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Teacher of the Year Tania Harman: Language Lessons

Name: Tania Harman

Award: Indiana Teacher of the Year for 2009
Teaches: First grade
Specialty: English as a second language
Teaching since: 1988
Studying at Walden: Doctor of Education (EdD)

When Tania Harman was a child, education was not a priority for her parents. But that didn’t stop her from gravitating toward everything having to do with learning. “I loved school. From the time I was in kindergarten, I told everyone I was going to grow up and be a teacher,” she says. “School was a place where I felt safe and at ease. It was something I was good at.”

Her parents just didn’t get it. Neither one had graduated high school and discouraged her from going to college, even refusing to fill out financial aid forms. Says Harman: “They thought it was a waste of time and money, they thought I thought I was better than everyone else.”

Today, as an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher at Warren Primary Center in South Bend, Indiana, Harman works tirelessly to make sure that her students feel encouraged to excel, both by their teachers and by their parents. Support, she believes is something that ESL students need more than most kids. “These are kids who suddenly were taken out of everything they knew and loved and brought to a whole new country,” she says. “They have vastly different needs.”

Harman began her career in the late 1980s as a general education teacher at the elementary level, but when her district went through a restructuring in 2003, two-thirds of the area’s teachers had to change jobs. During the transition period, she applied to teach first grade and ended up being handed an ESL slot. “I immediately loved it,” she says. She amped up her skills by returning to school to add an ESL endorsement to her license, and then started studying Spanish in order to facilitate easier conversation with parents. All of these steps are in line with her belief that constant self-improvement and continuing education are musts for teachers. “You cannot stay in your classroom and isolate yourself from your colleagues,” she says.

Harman’s career at Walden is just another way in which she feels she can work to ensure that she’s giving all she can to her students, and to their families. She’s constantly impressed with the devotion of ESL students’ families to their children’s education and how their interest impacts students’ performances. “Their families are so appreciative of everything I do, and overall very supportive,” she says. “I actually get to spend my day teaching, not disciplining, because these are families that have placed different expectations on their children.”

For Harman, a good education means teaching kids’ families as well: In her role as an ESL teacher, she has worked with some parents to help them become citizens. Her own parents were never encouraged to see the value of schooling, Harman wants to make sure her students have families that are better aware of the fact that a good education is invaluable, especially when injecting a child into a new culture. “A teacher can’t do it alone. There has to be a partnership with the family. You have to make connections in the community to support what you’re doing in the classroom. We all need to work together to support student learning,” she says. Her approach is working: Last year, almost every one of her students graduated from bilingual classes into general education classes. Says Harman: “I’m kind of working myself out of a job!”