Self as Researcher
During the years of my education, which took place during communism (1945–1989) in Poland (Glassheim, 2006), classrooms were simple, hardly exposing any students’ work. Textbooks were greyish and boring. Students were forced to learn the Russian language from the age of ten. Classes were authoritarian, teacher-centered, and the teachers used rulers to hit students on their hands if they misconducted. The early 1980s were critical and challenging for people who had children in school. The Polish people not only had to use ration stamps for food, but even for school supplies: notebooks, erasers, pencils and such.
With the fall of communism, which took place in Poland in 1989 (Odrowaz, 2009), the borders opened and teachers and their students experienced Western exposure. Times changed. Textbooks became more colorful and inviting. The teaching methods became more student-centered. After I graduated from college with a degree to teach English as a Foreign Language (efl), I became a teacher of the English language in a public school in my hometown in 1993.
In 1999, I immigrated to the United States. This significant change gave me a whole new perspective into my personal life, as well as my educational and professional goals and aspirations. While living in Poland, I belonged to the demographic majority having a high status in Polish society by virtue of the position of my family and my education. However, the moment I put my foot on the American soil, I felt I was instantly ‘boxified’ and classified into the category of “the other.” It was not only a very eye-opening experience to me, but by shifting from a homogenous, mono-linguistic and mono-religious culture into a very diverse, multi-dimensional, heterogeneous, complex and dynamic hybridized culture; I underwent a process of personal transformation and awakening. Not until I became a resident of this country did I realize the challenges and complexities of the culturally and linguistically diverse society that the American society presents.
Through this process and my work with people pushed to the margins of society: people with learning disabilities, homeless individuals and refugees in the United States, I gained new perspectives, new experiences, new opportunities and new challenges – factors that have decidedly made me a better person – more tolerant, open, empathetic, understanding, compassionate, and a more knowledgeable educator. I can describe this as a shift in my entire being.
Through my work with the marginalized I have come to realize even more profoundly the importance of educating myself, as well as others, and the need for reforms in the educational system. Thus, I came to the conclusion to pursue my education in the United States in order to deepen and satisfy my strong interests in critical pedagogies, multicultural education, curriculum for a diverse society, and the education of immigrants in this country.
In 2007, I graduated with a B.A. from the University of Massachusetts in Boston (UMass Boston) majoring in American Studies. The American Studies courses that focused on American history, culture, and society were very enlightening to me and awoke my curiosity about the education of minorities, social justice, poverty, economics, inequality, suppression, asymmetrical power relations, and pseudo-globalization. As a result, I decided to pursue my education even further by entering the graduate program in Applied Linguistics majoring in Teaching English as a Second Language (tesl) also at UMass Boston. I obtained my M.A. in May of 2009. In the course of majoring in tesl at the graduate level, I was exposed to various issues relating to language, such as language development, language acquisition, bilingualism, biculturalism, as well as issues concerning the contemporary use of English.
The works of Paolo Freire, Donaldo Macedo, bell hooks, James Gee, Henry Giroux, John Ogbu, Lilia Bartolomé, Gloria Anzaldúa, Pepi Leistyna and others, have significantly contributed to my intellectual development. The social factors expressed by these authors do not seem to be a part of a typical curriculum in language teacher preparation and, as a result, many elementary, middle and high school, and even college teachers fail to realize and appreciate the influence of these socio-cultural and sociolinguistic factors in their professional teaching of language. I desire to contribute my post-doctoral energies towards changing and correcting this situation.
All the experiences described above, my research assignments, and the support and inspiration from my professors in the Department of Applied Linguistics at UMass Boston shaped my desire to pursue my doctoral studies. I applied to the Ph.D. program in Curriculum and Instruction, because I realized the potential of scholarly work and the influence that this field of study can have on the teaching practices in the American educational system and institutions. Such scholarly work is also necessary to enlighten policy makers who have the power to control what educational programs to support or not to support, as their decisions may consequently determine the future of millions of students. This is especially true for those who are pushed to the margins of society: the poor, the disabled, the intellectually challenged, the voluntary and involuntary immigrants, and culturally and linguistically diverse learners.
My education, my linguistic and cultural background, and my teaching efl and English as a Second (esl) experience have made me very sensitive to these issues. I am passionate and serious about making a difference by changing society through critical thinking and pedagogies. My doctoral degree provides me with the necessary research skills, gives me credibility in the face of decision makers, enables me to be a more effective teacher/researcher, and allows me to sustain and broaden my intellectual horizons.
I have great enthusiasm for the opportunity to have worked closely with professors such as Dr. Karin Wiburg, Dr. Myriam Torres, Dr. Jeanette Haynes Writer, Dr. Oakley Hadfield, Dr. Rudolfo Chávez Chávez, Dr. Hermán García and Dr. David Rutledge at New Mexico State University (nmsu), who equipped me with the necessary skills to become an effective researcher and practitioner in the field of language teaching, particularly in multicultural and multilingual contexts. I have learned first-hand the importance of studying with individuals who challenge and enthuse their students. It is their intellectual energy in literacy and language education that has given me inspiration to imagine a different teacher, a teacher and a scholar in one person who understands the importance of teaching with an individualistic approach, understanding, having empathy and compassion towards learners.
During my education at UMass Boston and nmsu I also learned that education is not a “neutral enterprise” (Apple, 2004, p. 1), schools are not neutral institutions, and that they perpetuate a certain ideology promoting some cultures and devaluing others, either consciously or unconsciously. Therefore, I learned the importance of sensitivity, empathy and awareness of the issues that culturally and linguistically diverse students bring to the classroom every day. I also have a strong desire to pass this sensitivity, empathy, compassion and awareness onto other students and future educators.
My desire was to conduct research for my dissertation in Poland (see Figure 1), as I had not lived there for 17 years. I was curious how the political changes in the country such as the fall of communism and the European Union membership influenced education, especially when it comes to efl education. Living and being educated in the United States I have learned about modern and progressive teaching methodologies and the importance of developing speaking, communicative, and cooperative skills in students by their teachers. These are skills that help students in their future professional careers to communicate effectively, successfully work in teams and feel comfortable, and be confident in public speaking situations. Thus, I was interested if and to what extent teachers in Poland made a shift into modern and progressive methodologies geared towards developing students’ speaking, communicative, and cooperative skills.
Not until I became an immigrant in the United States and a graduate student in this country did I gain a theoretical and a practical knowledge of many factors, which contribute to the successful development of speaking, communicative, and cooperative skills in a language other than the native language. Therefore, in my research I desired to investigate and uncover the various factors leading to the development of the English language in Polish students and efl students in the efl context. I focused on the factors that could be changed, such as methodology and attitudes used in the efl classroom. I strongly believe my findings can benefit efl students, teachers, administrators, curriculum creators, and policy makers.