As the 2015-2016 ETA cohort nears the close of their first semester teaching in Korea, FKAR wanted to highlight one of Fulbright’s most inspiring teachers: Maeve Wall. Exuding a signature aura of warmth, acceptance, and encouragement within and beyond the classroom walls, Maeve’s life and pedagogical philosophies are simply galvanizing. She was kind enough to share some of her background and thoughts with FKAR in the following interview.
FKAR: Hey Maeve, tell us a little about yourself~
I’m from Columbus, Ohio and went to undergrad at Northwestern University. I studied English Literature, and was obsessed with it (Go Henry James!). I started teaching while in college through the Jumpstart Program for Young Children which works in high needs preschools. Additionally, I had a few teaching internships including a stint in East Harlem at an Independent charter school, thanks to which I fell in love with New York. After school, I moved to Bushwick, Brooklyn and became a Kindergarten and First Grade teacher through Teach For America. I was lucky enough to get my Masters Degree in Childhood Education at Fordham University during that time.
FKAR: What’s been one of your favorite memories this grant year?
I love figuring out how to work with kids who don’t speak your language. Those moments when students “get it” – amidst language barriers and diverse cultural backgrounds – are immensely rewarding. I think a favorite illustrative moment was working with my after school class and trying, shakily, to talk about gender roles. The students were asked to make a list of things boys can and can’t do before discussing where those ideas came from and which ones they might reconsider or question. When it was time for the girls to make a poster about what girls can do, (I was thinking along the lines of “build things” or “do math,”) one student asked me, “Can we just say girls can do everything?” Yes, WIN.
FKAR: How about a challenge you’ve encountered this year as well?
Teaching kids who don’t speak the same language. I really value student relationships and think that truly knowing students individually is one of the most important roles of a teacher. The language barrier and class structure here can sometimes make that hard. For example, if I see a student having a really difficult time focusing, or a child looks upset, I typically like to ask them what’s going on, and how their feeling today. Here, I know students hesitate to tell me with the barrier in communication.
FKAR: What are one or two goals you hope to achieve before the end of your time with Fulbright Korea?
I’m hoping to work with my Fulbright Co-teacher and amazing ETA Alessa Streleki on a project involving students with different abilities in my community. The Korean education system is progressing quickly, but it seems like their attention to students with special needs can be lacking at times. This difficulty is perhaps most visible in English class, a subject that can be particularly trying for students with different abilities. I’m hoping to build a sort of support network for the students and their parents to brainstorm solutions to the problems they’re facing. Other than that, I want to study Buddhism more and do some solo temple stays in the spring. On that note, I hope to work on mindfulness and staying in the moment for the remainder of my grant year, because it’s moving along really quickly and I don’t want to miss it!
FKAR: Any ideas what the next step is for you after the grant year?
My current plans are to follow up with some schools in New York City to return to a neighborhood similar to the one I taught in the past two years. I want to teach early elementary at a progressive, student-centered school and then maybe pursue a masters degree or doctorate degree in School Counseling or Leadership in a few years.
FKAR: Tell me a little bit about how your teaching style differs from the “by the books” pedagogy – Mindfulness regarding genres of student autonomy and empowerment, feminism, decolonization, and the celebration of diversity?
bell hooks writes of education as the “practice of freedom,”- education as something enabling and empowering which allows us to grow. While I think I have a lot more to learn before my classroom is a radical one like hers, I do try to revolve my teaching around empowerment. I want students in my classroom to learn about themselves, each other, and the world, and then go out there and change it. In order to do so, students must become expert critical thinkers, mistake-makers, and team players. They’ve got to learn to work on their own, to solve difficult problems confidently, and to keep trying when things get hard. They also have to have a safe space to be themselves, share ideas, learn from and teach each other. I like to think of the classroom as a space that operates somewhere between how society really is and how we hope and dream that it can be. To that end, I want my class to be peaceful, to celebrate students as they are, and to be a relief from the pressures and oppression they may feel in our very imperfect world. I’m so thankful to all of my colleagues and amazing teacher-friends whose support allows me to keep trying to achieve this vision. I use a lot of strategies I’ve learned from them like student-centered projects, community building activities, discussions of diversity and cultural difference, social-emotional learning, and inquiry-based teaching methods. I still have a long, long way to go, but I think this vision is one I could happily pursue for the rest of my career.
FKAR: How did your last position at TFA in NY compare to and influence your time as a Fulbright ETA?
My past two years teaching have been massively influential in almost every area of my life and they’ve definitely shaped who I am in the classroom now. At my previous school, I found that I didn’t agree with a lot of what I was told to do pedagogically and so: 1) I got really fired up about what I believe, and 2) had to get creative in meeting school expectations and not compromising my vision for the classroom. I think this has made me a passionate, but adaptable educator and I don’t find myself thrown off by curveballs in the classroom as much anymore. Also, like a lot of first year teachers, I found myself failing in my previous job- a lot. Like all the time. Through that process of constant failure and revision I think I’ve arrived at a point where I am more comfortable with mistakes and try to embrace the process of becoming an effective teacher. I try to see the good that comes with messing up and learning from it – to adapt to road bumps with intention and a lot of self-love.
FKAR: One last thing – any fun fact about yourself you’d like to share?
I was obsessed with my Kindergarten class during my first year of teaching, and they were obsessed with singing. During breaks or community time, we learned all kinds of songs including “Stand by Me,” the Black American National Anthem, and Matisyahu’s “One Day.” They were like a little juke-box you could turn on whenever we needed a pick-me-up and would sometimes harmonize on their own!
*You can follow Maeve’s teaching experiences and projects online at http://maeveteacher.blogspot.kr/