Taking on new challenges with new solutions

Sonia Nieto, upper right, author and recipient of a 2018 honorary doctorate from Mount Holyoke College, visited an MAT class to talk to new teachers. Her book, “Why We Teach Now,” is used as a required text for the course.

By Keely Sexton

As teachers everywhere struggle to find their footing after COVID-19 upended classroom instruction, Mount Holyoke’s Professional and Graduate Education program has introduced an entirely online master’s degree in teaching program to support teachers working with English-language learners. 

The program also offers opportunities for teachers to build their online teaching and other skills to help address learners who might be in the classroom or working remotely.

Tiffany Espinosa, executive director of Professional and Graduate Education, said that the move reflects the changing needs and demographics of school-age children, as English-language learners have become the fastest growing population among K-12 students. 

The offering is an evolution of Mount Holyoke’s commitment to providing education and access to those who face barriers. 

“It’s exciting to help open the doors and help provide an environment where all learners can thrive,” Espinosa said.

Ruth Hornsby, assistant director of teacher licensure programs, noted that teachers face a changing landscape of learners in their classrooms and this program provides them with the tools and knowledge they need to meet new challenges. Those challenges include shifting demographics and an increasing number of bilingual students, Hornsby said. 

“Our program provides teachers with the skills they need to support culturally and linguistically diverse students to access learning across the curriculum,” Hornsby said. “It is designed to expand teachers’ toolboxes, regardless of their content area, to ensure that all of their students can be academically successful.”

The classes combine synchronous and asynchronous elements and culminate in a masters of arts in teaching degree. Individual classes can be taken a la carte to support professional development. Synchronous elements take place after typical K-12 school hours and during summer vacation to ensure that the program is accessible to educators. 

“In designing this program, we really wanted to remove barriers and make the curriculum available to all teachers who need it, either nationally or internationally, to best serve language learners,” said Hornsby.

The content focuses on bridging theory and practice, so teachers not only master the academic knowledge about language acquisition, but also understand how to design and develop effective classroom techniques and practices. The program also considers how teachers can engage students with different learning styles, using images and physical engagement to reinforce meanings. 

This Master of Arts in Teaching program was part of the Mount Holyoke teacher licensure team that was recognized with distinction by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education — one of just a few programs in the entire state to achieve that status. 

In addition to its standing agreements with Holyoke and Amherst public schools whereby educators can get their masters degrees at a deeply discounted rate in exchange for returning to their district to teach, the MAT program has recently entered into an agreement with the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School in Hadley. The school offers an immersion program that teaches Chinese language arts and culture in addition to a regular curriculum.

Beyond the local partnerships, the MAT program has partnerships with schools around the globe. 

“We are excited to continue to grow and serve schools around the country and the world,” said Espinosa. “Through our partnership with the National Coalition of Girls’ Schools, we are working with students on nearly every continent. Using our dynamic online approach, we can serve teachers and schools anywhere in the world.”