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Faculty Spotlight: Bernie Issa

Bernie’s first experience working with undergraduate students began when he was an undergraduate student tutor at the Spanish Writing Center at Michigan State University (MSU). In this role, he worked with students on their essays for various Spanish classes, helping them with their rhetorical arguments, organization, grammar, and vocabulary. From there, he became more interested in teaching, and applied to MSU’s MA program in Applied Spanish Linguistics. During his first semester as a new graduate student, he began teaching Spanish language courses, and by his second year of the MA, he was asked to teach 300-level advanced grammar courses. Simultaneously, he was taking courses focused on second language pedagogy, and becoming more and more interested in the cognitive and social processes behind language learning teaching.

After entering the PhD program at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Bernie was able to dive even deeper into theories about second language learning and teaching, and he was able to focus his research energies on these topics as well. During his PhD program, he had the opportunity to teach Spanish language courses, and to serve as a TA for Introduction to Hispanic Linguistics, as well as TA for a graduate course on Second Language Acquisition. He also had the opportunity to mentor undergraduate research assistants as part of his work in the Cognition of Second Language Acquisition Lab. Upon arriving at UTK, he became the director of the first-year Spanish program, and began teaching an array of courses related to linguistics, second language acquisition, and second language pedagogy.

“My teaching philosophy is grounded by the following concepts: co-construction of knowledge, active learning and critical thinking. My prior experiences as a second language learner, and as a second language instructor, have shaped the way that I approach all the courses that I teach, whether they are language courses or upper-level content courses.”

As a language teacher, Bernie was trained to promote active and collaborative learning in his Spanish classes as the best way for students to learn their second language. By talking to one another, his students learn how to use their second language through successful communication. His experience teaching courses beyond language, and his extensive reading about teaching and learning, have shown him that active learning through collaboration with peers in the classroom cements learning of various types of material.

In an upper-division content class, this collaborative work typically takes place in class and pushes students to think critically about material read prior to class. These in-class activities usually invite students to reflect on their own understanding of the material, to identify the areas they have trouble grasping, and to work with classmates and with him to re-analyze the material and come to a new understanding of its meaning. These main components of his teaching philosophy carry over to his work as a “teacher trainer” within Modern Foreign Languages & Literature (MFLL). In this role he trains new graduate students who are going to teach Spanish in their program.

When asked about memorable and positive impact for students, some of the most rewarding moments he says have come from his experience “leading students on study abroad.” He said:

“I have done this three times since arriving at UTK (two programs in Spain and one in Costa Rica), and on all three occasions I have been able to see growth in terms of language abilities, but also in terms of intercultural awareness and personal growth in my students. Study abroad is a unique learning environment, and being able to help students navigate that environment is a gratifying experience.”

One area of his duties that continues to give him inspiration is his role as a teacher trainer in MFLL. Bernie mentioned that he trains the incoming graduate students over the course of the first year of their MA to be graduate teaching associates in the Spanish program. This is an intensive program that requires hands-on work with the graduate students. Through that work, he gets to see new educators learn so much about teaching second languages, and then he gets to see them put it into practice in the 100 and 200-level Spanish courses. Observing those new GTAs teach in their first semester, and hearing their own thoughts and reflections on their achievements, is always a delight for him.

The core components of his teaching philosophy–co-construction of knowledge, active learning, and critical thinking–are the elements that he thinks all faculty in higher education should incorporate into their own teaching, and he hopes that across the campus we can institute more active learning models that promote hands-on learning.

“By promoting active learning, we are equipping our students with the skills that they will need to be life-long learners, and continue to develop new knowledge after they leave UTK and move out in to the workforce.”

Given that his research and his teaching overlap in many ways, he believes that his teaching and his work as a teacher trainer will continue to evolve as he continues to research second language learning, and think about best pedagogical practices. He always strives to improve on his courses each semester by reflecting on how effective his practices were. On a broader level, as all of us have experienced unprecedented changes over the past two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is difficult to say what the future holds for higher education. That said, when asked for his take, Bernie says, “I have been incredibly impressed with my colleagues’ ability to adapt to changes on the fly over the course of the pandemic, and I hope that faculty will continue to pursue new and innovative ways to teach and engage with students.”