I have spent much of my adult life traveling the world, exploring other cultures, learning languages and marveling over the diverse ways in which humans approach the journey of life. For me, teaching is another grand adventure, an exploration aimed at making sense of how teaching and learning are shaped by the experiences, knowledge, skills, values and goals of everyone involved.
Embarking on a new course is like entering a new country. The individuals who come to the classroom as learners include both the students and the teacher. Upon entry, we are all on the verge of exploring the ideas of one another and relating the content of the course to our lived experiences, often reframing those experiences against the backdrop of others’ perspectives.
I view the classroom as an opportunity to negotiate meaning and shape views in collaboration with a community of learners, guided by the teacher. As one travels to new lands, there is vast shared knowledge about life and at the same time, there are myriad conflicting views about the way the world operates. In a new land, one might seek the guidance of a local for insights about the new culture while at the same time relying on one’s own investigative strengths to observe and hypothesize based on the data at hand. In my classroom, as the teacher, I facilitate learning by providing a framework of content, texts, assignments and assessments, while promoting a mutual learning environment wherein I serve as a co-learner, rather than the ‘expert other’. I embrace the epistemology that knowledge is not one single truth but rather a story told and shaped by the knowers and those coming to know. I promote active learning in my class, striving to involve the learners at every turn and tap into their existing knowledge structures as we move forward.
My journey of teacher development has been as exciting and transformative as my wanderings around the globe. I have evolved from a graduate student with a teaching assistantship into a diversified and experienced teacher and teacher educator. I have had opportunities to teach undergraduate and graduate level English as a Additional Language (EAL) courses at the University, as well as EAL in community-based language programs for adults. I have taught undergraduate and graduate level second language teacher education courses at universities in the US and abroad, and have additionally provided statewide professional development seminars for teachers of community-based adult EAL. I have served as a higher education instructional consultant for instructors and faculty in all disciplines through the Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence at the University of Utah. I have also supervised K-12 ELL student teachers across the full range of grade levels and program models.
Navigating varied teaching contexts has taught me how to be flexible, adapt, reflect and strive to understand what makes teaching successful. Early in my career, I faced a challenge to my existing teaching paradigm when I moved from one EAL teaching context to another and encountered a brand new learner population. As an EAL teacher at the University of Utah, it was easy to be an instructor who relied on student-centered, communicative approaches to language teaching. My students were educated and motivated international students, primarily from Asia. I employed my creativity on a daily basis, promoting pair and group work that allowed the students to be responsible, not only for the learning, but also the teaching. I encouraged group projects and instant expert style activities that would require the students to interact with the material and one another, synthesize the new information and consequently present this information to their peers in ways that would be salient and interesting. In this environment, I successfully incorporated the current pedagogical trends for my field, which emphasized communicative, student-centered approaches.
During the beginning of my doctoral studies, after several years in the above-described setting, I took a position as an EAL instructor for University Neighborhood Partners, a non-profit organization that links culturally and ethnically diverse neighborhoods with the University of Utah. In doing so, I entered a new world that constantly presented me with contradictions to my existing teaching style. I had to develop tools to help me negotiate this new culture of teaching. The learner profile of my EAL classes now reflected a group of adults with immigrant and refugee backgrounds from countries such as Somalia, Burundi, Mexico, Pakistan, Sudan, Afghanistan and Burma. Many of my students were adult emergent readers, which meant that they never had the opportunity to learn to read and write in any language.
Until my new skill set was developed, I flailed. I tried to understand how I could go from being such a productive, effective teacher to being marginal. I was flustered that my teacher education had not prepared me for this teaching context. Could the students tell that I was struggling? I relied heavily on a colleague for guidance and discovered that I was doing just fine. I was being myself, which inherently meant putting the students at ease, directing my instruction at the life skills they needed and relying on their background knowledge to guide me. I targeted student assets in the class, such that more proficient students could support less proficient students in a way that didn’t overtly spotlight differences. I wasn’t relying on the strategies that worked for literate learners with formal education experience, as I had been trained to do in the MA TESOL program, but I was in fact being effective and the students were making gains and returning week after week, eager to learn.
Adjusting my teaching to fit the context mirrors how I adapt as I travel. When I am in Zanzibar, Tanzania my skirts are long and my arms are covered and when I am in Armenia, I eat dolma! Adaptability and flexibility are tools that I use to guide my teaching. I rely upon the experiences, backgrounds and needs of my learners and aim to create a space in the classroom where their voices are heard and honored, ideas are shared and knowledge construction is a process embraced by all. When working as a teacher educator, I let the teaching contexts of the teacher learners shape the content and delivery method. When working as an EAL teacher, I rely on the lived experiences and goals of my students to guide curriculum development and selection of instructional strategies.
My goal as a teacher is to promote learning through inquiry and interaction as guided by learners’ backgrounds, relevant experiences and situated contexts. I resist the paradigm of packaging content and delivering it as if one size fits all. I hope to continue to develop as I travel through life as a teacher, in and out of various teaching contexts and through my interactions with a wide range of learners. I will constantly seek the guidance of learners and teachers that I encounter along the way to shape my ever-evolving approaches and philosophy. I acknowledge the transformative power of teaching and learning and consider teaching to be an honored position that demands self-reflection, adaptation, humility and respect. As a member of a community of practice with other teachers and learners, I hope to be challenged and inspired by the growing scholarship about teaching and learning across contexts and disciplines, to which I also contribute.