Interview with Martha Urquhart: Leading by Example Series

Monday Inspiration Series: Literacy and Language Professionals who Lead by Example

This new series is dedicated to highlighting the impact made by exemplary literacy and language professionals who lead by example. The series features interviews with each of our leaders, sharing their inspirations, stories and tips. This week I’m delighted to showcase a literacy and language leader in Alberta who impacts the lives of many people in amazing ways through her work.

What is your name, affiliation, and connection to language learning?

Martha Urquhart
ESL Consultant with Rural Routes Initiative, NorQuest College
Literacy Specialist with the Community Reading Program, Slave Lake Adult Education Committee

As an ESL Consultant with Rural Routes, I train and mentor ESL Instructors and Tutors across Northern Alberta.  I consult with the ESL providers in small, rural communities, who are often the literacy coordinators or the adult education coordinators for the local community learning councils, regarding the training needs of their instructors and volunteer tutors, resources to use in their programs, ESL support available for their community, and any other topics on which the ESL providers require input.

As a Literacy Specialist with the Community Reading Program, a local volunteer tutor adult literacy service operating under the umbrella of the Slave Lake Adult Education Committee, I assess ESL learners, train the volunteer tutors, and provide resources and support for the tutors as they help their learners acquire the English language.

What are your thoughts about leadership and language learning?

To me, a leader is someone who helps others to rise up to their fullest potentials. All of the volunteer tutors who work one-on-one with their learners and ESL instructors who teach ESL classes are leaders in the field of language learning.  Even the volunteer tutors who work one-on-one with literacy learners are leaders as they are helping someone develop their literacy skills, part of language learning even if that language is their own.

These are perhaps the greatest leaders of all because they do so quietly, most often without rewards of any kind, other than pats on the back and yearly appreciation dinners.  They attend training without any compensation, donating their own time to improve their own skills in order to help others rise up to their fullest potentials.

Truly, the greatest leaders of all time are the ones at the grass-roots level.

In your opinion, what’s the most important aspect of a language teacher’s job?

It’s critical for language teachers to connect the classroom to the outside world.  Learners have to be able to use the language outside of the classroom. The purpose of language is not to be able to communicate within the halls of an institution, but to take that learning out into the world and apply it to one’s own life.

This requires the teaching of skills that allow learners to complete activities that require interacting with their communities (such as interviewing business owners), providing a safe place for the learners to develop the required skills, and creating opportunities to build bridges between the classrooms and the communities.

I believe this is important regardless of whether you are working with children or with adults.  It is especially important when working with adults, as adult learners have to see the relevance in what they are learning and how that applies to their own lives.

What are some of the projects you’ve been involved with that you would like to share?

I seem to always be involved in some project.  I believe in lifelong learning and being a part of a variety of projects allows me to live that belief.

My most recent project involved working with the iCCAN project and utilizing video conferencing equipment to increase training opportunities for small ESL and literacy community based programs.

Most of the 13 communities involved in this project had little to no video conferencing experience.  Eight sessions were offered (two of three different topics; one topic having two parts) with a total of 160 tutors, instructors, facilitators, coordinators, and board members participating.

I facilitated the first topic from a desk top videoconferencing unit while the next two topics were conducted from a classroom unit. These experimental sessions showed grassroots in action as some community programs are now partnering with other rural programs in utilizing video conferencing to increase the professional development opportunities for their tutors and instructors.

What do you see as three new directions in language learning?

I think that ESL programming in small rural communities will become more systematic.  Although it will be a challenge to ensure that community based programs remain personally relevant for their particular learners, I believe this will increase the quality of ESL programming.

This, in turn, will increase the professionalism within the field.  As more communities become comfortable with using video conferencing, and more training opportunities become available (via video conferencing or traditional formats), small rural community based programs will be able to increase the professionalism within their ESL programming.

And I believe computers will become an “additional language” that everyone, regardless of their roles within their communities, will need to add to their database of knowledge.  Already, literacy programs are seeing an increase in requests for what is being termed “computer literacy”.  I think incorporating the use of computers within the ESL programming will also be important, both as a tool for language learning itself and as a required skill for future opportunities.

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One Response to Interview with Martha Urquhart: Leading by Example Series

  1. Linda Munroe says:

    I think you are right about computer literacy being a basic skill for learning. I am interested in the ‘connectivism’ concept that uses the computer as a tool for brainstorming, discussion, sharing ideas, editing etc. etc. I have heard that there are several libraries and universities on Second Life for example. The program does take some time to learn though, so I am not sure how efficient it is. Congratulations Martha on this interesting interview.

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