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Teachers College students well represented in ASU Fulbrights

July 26, 2010

Perhaps lost in the recent announcement that a record 19 Arizona State University students have won Fulbright awards to study and teach abroad next year in 12 different countries was an asterisk.  Not the kind of asterisk that qualifies the performance, but an asterisk that provides an additional footnote: six of the 19 ASU students hail from the university’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College and are corps members in the college’s unique partnership with Teach For America.

The six students are:

• Michelle Hernandez, who just received her master’s in education, has been teaching second graders at T.G. Barr Elementary in Phoenix as part of the Teach For America program.  She hopes to put together a unit on Korea to bring back to her Arizona class, teaching them some of the language and introducing them to its culture through art, music and dance.

• Olenka Lenets, who immigrated from Ukraine as a child, just received her master’s in special education. She has been teaching at Bicentennial North Elementary School in Glendale as part of Teach For America, and hopes to start a pen-pal relationship between her students from Arizona and those in Korea.

• Justin Barbaro, a May graduate with a master’s in elementary education, also has been part of the Teach For America program, instructing third graders at I.G. Conchos Elementary School in Phoenix.  Since Korea outperforms the United States on math assessments, he hopes to bring some of the country’s techniques back to America and also develop a social studies unit on Korea for his Arizona students.

• Annie Pennell, who just received her master’s in elementary education and is winding up a stint with Teach For America at T.G. Barr Elementary in Phoenix, will go to Romania.  With an undergraduate degree in literature, she also hopes to organize a book club for adults, helping them develop English skills in the process.

• Jeffrey Bergquist, who received a master’s in secondary education in May, is finishing up his work with Teach For America at Orangedale Junior High in Phoenix.  He is going to Indonesia, with the hope of establishing a pen-pal program between his Arizona students and those in Indonesia.  An avid percussionist, he also plans to create a West African-style drumming club.

• Hayfa Aboukier, who earned her master’s in elementary education in May, will teach in Turkey, where she hopes to learn more about the culture and connect with her family’s roots.  She has been teaching at Rose Linda Elementary in Phoenix for two years as part of Teach For America.

Depending on whom you poll, there are any number of reasons for the college’s and its students’ Fulbright success.

“Education majors in general have a passion for making the world a better place,” says David Roberts, a Teachers College clinical instructor in secondary mathematics, who mentored Fulbright winner Bergquist in his action research class.  “Teachers College encourages and reinforces passion, activism, big thinking, the ability to make a difference, responsibility, duty and a desire to give back to society.”

Roberts knows the six Fulbright students will be better for the experience, and so will their students in the future.

“The experience will be life changing,” he says.  “They will make a difference in the country they are going to as a teacher and an ambassador, and they will come home with new perspectives and insights that they can share with their students when they return or with school administrators, boards and/or policy makers in whatever field they may choose.”

One of the most prestigious awards programs worldwide, the Fulbright Program awards were founded to increase mutual understanding between the United States and other countries.  ASU leads the nation in student Fulbrights, coming in second last year only to the University of Michigan among public colleges.  The six Teachers College students represent a record number for ASU’s education school.

“I see educators as leaders wanting to share experiences and practice lifelong living,” says Alissa Krantz, a clinical instructor in the college’s master of education and Arizona certification degree program.  “These prestigious global opportunities allow educators the opportunity to not only continue to gain even more personally, but to share more professionally.

“The Teachers College at ASU supports a terrific variety of alternative pathways to teacher certification, which supports the idea of adventure and variety in education, and that’s reflected in the fact six of our students have been chosen to teach overseas in the Fulbright Program.”

The Teach For America (TFA) equation, a constant in the group of six students, represents a unique partnership with Teachers College.  TFA is a national corps of outstanding recent college graduates from all majors who commit to teach in urban and rural public schools for two years.  The collaboration between Teachers College and TFA is designed to address Arizona’s most pressing educational needs.  In 2008 the partnership was recognized when it received an ASU President’s Medal for Social Embeddedness.  Most recently, the collaboration has been buoyed by an $18-plus million private investment by entrepreneur and philanthropist T. Denny Sanford that will lead to the creation of the Sanford Education Project, a project that will bring major substantive changes to the way ASU recruits, selects, and prepares future K-12 teachers.

“TFA makes teaching a profession of choice, and that’s exactly what it should be,” says Mari Koerner, Teachers College  dean. “Our motto should be, 'If you can’t get into teaching, become a lawyer.'”

“The students’ participation in Teach For America is already an indication of who they are,” says clinical instructor Roberts.  “These are people who want to make a difference in the world with the lives they lead.  It is no surprise that the partnership between Teachers College and Teach For America has produced such outstanding teachers and education students who want to devote their lives to making a difference.

“It’s more about the values we teach than the specific courses,” Roberts continues. “ASU education students are also exposed to many opportunities, programs and challenges.  And the students come to us as individuals who care and want to elicit positive changes.  They’re obviously not making life and career choices that prioritize materialistic rewards.”

Ann Keith is an academic success coordinator in Teachers College who served as an advisor to the six students during TFA’s two-year program.  “It is not at all surprising to see so many of our students receive such an opportunity,” she says.  “Teachers College has a very rigorous program that appeals to students from a wide range of backgrounds who want to become teachers to make a difference – not only nationally, but globally as well.  These students joined Teach For America to make a difference and had the choice to come to Teachers College to give themselves the educational background and the educational edge to succeed in their lives.”

For Fulbright winner Hernandez, who has arrived in South Korea to undertake her teaching assignment, the Fulbright represents an opportunity to gain experience and knowledge that can be shared with her students upon her return to the States.

“My strategies for teaching these (Phoenix) students will increase as a result of my teaching English in a foreign country, and I will become a more effective teacher,” she says.  “One lesson I hope to learn that I can bring back to the classroom is the art of patience.  Since I will be teaching ESL (English as a Second Language) students, I believe I will become more aware of non-verbal communication and be better equipped to practice this with my ESL Spanish-speaking students in Phoenix.”

Hernandez says the strategies and teaching methods she was introduced to while in ASU’s Teachers College have provided a solid foundation for her Korean experience.

“The strategies and teaching methods were very important in my preparation, but the college and its faculty also provided me with the confidence and resources needed to be a successful teacher,” she says.

“I was able to work with reclassified ESL students who had tested out of the program as part of my applied research project.  I focused on these students to increase their reading scores and was able to get a sense of how to teach ESL students using differentiated instruction and also various strategies to improve their academic scores.”

In the end, the variety of programs for non-traditional students of education that provide alternative routes for certification, plays into the success of Teachers College graduates.

“We draw students into our program who possess a strong desire to reform education,” says Alissa Koerner, a clinical instructor in teacher preparation.  “Many of our students have had a wide variety of experiences before entering our programs.  They are highly motivated and high achieving.  They have a desire to affect education, and this type of experience abroad is very important in developing their cultural awareness.  When teachers have experiences abroad, they can be more sensitive to diversity in their classrooms and become aware of their own biases.”

The Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College offers world class academic programs for educators and scholars preparing to enter or advance in the profession. Teachers College provides challenging education programs to prepare successful and highly qualified PreKindergarten-12th grade teachers as well as programs for those interested in advanced study and research activities leading to careers in school leadership, school and educational psychology, education policy, education technology, higher and post-secondary education, and many other fields. ASU’s graduate programs in education are consistently ranked by U.S. News & World Report as among the nation’s best.  For more information, visit