The 2014 TESOL Teacher of the Year
Attending convention? Don't miss Ann's presentation!:
Adult ESOL Content-Based Instruction for Student Engagement and Community Leadership
Friday, 28 March, 10:30 am–11:15 am
Room D135 in the convention center
Ann M. Fontanella, winner of the 2014 TESOL Teacher of the Year Award, presented by National Geographic Learning, answers some questions for us:
Why did you become an English language teacher?
My commitment to giving back to others the education my parents willingly and lovingly sacrificed to provide me stems from the strong work ethic demonstrated by immigrants to this country. My mother was an immigrant from Italy, and my father was the son of an immigrant from Italy. Growing up in a bilingual and bicultural home environment was naturally stimulating to learning. My mom learned English from me, and I learned Italian from her, which is a common experience shared by many students—intergenerational literacy. English as an additional language can be a very useful means of communication and growth across cultures.
Giving the gift of an additional language to students, who are already often multilingual and multicultural, via offering students the chance to challenge themselves and grow through learner-centered classroom interaction is one of my great passions in life. I also learned from my parents to be truly accepting of all people from any country, background, age, or stage of life. Championing underrepresented groups in a pluralistic, multi-ethnic environment also inspires me. Education is an opportunity that should not be taken for granted; it is also one that is created by and for ourselves. People learn from experience and from each other. This is the heart of what we do—teaching and learning are inherently humanitarian. [More to come on this question...]
How would you describe your teaching philosophy?
Gandhi said it best, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” Start with the vast wellspring of hope, life skills, education, courage, determination, and experience of the students. Work from the learner-centered, task-based methods outward to the bigger goals and broader world views around you. Content-based instruction offers language educators a seemingly infinite encyclopedia of knowledge to draw from to facilitate critical thinking, personal growth, and professional development on the part of students. Student learning outcomes based on formative assessment can only be achieved if the students themselves become responsible for their learning, growth, and development.
To inspire my ESOL students, I constantly take classes, present at conferences, train teachers, serve on committees, travel on study tours, and so forth. I take these actions not to build a longer list of accomplishments on my own CV but rather that the students of all ages, backgrounds, cultures, and levels of proficiency can watch me take on new challenges to stretch, learn, and change. I hope that the students will understand the intellectual and personal advancement that can only come from opportunities we create for ourselves each day. Most ESOL instructors who are agents for change are the same; we all walk in the same footsteps as our students at many levels.
What’s your favorite part of teaching?
When a student comes back to me to say, “Ann, I used that idea we discovered/skill we rehearsed/feedback we offered each other in class during my job interview/exam/writing assignment/conversation with a native speaker and I succeeded.” The best part of teaching is when all of the long hours of lifelong learning, classroom action research, reading, lesson preparation, conference attendance, curriculum development, learning/assessment tool creation, the list goes on and on and on...pay off in one student’s moment of self-confidence, transformation, skill application, or personal triumph. Really a teacher’s life is never about the self, but about others. But, to be about others, one has to work hard on one’s self.
Another part of teaching that I enjoy is when colleagues tell me, “Ann, you have so many books and materials on your desk. You are so resourceful and creative!” This kind of observation inspires me to work even harder. I feel a welcome sense of joy that comes from generating new and effective lesson plans/activities as a result of intrinsic motivation, curiosity, and determination. This is every teacher’s secret weapon—effort, determination, drive, and consistency. Nothing ever happens by chance, or instantly at a copy machine. There are never enough books and materials!
Have you had the opportunity to collaborate with other teachers? Do you have any tips on how to make teacher collaboration work?
I have had the opportunity to collaborate with other teachers on different occasions. Over the years, I have collaborated with other teachers to team-teach courses, organize conferences, serve on committees, present at conferences, and develop curricula. The best way to collaborate with another teacher is to treat that person with the same respect you offer all of your students each day. See each teacher as a lifelong learner who deserves intellectual stimulation, humor, personal and professional growth, support, feedback, and recognition.
Next, work in an appropriate way, with cultural sensitivity and meaningful interaction to create opportunities for your colleagues. Share generously your time, resources, and knowledge. Offer gratitude when others share with you. When we have the opportunity to collaborate in every way each day, we can only grow stronger as well as become more courageous and conscious. We can put our beliefs and best practices to the test when we collaborate with our colleagues. Through collaboration, we share our equal commitment to the common goals of education and become more effective educators.
What is the Reflective Teaching Project? What role does reflection play in your teaching practice?
This is the best question you could ask any teacher. The Reflective Teaching Project at the ESL Department at the City College of San Francisco offers a group of 10–15 classroom instructors the opportunity to meet once a month for 2 hours in order to earnestly and humbly share our teaching/earning experiences in and out of the classroom. Throughout the academic year, we dedicate our time to listening to each other while we admit our mistakes, explore new teaching strategies, deal with our feelings of frustration, openly confide our hopes and fears, and discuss new ways of fostering better communication between students and teachers. Through conscientious reflection on how we respond to students’ behaviors (not just the learning behaviors but also disruptive ones), we learn how we can improve our own communication and behavior as well. Often, we think we’ll come up with new ways to deal with classroom interaction, but we end up examining how the classroom microcosm is a reflection of the bigger picture of global conflicts, societal pressures, economic realities, or other stressors people face while trying to learn.
The Reflective Teaching Project is the combination of a support group and a discourse community. Reflection has informed my teaching practice by challenging me to become more honest with myself and my students about how we approach learning and how we speak with one another while learning. Honesty, empathy, resourcefulness, and responsiveness in appropriate measures have come out of reflection and into my teaching. My previous teaching habit of relying on the 3Ps of pragmatism, preparation, and passion has transformed into demanding of myself the same risks I expect my students to take. Be courageous, make mistakes, take on studies of depth and breadth that make you stretch, be respectful of diversity, show sensitivity to the needs of others, have empathy...all of those things that I aim to support during each student’s process of growth I must also expect of myself as part of the learning community.
If you could give new English language teachers one piece of advice, what would it be?
I would like to share an important message I learned during my graduate studies: Be the guide on the side, not the sage on the stage. The student is not a subordinate in a hierarchical system. YOU are the student, there to learn about teaching from those willing to share their learning experiences with you as you are willing to create lessons. This is the paradox of teaching—the teacher is really the student.
Leadership is based on generosity, sharing of skills, testing limits, finding new solutions to existing problems. Leave your assumptions at the door, be selfless, have courage, and promote transformation. Be open to everything that comes your way. Recognize that you are not in the classroom to impose your opinions but rather to create opportunities for others to engage each other in a dynamic learning environment. Do not fear making mistakes. Do not fear becoming more learned, scholarly, or intellectual. Do not fear success or failure. Work from a position of hope, willingness, flexibility, empathy, and diligence.
Expand your knowledge and awareness by exploring different sources—from media to museums. Maintain a positive attitude, have a great sense of humor, challenge the prevailing notions of any mainstream culture, stay current with all things new or technology based, travel everywhere, and speak your truth as often as you would like to hear it from others. In the words of Gandhi, "Be truthful, gentle and fearless."