Learning a second language can seem formidable to any human being, especially when they’re still in high school and likely still working on mastering their first language. The rewards of these efforts, though, outweigh the challenges, according to Laine Martinez, a Spanish language instructor at Bismarck High School and the 2023 Foreign Language Association of North Dakota (FLAND) Teacher of the Year.
“Because Spanish is a language,” Martinez said. “It's about communication. … I want students to understand that their culture and their identity is important, but also that they're just a very small piece of this world. In my experience, when I meet somebody that speaks Spanish and not a whole lot of English, that person is so grateful that you have given just a little bit of effort to try to connect and to try to help in their native language.”
Martinez, who was born and raised in Bismarck, says that ever since she first learned language and developed the ability to communicate, she has wanted to be an educator. “I have told my mom I wanted to be a teacher since I started talking,” she said. “I played school when I was little. I got to school, and in elementary school, I wanted to be an elementary teacher. In middle school, I wanted to be middle school. And in high school, I wanted to be a high school teacher.”
She graduated from Century High School in Bismarck, then went to college at Minnesota State University-Moorhead to become a history teacher originally but was talked out of it by her instructor. After studying abroad in Cuernavaca, Mexico, through an exchange program at MSUM, she made the decision to become a Spanish instructor.
Her journey to her current position at BHS started with student teaching in Arden Hills, Minn., then to taking a position in a small town in Minnesota called Hayfield. “And I just realized that family is the most important thing, so I moved back to Bismarck to be with my family,” Martinez said. She substitute taught for a couple of years before attaining a position at Century High.
“I was very excited to have that position at Century High School with some of the teachers that I had, especially the world language group of teachers,” she said. “For them to see the passion that I have for education and for teaching and learning, they were able to see that in one of their own students. I was proud to be back at Century High School.”
When the number of students electing to take world languages declined at Century, her position was on the verge of being eliminated. Luckily, a teacher left Bismarck High School that same year and Martinez was able to transition into that role.
She says that her students regularly tell her what a great attitude she brings to her classroom, which she credits in part to her time studying abroad in Mexico. “One of the things I noticed with the Hispanic culture is how inviting and how warm people were,” Martinez said. “That’s one thing I try to have in my classroom as well, that feeling of everybody’s invited. I’m happy you’re here. One of the things students say about me most is how positive I always am, no matter what. That’s what I want them to feel, that they’re invited and that I have this positive vibe going out to them because I want them to know that I’m happy they’re here.”
Her reputation as a positive person also played a role in her recent recognition as the 2023 Graciela Wilborn North Dakota Foreign Language Teacher of the Year. Additionally, it helped the members of FLAND to keep the news of her selection a secret until she was announced at the winner during their Summer Conference.
“I received a text message from one of the board members, and she said, ‘Are you planning on coming to the conference?’” Martinez said. “It was in Bismarck, and I said no, I can't make it because of (our) work schedule. My husband has shift work, and so I wasn't going to be able to. … And she said, ‘Well, do you think you could just make dinner?’ And I thought, yeah, I can make that happen with his schedule, so I said, ‘Yeah, I'll come for dinner.’ And then I thought to myself, they must really like me! Like, they want to hang out with me. That's sweet. And then I showed up at the event, and I kind of saw some whispering going on for a couple of minutes, and I thought, OK, what's going on here? And then to my surprise, I received the award.”
Martinez said her participation in FLAND has been a driving force in keeping her engaged and excited about the work she does each day in the classroom. “We have two conferences a year, and after each of those conferences that I have attended, I've been more excited to come back and teach with the new ideas that I've learned,” she said. “Being able to collaborate with people who share the same passion as you is something special, and I hope everybody has the chance to experience that through conferences or events or collaborating with colleagues or organizations.”
That same spirit of connection is what keeps Martinez feeling so positive about the person she is and the work she does in education. “My biggest ‘why’ of teaching, which I've discovered through the years, is being able to connect with the students and show them that they matter and they're important, and that no matter the content that they're learning, no matter if it's a core subject, no matter if it's an elective, we're here to help you,” she said. “We're here to help you learn. We're here to support you. We just care that you leave being good human beings and that you can be successful in the classroom and outside of the classroom.”
Similarly, the instruction of Spanish plays a central role in fueling her desire to stay in the profession she’s loved since she was a child, herself. “One of the reasons that I feel passionate about teaching Spanish is because we have that flexibility as language teachers to just simply converse in another language,” Martinez said. “We have the time. We don't have such strict standards and strict requirements that we have to follow. So, we have that ability to just create those connections every day and modify curriculum to connect with the students on a daily basis. And that's what I love about Spanish, is the connections that I'm able to create with students.”