Hanging on the door outside Leigh VandenAkker’s classroom is a powerful message. It says, simply, “You Can Do Hard Things.” The East High School teacher and 2012 Educator of the Year has been teaching those five words to troubled teens, refugees and any other students who have taken her class Techniques for Tough Times.
Now, as a recipient of the Pearson Foundation Global Learning Fellowship, they are words she is embracing personally.
VandenAkker is one of 36 award-winning public-school educators who spent the past week in Brazil, touring classrooms and learning from Brazilian teachers and administrators. The effort is to improve global competence in the classroom and help students in the United States compete in an increasingly interconnected global marketplace.
Preparation for the trip has been an extensive, yearlong process, but, even after more than 20 years of teaching, VandenAkker still knows how important it is to do hard things.
“The opportunity that I’ve had to learn, to grow with this program is remarkable,” she said. “Those of us who have been teaching a long time understand, when it’s your passion, the need to strive to learn and get better.”
Along with their normal teaching duties, VandenAkker and the other fellows had to find time to learn basic Portuguese, finish online coursework and attend an intensive Washington, D.C., seminar understanding the curriculum.
“It’s not a vacation,” said Janice Ward, the NEA Foundation’s vice president of innovation. “We want these teachers to think of every experience as a way to improve education at home. We want them to take every moment, translate it and bring it back to my students so they’ll be impacted positively.”
For VandenAkker, learning how to compete in a global world and understanding diverse points of view is important on even the most basic levels. She feels that students who “stay in their own ZIP code” tend to be more inclined toward bullying, a growing problem not just in the hallways, but on social media as well.
“Bullying begins with fear of differences,” she said. “I want my students to understand that they don’t have to fear the world. With understanding, we get stronger. We embrace differences. It’s all right to have our individual perspectives, but when we think outside of ourselves, we learn more about who we are as well.”
Upon her return this week, VandenAkker will also begin preparing a lesson plan on global competency she will share with other teachers at East. Currently, more than 45 languages are spoken at the high school. The cultural potpourri makes programs such as the Global Learning Fellowship a necessity.
“The role of teachers is changing daily,” VandenAkker said. “It’s our duty to embrace the changing atmosphere and be willing to learn from it.”
At a glance
The Pearson Foundation Global Learning Fellowship’s trip to Brazil included visits to schools in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.
The program is in its third year. In 2011 and 2012, Pearson Foundation Fellows toured Beijing and Shanghai in China.
Leigh VandenAkker has been teaching in Utah for more than 20 years. She was the recipient of Utah’s 2012 Teacher of the Year and the 2011 Golden Apple Award.