way, but they took the job on because somehow I was training them and they came to realize that.
What did you learn the hard way in this job and what happened specifically that led up to this lesson?
I knew early on that I wanted to be a teacher/instructor of languages. My mom got me a set of Brittanica encyclopedias early on and I studied intently all about the different languages. Nothing really ever prepared me as to how to disseminate the information, that is, how to go about helping my students become fluent or how to help them master the language.
The biggest lesson I learned was that I really had to come across some specific skills in order to accomplish the goal of getting my students fluent. It was not going to happen by my assigning them worksheet after worksheet to take home and bring back to class to turn in without really covering every single detail about the assignments, something that is being done whole-scale in classrooms today. The single most effective technique is to simply go over each worksheet in the foreign language; totally immerse them, even up to and including each and every single one-on-one tutoring session that you must follow up with.
The latter is probably the very best thing to do in every class, especially as it relates to giving assignments and validating the work, especially in the total immersion mode, thus ensuring fluency and mastery of all the essential elements of the language.
What is the single most important thing you have learned outside of school about the working world?
Outside of school as a professional, career teacher I have learned that you do not learn, and that you must motivate students, meaning you must counsel them properly and individually, many times not just about foreign language study. Oftentimes it entails developing observation skills that far exceed knowledge attained through college coursework, such as perhaps the reason the student is unable to focus on his/her language study is simply because the home life is horrid. The student has become distracted and unable to function preparing homework, for example. The teacher cannot ignore any facet of the student’s behavior that would impede progress. Therefore, it would behoove the teacher to refer the student to counseling with the observations of the student reported properly.
What’s the strangest thing that ever happened to you in this job?
I will never forget the time I was teaching at the military academy in New Mexico when a student ran up to me with his Spanish book wide open and a powdery substance spewing from it as he ran towards me yelling: “Major Sena, look!” For all I knew I was about to be accosted by a prankster, only to discover that the other cadets who lived near him had discovered that he never opened his Spanish book to study, inserting his dead white rat in his book to dry into powder. It taught him the lesson, number one, locate his rat to determine if he was alive, and equally important to crack his Spanish book occasionally to study it.
In retrospect I recall this putrid, dead smell near the cadet as I walked near him in the language lab, merely dismissing it as the smell of tar emitting from the roofs that were being tarred at the time. Worse yet, I had surmised that it had to have come from the ink bottle that was poured into the cadet’s earphone unbeknownst to me as he attempted to listen to his lesson. The ink had slowly oozed onto his uniform whereupon I had dismissed him to go the lavatory to clean himself up. When he returned back to class, he discovered the powdered rat.
Needless to say, all those cadets suspected of having a hand in the cruel prank all had to walk their share of rotations in the quadrangle as punishment, some of them past Christmas.
Why do you get up and go to work each day? Can you give an example of something that really made you feel good or proud?
I get up every day facing a new challenge. When you work with students, you may not have a powdered rat to interrupt your day, but you may find that one key ingredient that got that one student motivated to learn one concept in the language really well. That one concept could open up a plethora of knowledge that is just waiting on the surface of mastering the language.
I have always felt good and proud when that one concept, that one idiom, that one contrastive difference, say, between the verb structures “ser” vs. “estar” truly came to light, all because of my having put together the right combination of exercises, exerting the right amount of total immersion, and helping the student completely understand. The second it occurs is when the light bulb goes on in the eyes of the student and he/she spontaneously produces the correct response every time. That is when my heart wells up with pride, because I helped that happen. When it occurs with an entire class, we have a world-class epiphany going!
What kind of challenges do you face and what makes you just want to quit?
A teacher faces the one challenge of motivating students to learn every day. If you do not take the time to learn how to do the motivation or to at least acknowledge that you may be the problem or that the student’s problem is much larger than your bag of knowledge on how to handle it, you might feel like quitting and trying something else.
How stressful is your job? Are you able to maintain a comfortable or healthy work-life balance? How?
No teaching job is stress free. It just comes with the job and the territory. I have always maintained that you must take walks, workout at the gym, talk to somebody about what you do to find the balanced needed. I have always felt that it was imperative to seek that balance by doing activity that was a complete distraction, something mentally or physically recreational in keeping that balance. I always found reading books that had nothing to do with teaching foreign languages, writing poetry, painting and exhibiting my art work in libraries as a complete distraction. I have always returned to the classroom fresh and awakened, ready to handle anything.
What’s a rough salary range for the position you hold? Are you paid enough and/or happy living within your means?
A rough salary range for the position I hold has been from $55,000-$65,000. In today’s world it would not be enough without my wife’s salary, plainly stated. Teachers are not paid enough, period.
How much vacation do you take? Is it enough?
Three months throughout my career taken in the summer seemed enough.
What education and skills do you need to get hired and succeed in this field?
You need at least a Masters degree both to get hired and to succeed.
What would you tell a friend considering your line of work?
I would tell a friend to consider all the elements of teaching that are not delineated in the college coursework to prepare you to be a classroom teacher. If the friend intends to teach in a high-risk area, please research what it would be like to work with those populations.
Take all the necessary coursework to better prepare to take on the rigors and challenges of working with disadvantaged children, but to always keep a positive outlook and to remember that perhaps he/she may be the only role model that they will even know, certainly at the very moment that the child is with your friend. If the child is bilingual, remember that the child may very well be another Alex P. Sena who was considered a child prodigy by a teacher very much like your friend.
If you could write your own ticket, what would you like to be doing in five years?
I would like to just travel to places I have never been and to paint and write about what I see and hear.