Alexandra (Alexii) Lazaridis—a second year M.A. student in Teaching of English as a Second Language (TESOL), K-12 track—was called to teach by chance, in a small village in the Indian Himalayas.
Originally from Ohio, Alexii mostly grew up in North Carolina. Her high school years were characterized by a love of history and the humanities, and she particularly enjoyed an interdisciplinary class that was a combination of English and social studies. After high school, she attended the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, graduating with a degree in Political Science and Global Studies.
“Right after college, I was actually looking to go to grad school for International Relations. So for a grad school proposal and application, I decided to do a research component on the UN Development Goals in India and their impact on education in small communities.”
While in India, however, she volunteered to teach a morning fourth-grade English class and an afternoon class of adolescent girls and young adult women. It was this experience that changed the course of her life. “I went to India to do the research, and I ended up volunteering to teach an English class, and I loved it so much...now I’m in TESOL.”
Upon returning to the United States, Alexii began searching for graduate schools in Education. She had one criteria for her future graduate school: it had to be in New York City. Still interested in UN language research and theory, Alexii settled on the Applied Linguistics/TESOL program (AL/TESOL) at TC because of the program’s equal emphasis on linguistic theory and pedagogy.
“I loved that it was not only one of the top programs in the country, but also that the faculty contains professors who literally wrote our textbooks in Linguistics and adjuncts that taught in the public school system for 35 years.”
Even though Alexii initially thought she would work with younger children because of her comfort with them, the K-12 Practicum and out-of-program breadth requirement opened her up to new experiences that led her to decide on teaching adolescents. She reflects that, “I was actually terrified when I went into my first high school, but I was blown away by the students.”
A particularly influential course for Alexii was Latinos in Urban Schools, taught by Dr. Regina Cortina, Professor of Education in the International and Comparative Education program. “I ended up doing a final project where I interviewed some of my students. I then started doing a lot of research on Latinos specifically between the ages of 16 and 18—how they adjust as immigrants and what role motivation plays in second language acquisition. I realized it was my passion, my love. I won’t make any political statements, but especially now, when there’s a lot of things going on for immigrant populations, it’s been a really great time to work with them and show them we care.”
The love and care that Alexii has developed for her immigrant students has further concentrated her teaching and research interests. Building upon the work she did in Professor Cortina’s class, her M.A. thesis examines familial and nonfamilial (i.e. friends, teachers, mentors) support systems and their effect on the motivation of English language learners, a topic that is not necessarily considered the most scientific in linguistic research circles. “I get it,” she says, “because it’s hard to measure the affection you’re showing to students.” But this, like most things in Alexii’s path, has not deterred her from following the topic to it’s fullest.
“Basically, I framed my project around the definition of ‘social capital,’ and then differentiated between familial social capital—what the parents and immediate family are providing to the child—and nonfamilial social capital, which can come from the school and administration,” Alexii explains. “One of my students summed it up really nicely. He came from El Salvador two years ago as an ‘unaccompanied youth.’ We’re not sure what happened with his parents, but they are not here. He was relocated to New York, and now he lives with a friend. He’s 17, but a freshman in high school. He works in a restaurant in midtown, probably 50 hours a week in the kitchen. He comes to school everyday, he never misses school. I asked him, ‘What are you doing this all for?’ And he said, ‘You know, I was talking to the chef in the restaurant that I really admire, and he said, ‘Learn English, go to school, and you can really make something of yourself in America.’ He has a really supportive school environment, he has supportive administrators, teachers, and then he goes to work and he has this person he admires, this mentor pushing him. So for him, that’s why he goes to school everyday. He has that social capital. My dad was an immigrant—it’s beautiful to see the dream is still alive”
While tackling larger societal issues during her time at TC, Alexii is still able to hold on to seemingly small, yet important elements that make up the craft of teaching. She says her first pedagogical “a-ha” moment came during the first class of her first day at TC, in Adjunct Professor John Balbi’s class. Like most classes at TC, Alexii notes, the class emphasized the kind of experiential learning that asked Alexii and her classmates to participate in a lesson designed for multilingual learners. Without explaining why, he explained that each person in each group should write in different colors.
Alexii continues, “At the end of the lesson, he asked, ‘Why did I have you write with different colors?’ And nobody could answer him. Then he said, ‘If you’re working with students, it’s a great accountability tool to have in group projects.” She further explains that the instructor can not only make sure that each individual student has participated by noting the work in his/her color, but also that the instructor can assess each student’s progress throughout the lesson. “I use that in all of my lessons now. It’s awesome. Day one, and I use it in all my lessons…in all my lesson plans, I begin with ‘students will write in different colors.’”