Meet the 2012 Teacher of the Year Nominee

American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages

Ms. Podbilski (R), or  欧老师,  poses with her students.
Ms. Podbilski (R), or 欧老师, poses with her students.

by Eleise Jones

We recently caught up with Lisa Podbilski, the very first Chinese teacher to become a regional finalist for American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Language's (ACTFL) National Language Teacher of the Year. 欧老师 (Ōu Lǎoshī), as her students now call her, became enthralled with Chinese language and culture as early as middle school. As a student in northern Illinois, Podbilski befriended a student from Taiwan, and their cultural differences sparked a lifelong interest and engagement.

Podbilski had a penchant for languages, it seems, and studied not only Chinese but also Latin, American sign language, and Spanish before going on to major in East Asian Languages and Culture at Michigan State University, which included a year of study at Beijing Foreign Language and Culture University. Her parents early on supported her language studies, and recognized within her the light and fire required for teaching. She’s in her 12th year as a Chinese teacher—now in Tampa, Florida—and is a highly committed member of the Chinese language education community: She is a board member and immediate past president of the Florida Chinese Teachers Association (FCTA), and is a regional director for Florida Foreign Language Association (FFLA); both Southern Conference on Language Teaching (SCOLT) and FFLA have recognized her as Teacher of the Year. She’s currently working on her M.A. in Chinese through Valparaiso, and last year spent nine weeks in Hangzhou for intensive language study at Zhejiang University.

When asked about the challenges of growing a program, Podbliski cites networking and collaboration as being very important building blocks to teacher training, program support, and classroom engagement. She also stresses global competence for her students, saying: “If you understand empathy, you can communicate with others. It's critical.”

We had a few other questions for Podbilski:

The nomination process for ACTFL's National Language Teacher of the Year is an intense one. What specifically did you learn about yourself as a teacher in that process? What new perspectives, focus, or realizations emerged for you as a result of the experience?

The process of thinking about exactly what I teach and how I teach, which standards are emphasized, and what goes well in the classroom (and what does not), truly allowed me to reflect on my teaching. It made me think about teaching in a new way. As a teacher, I constantly reflect on my teaching, but I felt that this ACTFL Teacher of the Year portfolio process allowed me a deeper reflection.

How important is technology to the teaching and learning that goes on in your classroom, and how do you incorporate technology?

The school where I work is a wireless, laptop campus—there is a huge emphasis on technology. But technology is a tool to reach students, not the be-all and end-all. I encourage students to use online Chinese dictionaries as well as different learning websites as much as possible. In the classroom, since I have a tablet PC, I use the pen function to write characters and project them, or I will have students create sentences and I write them down for future reference. I will also ask students to come to the front of the classroom so they can use my tablet to create their own work. As for homework assignments, many of my higher-level classes maintain a Chinese class blog. I have also had students create movies, digital storytelling projects, wikispaces, and a glog (a graphics blog).

In what ways does the greater school and community participate in the Chinese program in your school?

My school has a National Chinese Honor Society charter and an active Chinese Club; it allows students to attend the annual Florida Statewide Chinese Competition, and has an exchange program with students in Beijing. Moreover, the school supports teachers in terms of professional development opportunities and professional membership organizations.

You've been a student of Chinese really for almost 15 years and now a teacher for 12, and you've seen major changes in both the interest in Chinese as well as the quality of teaching. Can you say a few words about what challenges you see may lie ahead for the Chinese language field, or what you might expect to see in the future, now that the field has grown so much?

I think the challenge that lies ahead is ensuring that Chinese is not a fly-by-night or flavor-of-the-month language. Establishing strong local support of Chinese programs and continuing that support is crucial. Parents, teachers, and administrators need to work together to ensure the longevity of the program. Teacher mentorship, and parent and community involvement need to be maintained.

Please join us in congratulating Lisa Podbilski on her nomination and representing the Chinese language field at ACTFL!