by Leticia M. Trower
Judith B. O’Loughlin, Pearson Education Specialist, was recently named one of TESOL’s “50 at 50” – fifty educators who have made significant contributions to the field in the last fifty years.
I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Judith about this honor, and about her long and distinguished career in the field of teaching English as a second language. Here are some highlights of our conversation:
On being honored by TESOL:
JO: The very first winner was James Alatis. I remember quite a few years ago I met him. And he was quite a person! He talked a lot about the TESOL affiliates and their support for English learners. So I’m really impressed being in this company!
James Alatis was a founding member of TESOL International. Click here to view the list of honorees – Judith is in very good company indeed! Anyone familiar with linguistics or language teaching will recognize many superstars among the fifty honorees.
On how she became an ESL educator:
JO: It was sort of a fluke thing! I was at home with two children under five, and I went to my town’s library and started a conversation with another person who was there. I said “I’m very antsy to get back into teaching.” I had been a middle school English teacher and a high school English teacher. My maternity leave was up, and my job had been absorbed due to low enrollment. So this person mentioned that there were adult ed positions in Hackensack, New Jersey. She had just gotten hired as an ESL teacher, and she asked if I’d like to go down and see about getting put on the substitute teacher list. I went down with her that night, and somebody quit that night and the director asked me if I’d be interested in the job! So that’s where I started. I worked there at night for seventeen years believe it or not, two nights a week, two to three hours a night, working with adults. We had rolling enrollment, so they came and went; one night I’d have twenty-five students and the next night I might have ten. Really challenging, but interesting!
The director kept telling me to go get my ESL certification so I could teach in the daytime too, and after about five or six years I did; I got my Master’s in Bilingual/ESL Education at William Patterson University, and I started working days and nights. I taught K-8 during the day, and two nights a week I worked with adults.
[The night I got the job] I was sort of pinching myself. I said to my husband, “I think I have a job,” and he said “Great!” It wasn’t anything I originally thought I would do, but it became my passion.
It did indeed become her passion! Judith has been in the field of second language learning ever since. She now works for Pearson as an Education Specialist, traveling nationwide to deliver workshops on the SIOP Model, the only empirically-validated model of sheltered instruction for English learners. She also facilitates webinars for elementary bilingual certification candidates at the University of Ohio, and is a certified trainer for WIDA. Judith has written extensively about language learning too, and has published book chapters, articles, a book, and blog posts. Her most recent publication is a blog post for Colorin Colorado. With so many accomplishments already behind her, I asked her to reflect on everything she has done so far, and tell me what she is most proud of.
JO: When I lived in New Jersey, TESOL came out with the first iteration of national ESL standards. I still have that book here! I was on the board of NJTESOL and I was convinced that in order for ESL to be recognized as a viable content and course in New Jersey, we had to let all the county superintendents know that, just like any other content area, we had standards. It was a real perception problem in public schools, that we were support personnel rather than certified teachers; classroom teachers felt you [as an ESL teacher] were there as an aide. I did a whole letter-writing campaign to every county superintendent in New Jersey, and with the help of NJTESOL I purchased 55 copies of the book and mailed one copy to each county superintendent with the letter. Then I followed up with a phone call to make sure they had received the book and understood that now ESL has standards. So, I think for me, that was a really important accomplishment. And since then, New Jersey has adopted the WIDA standards, and teachers can now talk with their districts about the importance of those standards, and not just teaching on the fly.
On her “second family”:
JO: I think one example of the impact that I felt I’ve made is that there are at least five of my students [from Asian countries] who have come back to the United States to work, and I feel so proud of them. I have an electrical engineer, a physical therapist, a professor… I’m really, really proud. My former students write to me, and I’ve visited them or they’ve visited me. My husband used to say that I had two families – the my first family was our kids, and my second family was my school kids. That was really important to me.
I asked Judith what she would share with those who are new to the field. I asked, “What do you wish you had known, when you first started working with English learners?”
JO: Oh my goodness. I wish I had known more about the people I was working with. I wish I’d had a better understanding of their struggles. Relocation, getting settled, stuck between their culture and American culture – all of that took time to learn, and I wish I had known more about that sooner.
My mother’s parents came from Turkey, and I never thought about that as a kid growing up. When I started working with kids, I started thinking about that: all the kids I was teaching were in two different worlds. There was the world they were in at school, and the world they were in when they went home from school. And it kind of hit me because as a little girl growing up I went from school to my grandmother’s house after school and I didn’t speak her language, and I never thought about it as entering a different world until I started working with kids, how a six-year-old has to negotiate these two worlds. I still think about it all the time. It’s a big responsibility to be able to live in American classrooms and then go home to your country in your home in America. Everything is different, everything you do is a little different, everything you think about is a little bit different.
Also, this may sound silly, but I wish I’d known more about English grammar! When I first started working with adult English learners, I had to study my own grammar – the grammar I was supposedly taught in high school. It was more about learning how to teach, not just the grammar itself, but how to help my students communicate, as well as understanding more about their culture.
I asked Judith how teachers can make a difference in the lives of English learners, especially in the face of all the challenges she described. She had some words of wisdom for her fellow educators, and left us with what may be the next big question in the field of teaching English as a second language:
JO: Resilience! That’s the big thing I’ve been thinking and reading about lately. Trying to figure out why some students succeed and some students don’t. I want teachers today to think about how to help their students become resilient, to be able to succeed when they have adverse learning situations, when they don’t feel that they belong, etc. To create an environment in which students feel comfortable experimenting with language, and making errors, and know that they have support, not only from their ESL teachers but from a community within the school – to help students build resilience and be able to succeed. Something that surprised me is that resilience is almost more important than the academics. How do we provide our students with that?