Student-teachers go the distance(s) to learn

Ashley Olander (far left in front row) poses with her students in India on their sport court.

By Theresa Smith
GCU News Bureau

On July 30, Ashley Olander boarded a plane in Phoenix, landed in Chicago, boarded another flight to London, followed by a flight to Bengaluru, India, and then a final flight to Coimbatore, in southern India. From there, she rode four hours in a taxi, arriving at her destination, Kodaikanal International School, on July 2.

It was an exhausting journey of 9,363 miles for Olander to conduct her student-teaching experience, yet that was the whole point: Rather than complete the required semester of student-teaching in the Phoenix area, Olander chose to expand her world by experiencing a different culture.

“I thought it would be a great experience to do something different, and to be part of the first group doing it is exciting, too,’’ Olander said. “I also thought it would be a good chance to see whether or not I would ever want to teach internationally.’’

Olander before her graduation from GCU.

The winter 2018 Grand Canyon University graduate and fellow graduate Valeria Medina, who student-taught in Japan, are part of a growing trend – seven more College of Education (COE) students recently have been accepted by various international schools for student-teaching in the fall 2019 semester.

“In the College of Education, we teach our students to be culturally responsive as they study culturally inclusive practices in their program of study,’’ said Dr. Kimberly LaPrade, Dean of the COE. “To serve their culminating experience student teaching in an international setting is a wonderful way to expand their horizons, to put theory into practice and to increase their global awareness. It is a beautiful opportunity to learn about our world, but most importantly that they see God’s hand at work in our children, no matter if it is in a classroom in America or India or Japan.’’

Olander’s global awareness increased exponentially: She went from having never traveled outside of the United States to making foreign travel a future priority. The isolated, rural location of the school enabled her to immerse in the local culture and the culture of the nondenominational Christian boarding school, which was situated at the top of a mountain.

Olander (far left corner) shows students how to serve.

Since the winding road took several hours to ascend by car, Olander’s focus was sharpened on developing relationships with her seventh grade physical education students along with lesson planning and class management. She was too far away from cities or attractions for sightseeing weekends although she accompanied the track and field team to Ooty, which meant “basically going down one hill and up another.’’

Cultural curiosity

While Olander satisfied her curiosity about her students’ culture, including admiring their ability to speak English and Tamil, their native language, she found that they were curious about America.

 “They wanted to know where I was from,’’ said the Wittmann, Ariz., resident. “And they wanted to talk about their culture; they are proud of where they come from.’’

Olander loves teaching soccer.

Soccer and volleyball were the students’ favorite class activities. Olander enjoyed introducing new games, including a volleyball serving competition in which players divided into teams and tried to catch each other’s serves.

Along with two other student-teachers, both American, Olander lived in an apartment on campus.

By contrast, Medina lived with the principal of her school and her husband in Higashikurume, a city in the western part of Tokyo. She adopted the custom of taking off her shoes when she arrived in their home and adjusting to having the toilet in one room and the shower/laundry room in another.

Her second grade class at the international school, Christian Academy in Japan, featured a couple of American students along with students from Korea, Philippines, India, China, Taiwan, Thailand and Japan.

Valeria Medina (far back left) poses with her students in Japan and their stuffed animals.

The students, sons and daughters of parents whose careers brought them to Japan on a long-term basis, followed the traditions in the Land of the Rising Sun.

Cultural immersion

For example, they took off their shoes when they arrived at school and donned indoor shoes. The snacks they brought from home were always healthy, usually fruits or nuts.

As for behavior in class, “it was hit or miss,’’ Medina said. “They are still just kids. I thought in Arizona there were more consequences for misbehavior. At the school in Japan, it was mostly just pulling the students aside and talking to them, except during recess. If the students were doing something they were not supposed to do at recess, they got a ticket and they had to talk to the principal. There was no warning.’’

Medina conducts circle time.

For most of her students, the motivation level was high, according to Medina.

“I did have a lot of students who asked for more homework,’’ she said.

As a child growing up in San Diego, Medina was a native Spanish speaker who learned English as a Second Language (ESL).

“One of the reasons I am definitely grateful for this opportunity is because I got to see what real ESL learners go through,’’ she said. “Even though I was an ESL learner in elementary school, it did not have as big an impact on me as when I went away to teach. Over there, the students really don’t know American culture. They know the language, but they still need to learn cultural aspects that affect their learning. "

Medina poses with students on a field trip.

Among the most compelling cultural experiences for Medina was her visit to a traditional Japanese school. 

“Each classroom would have student representatives go to the kitchen to get trays of lunch, and they would serve it on plates for each student and they would all eat lunch together,’’ she said. “They basically spend the whole day together. It is interesting how accountable they are for each other.’’

On Monday, Medina starts teaching in her hometown of San Diego. She hopes to teach overseas within the next couple of years.

Medina uses chopsticks for lunch.

Victoria Bull, Tylor Smith and Jordan Williams were inspired by Medina and Olander  and are among seven students headed overseas in the fall. Bull is assigned to Hastings Christian School on the east coast of the North Island of New Zealand.

“I love to travel," she said. “I went on an Honors College international trip this past summer and I thought, ‘Wow, traveling is awesome and it is something I should do more of before I get in the work field.’’’

Bull completed the seven-page application and began saving money from her two jobs, including GCBC barista, to pay for airfare.

“We are kind of lucky because unlike some study-abroad opportunities, we pay just GCU tuition and the only other things we’re paying for are housing, food and airfare,’’ she said. “It’s kind of like what we would be paying anyway, except for in a different country.’’

Victoria Bull is headed to New Zealand.

The junior from Mesa is willing to embrace the unknown: She might live in an apartment on her own, a dorm room on campus or with a host family.

After visiting Vienna last summer with the Honors College, the Austrian capital was her first choice, but there were no openings, leaving her with her second choice: the Land of the Long White Cloud.

“My mom had the opportunity to teach abroad over there," Bull said, "and then she got pregnant with my brother (who turned out to be Austin Bull, second baseman on the GCU baseball team), so she said to me, ‘You should try New Zealand because I never got to go there.’’’

Her mother, Pam Bull, teaches kindergarten at Arizona State University’s STEM Academy Polytechnic campus. Her father, Harold Bull, is a physical education teacher and the department chairman at McClintock High School in Tempe.

“I take a little bit from each parent,’’ she said. “I knew I wanted to be a teacher since I was very little. I pretty much grew up in a classroom and my friends and I all played teacher. I never thought I would do anything else.’’

Currently, she assists with her mom’s classes and gains practicum experience at schools in the Chandler Unified School District and Tempe Elementary School District.

All the while, she is comparing teaching styles.

“One of the teachers I was with fall semester was very traditional,’’ Bull said. “And then I have an instructor for methods and teaching math and we focused more on hands-on, student-centered learning and the 5E lesson plan: engage, explore, explain, extend and evaluate.’’

The style in New Zealand, where she will teach seventh and eighth math, posits another comparison.

Tylor Smith found her purpose in education and is headed to Australia to student-teach.

Smith also is slated for the Southern Hemisphere, a school near Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. The Mukilteo, Wash., resident confirmed her taste for travel last summer as a teacher’s aide on a missionary trip to Cambodia and Thailand.

“It has always been in my heart,’’ Smith said. “I have a missionary mindset. In America, many people are materialistic. I love on kids over there who don’t have much. God has put that on my heart.’’

Smith volunteered with the Adventures in Mission Christian group teaching English to orphans. In Thailand, the classrooms were equipped with desks, pens and pencils. In Cambodia, the students sat on the floor of a church. 

“Sometimes they would not come to class if they were exhausted from catching fish,’’ said Smith, noting that families needed their children to help gather food for meals.

After her semester as a student-teacher, Smith plans to stay overseas as a licensed teacher.

“Hopefully I’ll be embedded into that school and get a job there afterward,’’ she said.

Finding her purpose

Smith’s mom, Kristi Smith, was a teacher who inspired her to pursue the profession. Another influence was a Young Life camp she attended as a 15-year-old leader.

“There were heart-wrenching issues,’’ Smith said. “More than half of the campers experienced sexual abuse and other tough things. I was traveling for soccer and basketball showcases at that time in my life, and God was pulling on my heart. He was telling me, ‘Put down your sports and seek God.’’’

When she gave up sports, she had the time to accompany a girl to court, offering support amid a custody battle.

“My mom said, ‘You already found your purpose, you can rest easy,’’’ said Smith, who was so determined to be of service that she stayed in Thailand despite undergoing an emergency appendicitis.

“I have been through a lot of things by myself,’’ Smith said. “I was fine -- God had me. I just want to be in a classroom to love on kids and show them Jesus’ love.’’

Jordan Williams and Lindsay Basalyga are excited about student-teaching overseas.

Williams is similar in her affinity for children; she has worked in day care for many years and plans to teach younger children, pre-K through third grade. Recent trips to Mexico and Spain whetted her taste for travel.

After submitting a list of preferred countries, including Belgium and Japan, she was placed at Elim Christian College in Auckland, New Zealand.

 “I am extremely excited to student teach abroad because traveling has always been a passion of mine,’’ Williams said. “But to be able to further my experience as a teacher in a foreign environment is a dream come true.’’

The 6,770-mile journey ahead is just the beginning of an educational adventure that Williams and her fellow GCU student-teachers are happy to embrace.

  GCU international student-teachers

Name Location of student-teaching assignment/semester
Lindsay Basalyga Hamilton, New Zealand/fall 2019
Victoria Bull Hastings, New Zealand/fall 2019
Leah Heneveld Managua, Nicaragua/fall 2019
Charissa McCormick Madrid, Spain/fall 2019
Valeria Medina Higashikurume, Tokyo, Japan/fall 2018
Ashley Olander Kodaikanal, India/fall 2018
Kylie Stevens Clarinda, Victoria, Australia/fall 2019
Tylor Smith Melbourne, Victoria, Australia/fall 2019
Jordan Williams Auckland, New Zealand/fall 2019

Contact Theresa Smith at (602) 639-7457 or [email protected].


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Bible Verse

(Moses addressed Israel, reminding them of God's deliverance of them from Egypt, and His commands given to them:) "You saw with your own eyes the great trials, the miraculous signs and wonders, the mighty hand and outstretched arm, with which the Lord your God brought you out (from bondage and delivered you.). The Lord your God will do the same to all the peoples you now fear." (Deuteronomy 7:19)

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