Not everyone is lucky enough to be born in the rainy paradise we call Juneau, and some not only breach the distance but face obstacles like learning a new language or earning U.S. citizenship. And what students of Heather Parker undoubtedly know, the Alaska Adult Education Association has also recognized; Parker was awarded State of Alaska Adult Educator of the Year Wednesday. Parker teaches English as a second language and citizenship classes, adding this year a class combining language and job-seeking skills, at The Learning Connection, a program of SERRC - Alaska’s Educational Resource Center.
On Wednesday, at a conference in Anchorage of adult educators and program managers from around the state, Parker was recognized for her excellence in teaching and the contributions she has made to adult education in Juneau, Southeast, and even statewide. Parker can be seen in the classroom teaching and out introducing students to resources on educational field trips, but the behind-the-scenes work she does as a program manager and curriculum designer made her stand out as well.
Since starting at TLC, Parker has helped grow the program to serve more students — the number of students served has tripled, utilize more volunteers, and to offer broader curriculum and services to the community.
“A couple years ago we received a grant from US Citizenship and Immigration Services and it was kind of a big deal because it was the first time any agency in Alaska had ever been awarded that grant.” Parker said, “That really put our focus on civics and citizenship, which is actually something I’m totally interested in, so that kind of worked well.”
Though no longer operating under this same grant, the citizenship classes and focus on civics and citizenship have continued.
“That kind of inspired me. We’re not under that same grant anymore, but having that grant and offering so many services opened up this whole door of the community we didn’t even know really existed. We’ve had a huge demand for citizenship classes ever since.” Parker said.
Students not only learn about government and history, they are provided with interactive experiences, visiting the capitol, the federal court room where they will be granted citizenship, the district court, museums and learning about personal finance visiting local financial institutions.
“And this year I hope to do even more of that because I think it’s a really valuable resource for people.” Parker added.
“It was nice being able to explain that whole process to students, because my classes were more geared toward the citizenship exam, which is a lot of questions on government and US history. And we’re in the capital city, so I think it’s actually better to learn it there, to get to see that whole process happen.”
Though Parker is often the youngest person in the room teaching ESL and citizenship classes, she hasn’t considered that to be a challenge in interacting with students.
“Usually students are just so excited to have free classes and resources, and be treated with respect and get the chance to meet other students.” she said.
“Adult education is a totally different thing than working with kids. You’re working with people with a lifetime of experience.”
The experiences her students bring to the classroom add to Parker’s enjoyment of teaching adult education. The program last year served 118 students from 35 different countries.
“My favorite part of my job is working with my students, I learn something from them every day.” Parker said, “I just love that they come with all sorts of different experiences and they share those experiences with the class. I love at the end of a class session, or the end of a 10-week course, that we have this little community of people from different countries who now have friends and resources.”
Seeing students succeed is another highlight.
“We’ve had at least 8 students in the time I’ve been at SERRC who have gone through our classes and then become US Citizens, which is awesome, then we have four or five other students who are applying or who’ve applied and are waiting.” Parker said of citizenship students.
Relating to the English language and new language and job skills classes, Parker said, “It’s maybe a little bit bittersweet for me, because maybe they can’t come to classes anymore, but it’s great knowing they can jump into jobs, and that’s happened with a lot of my students, that their English level improves just enough for them to be able to apply for jobs and get jobs, and that’s also really rewarding.”
Beyond classroom time and field trips, Parker has done some notable things with offering events and creating curriculum that is shared throughout the state.
At a conference last year, Parker presented on her curriculum on online learning platform Moodle, which is no accessible to educators across the state.
She has also made use of the visits by US Citizenship and Immigration Services visits to Juneau — the only office in Alaska is located in Anchorage — by organizing presentations on the naturalization process, open to the public but mostly attended by hopeful citizens and their families.
“If they’re here anyway, I’ve asked that maybe they give a presentation to the public and maybe do just a public hour discussion where they talk about the naturalization process. We’ve done three or four of those and they’ve all been really well attended. People have said, “Great, thank you, this was really helpful,” so that’s something new that we’ve started.”
The first annual Global Breakfast event was an event inspired by the community built in the classroom, an event that brought together adult education, ESL and citizenship students, volunteers and members of the community to enjoy foods from different cultures and a game of Jeopardy.
“It was mostly students who came, but that was actually very special for those different groups to combine. That was a huge success, we’re definitely going to do that again. And I’d like to see something bigger, I’d like for it to be student generated instead of just from me, so I need to work with the students to see what exactly they’d like to do.”
Another event that brings the community and adult education students together is the annual Celebrate Success GED Graduation that takes place in May of each year.
“This year we had something really special where we had one of our language students as a graduation speaker at our GED graduation in May. Every year The Learning Connection does a graduation ceremony for all of our GED graduates and in the past couple of years, we’ve included the English language students as well, so they get certificates, and this year we had an English language student give a speech… and that was really special.” Parker said.
Getting recognized for all her hard work has only made Parker more passionate and more excited to expand and improve the offerings in adult education at TLC.
“I think it’s incredible that I came in and started doing this whole new project and hopefully have benefitted the community of Juneau, Sitka and Ketchikan in some small way. It’s really incredible to get recognized for that. It’s nice. It made me want to keep teaching and keep working with students.”
Parker pointed out she’s not the only shining star serving students at TLC.
“The staff at the learning connection are really incredible. My supervisor, Mary McCafferty, who nominated me was actually awarded the administrator of the year for adult education last year, and previously she was also adult educator of the year. There’s a lot of talent…”
If you feel inspired by Parker’s passion for teaching, consider volunteering with TLC’s adult education programs. Visit www.serrc.org/tlc for more information on adult education offerings or to volunteer.