Sherry Blok, teacher of the year: ‘I’m addicted to seeing people improve’
This January, the 40,000-member Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) International Association named Concordia language instructor Sherry Blok its 2015 Teacher of the Year.
In her more than 18 years as a staff member at Concordia’s Continuing Education Language Institute (CELI), Blok has demonstrated dedication, creativity and great generosity.
“Her commitment to encouraging excellence in her students includes her building of community in her classes [to] help students forge friendships and develop self-confidence,” colleague Adrianne Sklar stated in a letter recommending Blok for the award.
It’s a sentiment echoed by Concordia student Oumou Keita. “She mentors me, offers to help me at any time and gives me opportunities to become a better leader.”
Blok first began teaching English as a second language in the early nineties, when she moved to Quebec City to study French at the Université Laval. “I just fell in love with it,” she says.
She found it allowed her to form a special connection with her students. “There's so much conversation. You're introducing language through topics, so you talk about all kinds of different things. It can be something really simple, like what's your favourite food, but through that discussion, you're learning about their practices, their culture and how they live.”
Blok insists, however, that what really inspires her teaching practice is watching students learn. “For me, that's what it's all about. It's all about the students and seeing them progress. I think I'm addicted to seeing people improve.”
CELI’s language program uses an integrated-skills approach to language instruction, which simultaneously develops students’ listening, reading, writing and speaking abilities. Each instructor is encouraged to put his or her own spin on it.
For Blok, the key is a supportive classroom environment. She starts out by asking her students what they think the group should focus on in order to achieve that.
“A lot of times they come up with words like cooperation, friendship, support, and we refer back to those keywords during the session.”
Giving adult learners a sense of control over their learning is essential, she says. “It's not up to me to dictate to them what kind of classroom I want. I can model it, and I can guide them, but it has to come from them.”
While she has instructed every stage of English-language learning, Blok says she most enjoys working with students who are preparing to enter an academic program at Concordia.
Much of their class time is spent on a major research project — a rewarding task for the teacher as well as the students, Blok says, as she gets to see how it transforms them.
“There's just something magical that happens with that project. The students are just so intrinsically motivated to do well, and they spend their nights rewriting and redrafting.”
Once her students have left the language institute to begin their university studies, Blok often invites them back to mentor her new cohort.
One of those mentors was Oumou Keita, who ddescribes the experience as “an amazing way for me to develop and practice my presentation and public-speaking skills, as well as empower other international students to achieve their dreams.”
Innovation, inside and outside the classroom
In 2007, Blok began setting up informal lunchtime meetings so her colleagues at the Centre for Continuing Education could share best teaching practices and hear from experts in the field. She has since built this into a formal professional development program.
“Thanks to Sherry, we have sessional workshops and presentations that help us to keep that edge in our teaching practice,” wrote fellow instructor Mary Lee Wholey in another TESOL recommendation.
Blok says she simply wanted to help create an environment that would allow for personal and professional growth. “I wanted to bring innovation to the forefront, to inspire people and showcase what we do. We have so many creative people at the centre.”
At the 2015 TESOL International Convention and English Language Expo, which runs from March 25 to 28, Blok is hosting a session called “Global Citizenship: Transformative Practices in English Language Teaching Excellence.”
“It’s really exciting, and I’m really honoured to be representing Canada,” she says, before modestly insisting that her colleagues, and her students, deserve much of the credit for the award. “You don't become Teacher of the Year alone. It's really through your community that you develop.”
Find out more about Concordia’s Continuing Education Language Institute (CELI).