What can we learn from someone who teaches current and future reading teachers? A lot, as it turns out. I recently heard about Dr. Shuai Zhang when he was featured in a newspaper story about his service work with young readers at my neighborhood elementary school. Dr. Z, as both his elementary and university students call him, is a research assistant professor in the Department of Reading Education and Special Education at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC. Dr. Z bridges the gap between the fields of English language teaching and native speaker literacy because he taught English as a second language in China and now teaches future teachers of reading in the United States.
He sees literacy work through the lens of second language learners because he was one himself. He also has a fresh take on how reading is taught in the United States because he grew up outside of the United States. His story gives us valuable lessons on how to be the best possible teacher of reading to our English language learners.
Dr. Z was a young English teacher in China before he decided to come to the United States to study. He thought completing a master’s degree in TESOL and then returning to China would advance his career. It did, but not in the way he first envisioned. His master’s degree TESOL coursework in the United States focused on preparing teachers for teaching English as a second language. This wasn’t as relevant to him since he had taught English as a foreign language in China.
After taking courses in other areas, he eventually transferred to a different program and completed a PhD in curriculum and instruction with a concentration in reading and literacy education. Now, Dr. Z is making a difference in western North Carolina with the children he tutors in reading as well as the future and current teachers he teaches. His experience gives English language teachers three valuable lessons:
1. Keep an Open Mind
The reading wars, as I explained in a previous blog, were a revelation to Dr. Z because he was an outsider when he first came to the United States. He has been exposed to both the phonics and whole language sides of the debate. He suggests both sides should learn the benefits of the other and seek opportunities to collaborate. Dr. Z pointed out his views are evolving. I’d add that ours should be, too. That’s the mark of a true scholar.
2. Reflect on Your Practice
This can include many things—self-study, gathering data, getting feedback, and more. Tutoring in a reading clinic during his graduate studies was Dr. Z’s first experience helping children with reading difficulties. It made him realize being knowledgeable isn’t necessarily the same thing as being a good teacher. Experience—especially experience that’s reflected on—is important.
After Dr. Z started tutoring, the information became more tangible, to him as well as his students. He also pointed out researchers need to be good teachers—in other words, good story tellers. Even now, he is gathering data on his work with reading students at my local elementary school. That’s because he wants to assess its effectiveness. He advises all of us teachers to use evidence-based practices. If something is working in our reading classrooms, we should be able to show why.
3. Credit Others
Dr. Z valued his mentors. He listened to their advice and recognized them when the advice worked. I couldn’t help noticing how much Dr. Z had been influenced by his professors at Texas A & M. They counseled him when he was thinking about changing his course of study and helped him set up volunteer opportunities to enhance his graduate work. I was also impressed when he noted the assistance he had received here in western North Carolina. We should all be so quick to appreciate and acknowledge the help we’ve received on our career journeys.