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Speaking students’ language: Wendy Gallagher

2019 Faculty Senate Teaching Excellence Award winner shares why you might see her with a pencil between her teeth.

By Doug McPherson

June 4, 2019

Wendy Gallagher holding Teaching Excellence Award.Wendy Gallagher, a senior lecturer in the Department of Modern Languages, is a 2019 Faculty Senate Teaching Excellence Award winner. Gallagher is known for her hands-on, practical teaching strategies and an immersive approach that allows students to learn by doing, often turning them into lovers of language and learning.

One nominator noted, “It is clear that she has a passion for teaching and enjoys her students, which drives their incredible successes.”

The Early Bird talked with Gallagher about her teaching techniques, the Spanish language and the roots of her passion for education.

Why do you advocate for hands-on, learn-by-doing teaching strategies?

My colleague Ann Williams, Ph.D., advised me years ago to clench a pencil between my teeth to cut down on classroom “teacher talk,” foretelling our current pedagogical shift from “sage on the stage” to an improved “guide on the side” student-centered model.

It can be hard to check our teacher egos at the door, but when we do, it clears the way for those hands-on, learn-by-doing activities that get students engaged in a higher-quality learning experience.

What drives that passion for education, and what inspired you to become an educator?

As a child, I always wanted to be a teacher, but instead I headed into the corporate world, where I always ended up teaching or training others. When the Modern Languages Department asked me to redesign and teach for their Spanish-translation program, I remembered how much I loved teaching in grad school and decided to dive back in. It was the best choice I ever made. I think students can sense how much I love languages and truly care about their learning experience.  

You’ve been here since 2003. What accomplishment makes you most proud and why?

Watching my small pilot course in spring 2004 slowly grow into a Spanish-translation certificate program has been an amazing journey.

How did living in Spain make you a better teacher and/or person?

Living in Spain gave me independence and resilience. I worked as an English tutor, a secretary and guide. I’d say my teaching is informed by all of these experiences – my initial dislike of language study gave me an empathetic understanding of my students' challenges, mixed with finally discovering my love for Spanish when it became hands-on and high-stakes, giving me an objective of getting students to use the language as much as possible and hopefully finding that they actually enjoy it.

What experiences help fuel your continued passion for teaching?

It’s the moment I enter the classroom and feel the students’ energy. After 15-plus years of teaching, I’m still thrilled when beginning students engage in a conversation or advanced students dig deep into their translations. I feel so privileged to teach novices in first-year Spanish and perhaps see them again when they’re wrapping up as seniors, polishing up their advanced language skills to earn the translation certificate before they head out into the world.

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