“My students and I want to work from the margins, not to transform the margins, but from the very humble perspective of ‘We’re here to learn from our students… we’re here to learn from our ELs, we’re here to learn from our parents, to understand their narratives and to collaborate’.”  -Dr. Barko-Alva

On a rainy January afternoon, I had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Katherine Barko-Alva to discuss the M.A.Ed. in ESL and Bilingual Education, her experience as an English Learner (EL) moving through the public education system in America, and the future of bilingual education.

It was clear from the first few moments of our discussion that she is a truly compassionate and humble educator with a firm commitment to her students. Dr. Barko-Alva was very open and candid about her path to W&M and shared her experience immigrating to the U.S. and enrolling in public high school without speaking English. She recalled the experience as “horrible” but noted how grateful she was for a social studies teacher, Mr. Dunn, one of many positive role models, that helped guide her through the system.

Through her tenacity and hard work, she graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in English and a deep passion for community service. As an undergraduate student, Dr. Barko-Alva became involved with programs under the Institute of Hispanic & Latino Culture and the College of Education including Proyecto Sol conceived by Dr. Coady, an initiative to teach English to migrant workers. Dr. Barko-Alva “fell in love” with this work and recalled how it shaped her path and became a high school ESL teacher.

As she spoke about her time as a high school teacher, she described a crucial element of teaching that can easily become forgotten—to teach is to advocate. Dr. Barko-Alva’s pride in her students was evident as she described what they accomplished after graduation. She recalled:

“some of my kids came to UF to start their undergrad and then the other ones went to community college has one decided to become a chef. The idea was that everybody who wanted to do something else with their lives could, right? But it was a lot of work. It was checking their credits, making sure they had all the academic classes they needed, they weren’t missing class, their families were being heard … so there was a lot of community building, classroom connections, talking to parents, visits. But I loved it… I knew my little ones were going to be okay when I left.”

Eventually, Dr. Barko-Alva pursued a master’s and then a Ph.D. at UF studying under some of the premier researchers in bilingual education, Dr. Ester de Jong and Dr. Maria Coady, but her heart remains with teachers in the classroom.

Anyone who steps into her office can immediately see that this feeling is mutual amongst her students; she has an entire bookcase with trinkets, mementos, cards, and pictures to remind her of her past students. When I asked about the M.A.Ed. program offered through the School of Education, I was surprised by how recent the formal program has been around—the current class is the first cohort of students to pursue this program. Dr. Barko-Alva conscientiously acknowledged how many voices had come before her to advocate for this program and led to the creation of her position.

She credits Dr. Jonathan Arries, Dr. Chris Gareis, Dr. Gail McEachron, Dr. Katherine Kulick, Dr. Jeremy Stoddard, Mr. Robert “Bobby” Oliver, and Ms. Joy Martin as some of the strongest allies of this program. She holds a deep gratitude for these individuals which I felt was a vital reminder that no one achieves anything alone. Unsurprisingly, her students are captivated by her energy and passion.

Last year, they produced a promotional video (see below) describing their perspective on the importance of bilingual education. Their authentic and candid responses beautifully capture what this program means for the future of the Commonwealth as the need for bilingual teachers grows.

M.A.Ed. in ESL/Bilingual Education | School of Education

After our conversation, I scribbled out a few notes attempting to identify some common themes of our conversation. First and foremost, Dr. Barko-Alva’s deep compassion for teaching, students, learning, and for community not only spoke directly to my own values, but to William & Mary’s values that we cultivate in our students.

Second, I recognized that humility is absolutely essential in education and Dr. Barko-Alva exemplifies this quality in every way. Finally, her undeniable fidelity to building communities and preparing the next generation of educators to be advocates for their students embodies the core values of W&M.

Her teaching philosophy embodies the Wren’s Nest mission of applying scholarship beyond the classroom where we build communities and advocate for others. My afternoon with Dr. Barko-Alva was a much-needed reminder that here, we are fortunate enough to be surrounded by compassionate and humble leaders who want us to flourish so that we may help others flourish.


Samantha Nussbaum is an Editorial Assistant for Wren’s Nest and a M.Ed. ’20 student in the Educational Policy, Planning, & Leadership program at William & Mary.

Image: Joshua Chung