“If you’re a working teacher, this is the program for you. I can’t speak more highly of the program. It was exactly what I needed it to be. It gave me more tools in my toolbox to be able to successfully support learners from all walks of life. Not only are these transferable skills into my personal profession right at this moment, but I feel like I came out that much more of knowledgeable human being for our global society.” – Jennifer (Jen) Van, Educating Bilingual Learners Online Graduate Certificate, Graduate Spring 2023
Transforming Teaching Practices
Jennifer (Jen) Van brings much enthusiasm and commitment to her work as an educator. After stumbling into the teaching profession, she realized she needed more formalized preparation. Having recently completed the Educating Bilingual Learners (EBL) Online Graduate Certificate at the University of Connecticut (UConn), Jen now feels equipped with the tools and strategies to create supportive learning environments where all students can thrive.
Stumbling into teaching
While Jen had always dreamed of teaching abroad, her journey into teaching began unexpectedly. In December 2018, after applying for a paraprofessional job at Bridge Academy, a charter school in Bridgeport, CT, the principal invited her to instead be the 11th and 12th grade Spanish teacher, hiring her on the spot. While Jen had earned a dual-major BA in Spanish and Psychology from UConn in 2011, and she had experience working with children, she had no formal teaching preparation. As Jen explains, “It’s been a wild ride. Imagine starting a job where you just don’t know what you’re doing. That’s what I did. I learned on the fly for a lot of it.” She adds, “My story is not super unique. There are a lot of educators, especially in the world language field, who just stumbled in with absolutely nothing.”
Jen began certification courses through CT’s Alternate Route to Teacher Certification (ARC) program in 2019, earning her CT teacher certification in World Language, Spanish in 2020. While she learned a lot, Jen still did not feel confident as an educator: “I got my certification, but I still didn’t feel I was fully prepared. Flash forward, the Educating Bilingual Learners program happened to pop out of thin air, and I’ve been pursuing it totally online. I feel like I came out with more tools in my toolbox in this EBL program than I did in my certification program.”
UConn easy choice – twice!
Jen learned about UConn’s Educating Bilingual Learners Online Graduate Certificate program from a flyer her friend shared with her. With the support of her charter school, Bridge Academy, Jen began the 12-credit, 4 course program in July 2022, completing her mission in May 2023. She explains, “I personally love learning. So when I ran into UConn’s EBL program, I presented it to my principal, and they made the magic happen. I’ve been so lucky. First, I love UConn. They’ve been an incredible school to me for my entire educational life. I always advocate for UConn. I have University of Connecticut as my undergrad and as my graduate certificate, because it’s so highly regarded. It’s nationally acclaimed as a university. So I hope that will open a lot of doors for me in the future.”
Why would a Spanish teacher choose this graduate certificate program? Jen explains, “I figured that any knowledge I could acquire about the theories of supporting English language learners, I can also transform into support that I can use for my Spanish language learners, since that’s what I teach. I could not have been less equipped when coming into the teaching field. But the strategies I learned from the EBL program, I can easily transfer to my classroom for my English language learners and beyond. I really appreciate that.”
Flexible, asynchronous nature – critical to success
The asynchronous nature of the program was an ideal fit for Jen. “Can I say the fact that this program is asynchronous has been the key thing that I needed. As an educating teacher, I’m so busy lesson-planning, grading assignments, creating assessments, supporting my students, staying after school, going in before school. Where would I find the time? The EBL program gave me the flexibility to be able to effectively absorb the information and do the assignments at my own pace. That was critical to my success in this program.”
This flexibility to pace herself was core to Jen maintaining a healthy school/work balance. “On my own schedule, as a crazy teacher, I was able to do the work when I could and really focus on it, as opposed to having to pull an all-nighter, then do a poor job on my assignment, and then be left in fumes from my own class. That flexibility was essential to my success in this program. Absolutely critical.”
Voice and Choice
Jen also greatly valued the flexibility to choose between assignments that offered different options for assessing student understanding. “There was a lot of voice and choice in all the assignments, which is very important. That’s something we advocate for in the classroom. There are all types of learners in our classroom: You might be good at drawing, but I might be good at speaking. So there were different ways that the teacher would assess, and you could choose, depending on the assignment. I appreciated that flexibility.”
Collaborative assignments were Jen’s favorite. After Dr. Elizabeth (Liz) Howard helped make the connection, Jen and another Spanish teacher in the course became strong resources for each other. “We would both collaborate all semester long. As the only Spanish teacher in my building, I don’t have a department; I am one person, which can be very isolating. She’s one more person that I’m able to connect with, because she’s also a high school Spanish teacher in her district. I was able to collaborate with this other individual and something small in my head was able to be that much better executed. We were able to lean on each other and help each other and get perspective on the assignments and in our own classrooms as we were teaching.”
Professors – knowledgeable and supportive
Another strength of the program for Jen was the knowledge and support of the professors. “All of the professors have been so kind and so supportive. If at any point, I had any questions or concerns, the professors were always very accessible and responsive to whatever my needs were. They are extremely knowledgeable and clearly know their field, so I’ve been very lucky to learn from them.
In addition to sharing their knowledge, Jen appreciated the ways that her professors were invested in exploring each student’s potential and future opportunities. “They were always willing to talk about the field too. Big shout out to Dr. Liz Howard, because she knows this entire industry, and she was able to open my mind to other possibilities in the field. It’s not in my cards right now due to my circumstances and my family, but she mentioned an incredible opportunity that I would be so psyched about.” Describing the future possibility of teaching at an international dual-language school in Costa Rica, Jen explains, “That would be my absolute dream job. And I never would have even contemplated that, but Dr. Howard mentioned that in a conversation as we were talking about an assignment. That’s just one example of how the professors are so open to exploring each of their student’s potential and other options available in the field. They’re all so knowledgeable and so approachable.”
For Jen, this supportive environment makes all the difference in an online program. “They made it so easy for me to be able to succeed at my own rate, while still having the support along the way. I never felt like I was alone and had to just figure this out. Everyone was available online at any point that I needed them. That’s something really critical in an asynchronous program.”
Practical applications in the classroom
The opportunity to immediately apply what she was learning to her classroom was a huge advantage. “There have been so many things that I learned from the program that I was immediately able to implement into my class. It was really good in terms of practical information, not just theory.” Jen provides an example from the course she’s just completed, EDCI 5750-Language Diversity and Literacy: “I had to take the theories and come up with activities and assessments that I would actually implement in my particular Spanish class. Because I had to do these assignments, I realized I could use it in my actual class. Within that week, I had built my own lesson, even better than if I were to have brainstormed it myself, because I had to be supporting theories backed up by the knowledge I was learning through the course. So it’s been extremely beneficial: I’ve really been able to come out with a lot of practical, applicable information that I can tangibly implement into my own classroom. I’ve been really lucky.”
Adding equity and celebrating diversity
Recognizing the struggle faced by students who are English language learners, Jen hopes to apply her learning in ways that will make the classroom more equitable: “To have to learn the language and the content at the same time is not fair to students. I hope to add a little bit of equity into the classroom to make their knowledge that more accessible in terms of the content and language. Because I know that struggle and it hurts and it’s not fair. These kids are really smart and they’re being penalized. They can probably do what you’re asking them to do; they just can’t understand the language yet. So if we give them the right tools, they can succeed. And that’s a lot of what this EBL program is about – celebrating diversity and language and being able to use these students as resources and as leverage in the entire classroom community. As much as the student is learning from the teacher, the teacher can learn from the student, and the students can learn from each other. I hope to be able to implement that in my classroom.”
Supporting English language learners is deeply personal for Jen. Both of her parents immigrated to the U.S. from Colombia as full Spanish speakers. With this certificate, Jen is excited to step into a support role for bilingual students in her school. “I’ve always been the translator in my family. I’ve always held that responsibility. Not only in just translating the language, but almost kind of translating the culture. So I understand what these kids are going through. I’ve been in those shoes. I remember that, when I was little, I wished there was more help. I felt so alone in helping my parents. Now I feel like I can be that person for a student who’s going through that.”
Applying strategies to support broad range of learners
Jen emphasizes that the strategies she learned in this program can be applied to support a broad range of learners: “Although a lot of the content was for English language learners, I can apply those same strategies to support all learners. As a teacher, I have to be able differentiate and modify things according to individual learners. And this program gave me a lot of tools to be able to support some of my own special education students, who might have reading disabilities, or dyslexia, or processing delays. That’s a big challenge for a teacher: ‘How do I differentiate in a strategic and appropriate way for each of my unique, individual learners in my classroom?’ I’m still very far from being a pro at this, but I’m leaving this program a lot more well equipped than how I started it.”
Preparing students for a globalized society
Learning about the theory of collaborative learning was especially impactful for Jen. “I think the theory of collaborative learning is amazing, and I immediately started to put it into practice. Let the kids be their own agents in their education. That’s something that I am learning how to do. Working together is a critical skill in this globalized society. We have to work together. And that’s what learning should be: preparing students to work together. Because that’s what the world is. I think these are the types of approaches that are going to prepare our students for a more globalized society.” Emphasizing the importance of this, Jen adds, “We have to prepare our students to be global citizens. Courses like these teach teachers how to teach their students how to be global citizens. And I think that’s really important.”
Jen is also excited about sharing her new knowledge with her colleagues. “Collaborative learning was a really new theory for me that I actually hope to present to my colleagues next year. Since I have this certificate, part of my role will be to take that information and pass it on to my colleagues in the form of professional development sessions. That makes me super nervous, but I think I’ve gained the experience and knowledge I need to be able to do that. And, because the professors are super accessible, I know if I have any questions or concerns in the future, I have their emails and I can reach out to them for any support I need along the way.”
Growing into the profession
Despite spending four years in the classroom, Jen is surprised when others refer to her as a “veteran teacher,” explaining, “I do not want that title. I still feel like I’m so new in education, like a toddler: I can walk, but I’m still wobbling. But now I feel like a toddler who doesn’t have to hold onto the railing. And I’m growing into it. I’m really growing into my profession, and this program really gave me so many tools I can use.”
In addition to the immediate impact her learning will have in her classroom and charter school, Jen is already dreaming of future possibilities: “I hope to be something bigger than just a classroom teacher, such as program director or administrator. This program opened my mind to think bigger than just the four walls and the classroom.”
Reflecting on her educational journey, Jen adds, “If you’re a working teacher, this is the program for you. I can’t speak more highly of the program. It was exactly what I needed it to be. It gave me more tools in my toolbox to be able to successfully support learners from all walks of life. Not only are these transferable skills into my personal profession right at this moment, but I feel like I came out that much more of knowledgeable human being for our global society.”
“Before I enrolled in the program, I had just graduated with my bachelor’s degree in elementary education from UConn. I was a student-teacher during my senior year, and my class had a lot of bilingual/multilingual students. I wanted to seek out opportunities to best serve this population of students, so I was ecstatic when I learned that UConn had this built-in opportunity.” - Lizzy Jacobs, Spring 2022 Graduate, Educating Bilingual Learners Online Graduate Certificate program
Lizzy Jacobs was already enrolled as a graduate student in UConn’s Integrated Bachelor’s/Master’s (IB/M) Program when she discovered UConn’s Educating Bilingual Learners online graduate certificate program.
A Seamless, Tailor-made Certificate Program
Lizzy completed the program without skipping a beat, as she got her certificate at no additional cost and it fit it right in with her course and fieldwork.
“The program was especially attractive because it offered me the ability to attain more knowledge for educating bilingual learners while I completed the Teacher Education Program.”
“Not only does this program work seamlessly with your coursework as an IB/M student, but you have opportunities to work with others outside your cohort. For me, this included collaborating with working teachers and people from all disciplines throughout the education program at UConn.”
Practical Faculty Who Truly Care
The most impactful aspect of the program for Lizzy was her professors’ dedication to truly helping her, and her classmates learn how they can best serve multilingual learners.
“We studied best practices and learned about different theories, language acquisition, and law pertaining to multilingual learner education. Since our coursework was so practical, many of us could translate our work and projects in class into our fieldwork in the classroom. This ability to immediately put what I was learning into practice was rewarding and impactful.”
Taking Her Learning to the Classroom
And before she had even completed the certificate, she had a teaching position lined up. “While finishing the Educating Bilingual Learners certificate program, I accepted a job with Newington Public Schools, where I’ll teach third 3rd grade.”
“I was in Tokyo for two years, gaining a foundation as an educator that would guide my graduate education and future practice in school psychology. Growing up in New York City afforded me the privilege of being surrounded by a medley of ethnic and racial diversity. Combined with studying abroad in Kyoto, my academic path naturally gravitated towards supporting emergent multilingual learners.” - Mike Li, Spring 2022 Graduate, Educating Bilingual Learners Online Graduate Certificate program
Mike Li came to UConn’s Educating Bilingual Learners online graduate certificate program as a school psychologist and doctoral student seeking to leverage his unique experiences as an Assistant Language Teacher in Tokyo as part of the JET Program as a foundation and motivation for his practice in schools.
Incredible Diversity and Flexibility
While the flexible modality of courses accommodated Mike’s busy schedule and allowed him to take courses in addition to the primary program requirements, the diversity of the faculty’s and students’ experiences drew him to UConn’s program.
“I was attracted to the Educating Bilingual Learners certificate program by the opportunity to learn from expert scholars in the field and peers from a range of personal, scholarly, and professional backgrounds. Learning from expert scholars and the wealth of knowledge from my peers enriched the courses, allowing for real collaboration—even when asynchronous/virtual. Content and assignments from courses helped me create practical strategies and build a useful information toolkit.”
Mike believes educators should not work in silos. They must collaborate with other educational staff to create “a quintessential multidisciplinary team all working towards supporting their students.”
Meeting Students Where They Are
Once Mike completes his doctoral program, he’ll be doing an internship year in Atlanta, working as a school psychologist, while continuing to work on his dissertation investigating the efficacy of a novel technological intervention to reduce English language speaking anxiety.
“As a school psychologist, I act as an elevator—meeting students where they are and leading them to where they want to be. I hope to eventually return home to NYC to support emergent multilingual learners, especially AAPI and LGBTQ+ populations.”
“I am privileged in the support I have received throughout my graduate experiences and hope to lift others in my role as a school psychologist practitioner and researcher.”
“Often we are isolated as teachers. We work in silos and rarely have the chance to connect with colleagues. Therefore, I really appreciated that the courses were project-driven and that we were encouraged to interact through the HuskyCT/Blackboard discussion boards. I’m now a part of a cohort of like-minded educators that continues to this day.” - Joelle Budzinsky, Spring 2021 Graduate, Educating Bilingual Learners Online Graduate Certificate program
Joelle Budzinsky earned 12 credits from the University of Connecticut (UConn) Educating Bilingual Learners Online Graduate Certificate program. She’ll apply the credits to a second master’s degree, which will allow her to become TESOL- (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) certified.
Getting out of the Classroom Silo
Joelle Budzinsky knows a lot about teaching bilingual students. After all, she spent nearly three years in Barranquilla, Colombia overseeing the school-wide implementation of Project Based Learning, grades K-12. While there, she learned a lot “on the fly,” as she describes her experience. She also discovered something even more important:
“I loved being a language teacher in Colombia. But I wanted a richer knowledge about why certain teaching approaches work better than others. There are so many ways to learn a language. I wanted to become better at helping kids learn to talk and engage with language in ways that were personally meaningful to them. At the time, I knew what worked, but I didn’t know why. I was looking for a more formal educational experience to help me understand why something works—knowing the why would help me internalize the how.”
As a University of Connecticut (UConn) graduate, earning her Bachelor of Arts degree in 2009, Joelle had some connections at the university. She reached out to Karen Lapuk, the bilingual coordinator at Connecticut River Academy, to ask about getting the TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) certification. Karen encouraged Joelle to apply for the Educating Bilingual Learners Online Graduate Certificate program, a 4-course, 12-credit program for practicing educators who want to strengthen their skills to better support English learners in school.
On her way to earning a second master’s degree
Joelle immediately applied, and once accepted, she began the program during the summer of 2020, taking two courses right off the bat, then one course in the fall and the final course in the spring of 2021. She is now planning to start a second master’s degree at UConn, a requirement for her to become TESOL-certified. “Best of all,” she says, “The 12 credits I earned from the Educating Bilingual Learners Online Graduate Certificate program can be applied to my second master’s.”
Starting anything new during the summer of 2020—at the height of the pandemic—wasn’t easy. But notes Joelle, because the certificate program is 100 percent online, not even a pandemic could stop it from being given! “As a classroom teacher, there are so many demands on my time. The online nature of the program made it so easy because I could do the assignments on my own time,” says Joelle.
Making life-long connections
The online platform also enabled her to connect with educators across Connecticut and beyond. “Often we are isolated as teachers. We work in silos and rarely have the chance to connect with colleagues. Therefore, I really appreciated that the courses were project-driven and that we were encouraged to interact through the HuskyCT/Blackboard discussion boards. I’m now a part of a cohort of like-minded educators that continues to this day. We have a texting group, we check in on each other, and we have even met outside of the program,” notes Joelle, who adds: “It is so helpful to learn about teaching approaches in other districts.”
Joelle also raves about the program’s content and in particular, having learned entirely new concepts that she had been unfamiliar with, such as sheltered instruction. “This method has been transformative in the way that I present and plan lessons. It basically calls upon us to consider various factors that influence how a student learns material. It could be something as simple as slowing your speech, including visuals, or practicing ‘translanguaging.’ I had never heard of this concept prior to the program, but essentially it teaches you how to incorporate the student’s first language into your lesson materials.” This is no easy task considering there are over a dozen languages spoken at Connecticut River Academy, a magnet school in East Hartford, CT, where Joelle is both a Capstone teacher and English Language Development (ELD) teacher.
One of the online courses Joelle especially “loved,” as she said, was EDCI 5875 – Multicultural Education. “This was not about learning a skill or methodology per se, but rather about mindset. It helped us focus not on the deficit students may have because their first language is not English, but on their assets. I loved this so much. If you don’t think students are capable, you’re missing the mark.”
Modeling good teaching
And most of all, Joelle describes the instructors as “fabulous!” While she really liked all her professors, she especially appreciated how Dr. Elizabeth Howard, associate professor of bilingual education in the Neag School of Education and the certificate program’s director, taught. “Liz models the pedagogical strategies she teaches, for example, when she was covering the four domains. It wasn’t that we were only writing, but her teaching methods also focused on engaging, listening, and reading. She modeled good teaching by the way she taught!”
In summary, Joelle says: “So many education programs are steeped in theory. But in this program a lot of time and focus was spent on learning practical strategies. In fact, every week, I learned something that I could implement in my classroom the following week.”