Katherine Barko-Alva still remembers being that student in the classroom, learning English at the same time as the other material being covered.
That’s the main reason she is so thorough in preparing teachers at William & Mary to work with English-language learners, emergent bilingual and multilingual learners, she said. And why she continues to follow her passion to serve and learn from multilingual K-12 students and their families in our local communities.
These are among numerous reasons Barko-Alva, assistant professor and director of English as a second language/bilingual education at the School of Education, was chosen to receive the 2021 Thomas Jefferson Teaching Award. The honor is given annually to a younger member of the faculty who has demonstrated “through concern as a teacher and through character and influence, the inspiration and stimulation of learning to the betterment of the individual and society as exemplified by Thomas Jefferson.”
Barko-Alva will be recognized along with others being honored as part of Charter Day, which will be celebrated with a virtual ceremony Feb. 11 at 7 p.m.
Seeds of commitment planted
Barko-Alva emigrated with her family from Perú to Florida as a teen, and there her passion for education using family-instilled values began.
“My pedagogy is guided by vulnerability, compassion and action,” Barko-Alva said. “My lived experiences as a K-12 English learner, ESL teacher, dual language specialist, working with fantastic teacher leaders, and now as a professor — all of those experiences have come together to inform my teaching practices when I’m collaborating with and learning from pre-service teachers and future education advocates.
“In our classroom, pre-service teachers are able to transform, envision and create curriculum that speaks to the realities of emergent bilinguals, multilingual learners, culturally and linguistically diverse students and their families. Our instructional practices are centered on the identities and realities of K-12 students, and they are outlined by principles of equity, inclusion and justice.”
Key to all of that for her is to stay in a vulnerable and humble space as an instructor, she said. She keeps in mind her abuela’s (grandmother’s) lesson that each individual is their own little universe, and that we must be open to learn from anyone we encounter in our journey.
“And we’re only privileged enough to enter in authentic connection with those we serve,” Barko-Alva said. “While taking my courses, I am aware my students often face an array of demands — financial, academic, professional and personal. I strive to be mindful of these challenges and create an engaging learning space for them.
“My goal is that teaching, practice and reflective dialogue guides my students’ decision-making process as they learn in community.”
A common thread
Hope and compassion shine through in the time and attention given to each aspect of her teaching, research and community partnerships, according to multiple recommendation letters.
“I have never met anyone like Barko-Alva in terms of her unparalleled commitment to teaching at every level,” Jennifer Bickham Mendez, professor of sociology, wrote. “The beneficiaries of her talents and expertise extend from her own undergraduate and master’s students who will be future teachers of some of the most vulnerable students in our public schools, to K-12 teachers across Hampton Roads, to English-language learner students themselves in public schools throughout Virginia and beyond.
“She is a teacher of teachers with a deep knowledge base regarding the intricacies of curriculum design in diverse educational environments — from the post-graduate to the elementary school level. But serving English-language learner students and their families is where Professor Barko-Alva’s passion truly lies.”
As an undergraduate student at the University of Florida, Barko-Alva worked on Projecto S.O.L implemented by María Coady, a former professor and mentor. She looks back on this project as most influential to her path.
“We would travel to different areas in Florida working with migrant families,” Barko-Alva said. “And a group of us as undergrads would teach our little ones, and another group would work with the families. And just being involved in this work guided my path towards how I envisioned the amalgamation of families, schools and community.”
Sharing knowledge across communities
Branching out from the School of Education across the university, currently Barko-Alva serves as co-director of the W&M Scholars Undergraduate Research Experience and as a fellow at the Center for the Liberal Arts. From 2018 through 2020, she was co-director for the program with W&M’s sister university, the University of Electronic Science and Technology of China, supporting its faculty members as they explored higher education teaching methodologies.
Among her most recent publications, Barko-Alva co-authored the 2020 book “Equity in school-parent partnerships: Cultivating community and family trust in culturally and linguistically diverse classrooms.”
Community engagement is one of her strongest commitments.
“Her level of community engagement and professional activity is quite astonishing,” Bickham Mendez wrote. “Whether she is delivering professional development workshops (free of charge) to K-12 content area teachers on how they can better engage their EL students, offering classroom support to ESL high school teachers at Lafayette High School, organizing ‘parent academies’ for families of English language learners, or spending her evenings volunteering as an ESL instructor at a local Catholic church, Professor Barko-Alva never wavers in her tireless commitment to a vision of inclusive, high-quality public education for all.”
Influencing others beyond the classroom
Emma Zahren-Newman ’17, M.Ed. ’18, credited Barko-Alva’s mentoring with her success so far in teaching.
“Her belief in me has changed the trajectory of my life, and it is an honor to have the chance to write down some of the qualities of this amazing woman. … Dr. Barko-Alva’s concern as a teacher continues to give value to my degree from the College of William & Mary,” Zahren-Newman wrote.
Since graduating from W&M, Zahren-Newman has been teaching 3rd grade at Matoaka Elementary School in Williamsburg-James City County Public Schools. She received Matoaka’s 2019 WJCC Rookie Teacher of the Year Award and currently serves as her school’s multicultural engagement advocate.
“Dr. Katherine Barko-Alva understands that her teaching has wide implications outside of the classroom,” Zahren-Newman wrote. “She works to train teachers so that society as a whole can be a more inclusive and understanding place. Thanks to her influence, the students in my classroom and the teachers in my school division have benefitted.”
During the pandemic, Barko-Alva has come up with creative ways to support and motivate her own students, as well as local students and families.
“On March 20th of [last] year, a group of her bilingual students and Katherine joined efforts to support local ESL families, providing tutoring services for their multilingual children,” wrote James Stronge, Heritage Professor of Education. “These efforts are ongoing and have continued throughout this fall semester. Further, as she connects teaching, research and service, she has been able to support multiple school districts in their work with ESL students.”
Barko-Alva describes herself as a teacher first, and taking the time to create authentic connections is crucial in her work, she reiterates.
“Every single educator who has mentored me, every K-12 teacher, student, family and colleague I have encountered, have ignited within me a unique process of transformation,” she said. “I have been able to learn from them through connection and care. I see all these individuals as teachers and role models.”