The American School in SwitzerlandThe American School in Switzerland
Faculty Feature: Ms. Carolyn Heard

Teacher: Profile: Carolyn Heard

Anastasia Kolesnikova ’18 sat down with Ms. Carolyn Heard, who received the School’s inaugural Khan-Page Master Teacher Award in 2009. Ms. Heard chairs the English as an Additional Language (EAL) Department and is known for helping her students achieve exceptional results on the International Baccalaureate (IB) exams. 
When did you start at TASIS?
I started my job teaching in the EAL Department in the year 2000.

What classes do you teach?
Right now I teach IB English B year one and year two. For example, I will teach the first-year students, as I’m doing this year, and then I’ll follow them into year two for their senior year. I take turns with the other teachers, Ms. Schumacher and Ms. Yount—that is, we rotate every year.

What else are you involved with at TASIS?
I run the English as an Additional Language Department; I’m an advisor, and I’m on the Academic Team. It’s composed of the department chairs—plus [High School Academic Dean] Dr. Abisi, [Headmaster] Mr. Rigg, [Director of Studies] Mr. Jepsen, [College Counselor]  Mr. Birk, [IB Coordinator]  Mr. Stickley, and [AP Coordinator] Mr. Locke—and we discuss questions that come up regarding academics here at TASIS.

Can you please describe your educational background and career in education prior to coming to TASIS?
I attended Middlebury College in Vermont, for four years, spending my junior year abroad in Paris. I majored in French and German. I also had the opportunity to study Italian at Middlebury and attended the summer language programs as well. During my undergraduate years, I was immersed in the study of modern language, as well as theater, English, and art. I had no idea I was going to have a career in education. What I did in college was focus on the things that interested me without worrying too much about a career path, and I was extremely lucky to be able to do that.

After I left college, I went to New York City—I had some friends there—and for two years I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life, so I just sort of drifted from one job to the next so that I could pay my rent. At a certain point, I met someone who was an instructor at The City University of New York. She was actually my roommate—we were living in Columbia University housing at that time. We talked a lot about teaching, and she inspired me to go into education myself. I realized I wasn’t happy in the business world at all.

2016 IB Scores
Jonathan Xie

92 percent of TASIS students who took the IB English B Higher Level exam scored at least a six.

I had always thought, when I was in high school and college, that I couldn’t wait to get away from the classroom because, after all those years in school, I thought I wanted a change. But the two years outside of that environment taught me that it was something I actually loved, and so after talking to a number of people, I decided to go to graduate school, choosing New York University because I had moved downtown, to the NYU area. At that time I couldn’t afford to pay the fees; graduate studies are very expensive. But a kind professor in the School of Education told me about a scheme whereby if you worked full-time at NYU, you were entitled to something called “tuition remission;” in other words, your course fees would be taken care of by the University.

Once again I was extremely lucky, because on the very day I spoke with that professor, a position had opened up in the Department of French and Italian, and the job just seemed tailor-made for me. I was very interested in being in an environment where I could speak those languages and be around brilliant scholars and academics, and that’s exactly what I got with this job.

Working there led to what were probably the most intellectually stimulating years of my life. The Department of French and Italian at NYU had scores of very intellectually gifted and active students and professors who organized events attended by very interesting, and a number of very famous people—scholars, writers, actors, film directors, you name it. I was really dazzled by the exposure to this world of the intellect and cultural enrichment, and realized how much I loved being in such an environment.

In graduate school I decided to study the teaching of English to Speakers of Other Languages because I figured there would be a big market for it. Now this was not based on any research that I had done—common sense just told me that this might be a practical and enjoyable thing to do. Now I wasn’t sure that I was going to like it, mind you—I wasn’t sure at all. But I thought there was a pretty good chance I might. So I got through my job and graduate school, and then again I was lucky because I had made the acquaintance of some people at NYU who taught at the American Language Institute, the department which taught English as a second or additional language.

So right after graduate school, I got a job at the American Language Institute, and that was also a very stimulating part of my career because I was just starting out in that field. The people that hired me put a lot of faith in me, and I sort of learned on the job. Of course I had learned a lot of theory in graduate school, but now my abilities were being put to the test. I was given some courses to teach, and I learned a lot from my more experienced colleagues, who were wonderful. They taught me so much about teaching, giving me their materials and acting as mentors, and this helped me immeasurably. It was kind of scary at first, teaching my first class at university, but at the same time stimulating and exciting. The students were wonderful, my colleagues were wonderful, and as the years passed, I grew more and more comfortable and confident as an instructor.

At the same time, I was teaching in other schools as well. For example, I taught at Baruch College, which is part of The City University of New York, and at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT). For a while I was running around a lot around the city from campus to campus, which was very time-consuming. Eventually I gained enough teaching hours at NYU that I could give up the hours at the other places, which meant that I no longer had to run to the other colleges—it can be very stressful to have to go get on a subway, or walk for blocks on end, and carry all your stuff with you to teach one class—so I was very happy when I could stay in my own neighborhood and teach exclusively at NYU.

I was also given an administrative position there, coordinating one of our programs, which was very rewarding. In addition, I was on the placement testing team. Three times a year, during the registration period, we administered tests to new undergraduate and graduate students who came from non-English-speaking countries. I would interview these students, review their test scores, and determine which English classes would best serve their needs. But my ultimate goal was to live and teach in Europe, so I was fortunate to be hired by TASIS in 2000.

What brought you to Switzerland?
I had taught at TASIS previously, when on hiatus from NYU, as well as in TASIS summer schools in England, France, and Spain—the latter two are now defunct—and it was through Chris Frost, a former headmaster,  that I was able to get this job. I already had friends in Lugano, Ticinesi, and knew Switzerland pretty well from my many visits here.

What would you say has been your greatest success here so far?
There’s no one particular thing I can point to, but what I would say gives me the greatest sense of accomplishment and satisfaction is when I hear back from former students. Some of them keep in touch with me, or sometimes just out of the blue they’ll write to me. One time a student wrote and said she had gotten an award for Excellence in English at the school that she had transferred to, and she felt that a lot of that she owed to having taken my classes. Other times I’ve heard back from students who have gone to college and been exempted from the mandatory Freshman English course because they had done well on a writing test, and they would write to me to thank me for my teaching. Obviously, they were very good students to begin with, but I like to think that I had something to do with their success, and that, in turn, gives me a feeling of success.

My philosophy of teaching begins with concern not only for the goals that we set out to students in terms of their achievement here at TASIS, but also for what they’ll need for university and beyond.

We’re coming to the end of our time. Can you describe your teaching philosophy?
My philosophy of teaching begins with concern not only for the goals that we set out to students in terms of their achievement here at TASIS, but also for what they’ll need for university and beyond. Students are not always aware of what they need to learn or why they need to learn it, so it’s the teacher’s job to show them the importance of what’s on the program and help them develop their linguistic and communicative competence accordingly, as well as to equip them to participate fully in a world of changing knowledge, cultivating in them intellectual curiosity about things that are worth knowing and exploring.

I want the students to be both comfortable in the classroom and inspired to learn. I want to stimulate their thinking about the way the language works and about the questions of culture that are not only behind the vocabulary and the idioms we use, but also in the literature we read and the topics that come up in the course of our studies. I like to blend the cognitive approach—that is the explicit teaching of grammar and syntax, along with the mechanics of writing—with a communicative approach: getting students to enjoy day-to-day, informal interactions with the teacher and with each other. I’m hoping that in the two years of intensive instruction in reading, speaking, vocabulary development, and writing, students will be well-equipped to carry on learning at more advanced levels.

In the final analysis, when students take charge of their own learning and become autonomous learners, they will be on the road toward successful language acquisition and be at ease with English in all of their future endeavours.

Have you ever taught any other classes here, aside from the IB?
Certainly. I’ve taught EAL 2, EAL 3, and EAL 5, and I developed the original curricula for all those courses. As I mentioned earlier,  I taught English in TASIS summer programs in England, as well as French in France and Spanish in Spain. I also worked for many summers right here teaching in the Middle School Program (MSP).

What’s the best part about teaching?
It’s the feeling of connecting with the students. That’s why the teaching always gets better and better as the year goes on. Obviously at the beginning they don’t know you, and you don’t know them, so things can feel a bit stiff—plus you know you have to explain the rules, and the way the class works, and you’re having to establish a kind of foundation on which to build the course. The students have to understand the way you want the class to go, so there can be some uncertainty in the beginning. But then as the students get to know you, and you get to know them, you begin to develop a rapport and find new ways of connecting with them and making sure they understand how things work. At a certain point, students start to relax and the jokes start flying through the air—so there’s laughter along with the learning.

There’s also the feeling of working together towards a common goal. This isn’t to say there aren’t moments of difficulty, friction, and misunderstanding, because there are—that will happen every time there is a teacher who is demanding, I think—but at the same time I’m hoping that in the final analysis, they will understand that I am actually there to help them. And certainly that feeling, I think, is pretty strong toward the end of the year—the end of the two years, especially—when most students finally come to the realization that my ultimate goal is to help them gain fluency, academic proficiency, and a fuller understanding of the topics that have been discussed. I might be a stern taskmaster at times, and I might crack the whip—that’s not always a picnic—but at the end of the day I think they understand that it is all for their benefit.

So, to answer your question, the best thing about teaching is that feeling of connecting with the students and being there for them.

Visit our Faculty Features page to learn about more TASIS teachers. 

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