Faculty Innovator: Donna Albrecht

18th February 2021

By Steven Krolak

(NEW ALBANY, Ind.)—Donna Albrecht joined IU Southeast at a pivotal moment in campus history.

Dr. Magdalena Herdoiza-Estevez, for over two decades the guiding light of the English as a New Language (ENL) program and the force behind the New Neighbors Education Center and the School of Education’s unique partnership with schools in Kentuckiana and communities in Ecuador, had retired.

Could any successor possibly fill her shoes?

Enter Albrecht to meet the challenge, with a broad sense of purpose and an abundance of urgency.

In just a few short years she has reinvigorated the ENL program with a coherent vision of education that blends classroom expertise and social justice to enable students to succeed on their own terms.

A commitment to global citizenship

Albrecht’s role at IU Southeast is unique. As associate professor of education and coordinator of ENL, she is an instructor in the School of Education. But as director of New Neighbors, she is deeply involved in the interactions between the school and the local educational community.

It’s a complex mandate that requires academic acumen, administrative expertise and networking zeal. And it is vital that both aspects complement one another—the program must provide expert conceptual training, but schools in the region are active participants in providing venues for practical experience. On top of this, the ENL context requires the ability to build trust with diverse communities to cement the classroom and administrative relationships that will enable teacher candidates and K-12 students to succeed.

Albrecht has demonstrated these skills and more in reshaping the ENL program and initiating conversations and collaborations across the service area and indeed the state.

Given her ability to make things happen in a short period of time, it would be easy to presume a linear life story.

Easy and wrong.

Like many of her IU Southeast colleagues, Albrecht did not set out to teach.

“The profession found me,” she said.

Yet unlike these same colleagues, her career trajectory began in Egypt.

She moved there with her parents when only 13.

Her parents were missionaries working with the Egyptian Christian community, and Albrecht was plunged into a series of life-changing experiences.

“I saw vast amounts of poverty beyond what Americans can understand,” Albrecht said. “I learned that the people were kind, hospitable, and would spend their last cent to serve you a coke when you sat on their dirt floor for a visit.”

Educated at an American school, the alert, observant young woman learned Arabic, and would end up spending the next two decades in Cairo and the United Arab Emirates.

“This exposure to other cultures, languages, ways of knowing and developing-world poverty that were all around me created a passion in me to choose a meaningful career of service,” Albrecht said.

That career, she reasoned, would have to do with improving lives through international development.

She earned an undergraduate degree in political science and economics, returning to Cairo to do a service project with the inhabitants of one of the “Garbage Cities,” who live in a landfill. With her degree in hand, she envisioned working along the same lines for a nongovernmental organization

Unfortunately, NGOs in the developing world needed technicians for wastewater treatment and other specialty applications, not policy analysts.

She opted for the next best thing, teaching English on a volunteer basis in an Egyptian girls school in Cairo, only to discover that she didn’t know how to teach.

However, even in failure, the act of trying to teach did enable her to make connections between education and social advancement that had not been evident before.

“I came to believe that education is the highest form of development because it doesn’t impose solutions, but provides resources and critical thinking for people to be able to determine their own ways towards a brighter future,” Albrecht said.

She earned a master’s degree in Teaching English As A Foreign Language, and taught for 16 years, then came to the U.S. to gain a degree in educational leadership that was intended to help her contribute even more to the cause of development.

As it happened, she didn’t need to look abroad for a place that could use her particular expertise.

“Development does not only apply to the Third World,” Albrecht said. “There is terrible inequity and lack of opportunity right here at home.”

Her vision of education, and its role in society, broadened and deepened.

“My passion for empowerment of people to achieve their goals and make change through education has shifted in the United States towards equity, global awareness, cultural competency and community development,” Albrecht said.

A comprehensive learning architecture

Albrecht has put this vision into practice at IU Southeast through a number of innovations and tweaks that add up to a significant contribution to transforming our culture.

One early example was a conference that brought practitioners from around the state to IU Southeast for an intensive workshop and networking experience.

Another example are her efforts to reinvigorate the links between New Neighbors and the community.

And grants, without which the wheels do not turn.

These efforts, on many fronts, are pieces of a comprehensive learning architecture structured to support student success.

Innovation is another piece.

“Innovation means adapting to the needs of the students,” Albrecht said.

Albrecht began by ascertaining those needs, then set about restructuring the ENL/ESL program to give students greater flexibility in pursuing their degrees.

She changed the number of courses required for the teaching license, in order to eliminate redundant classes, and aligned the curriculum to the national and state professional standards in the field.

She brought the M.S in Education (ENL/ESL concentration) program in its entirety onto the IU Southeast campus (it has been shared with IU Bloomington), applying for and receiving teacher licensing capability for IU Southeast from the Indiana State Board of Education. She added an undergrad minor and elementary education concentration that provide a pathway to an additional teaching license for those students.

Where necessary, she has used the Carmin system to be able to offer relevant courses at IU Southeast.

All the while, she met with stakeholders in the area, including school partners and alumni, to listen to their needs and also their experiences with the program as it had existed. This intelligence was crucial to revising courses and redesigning the curriculum.

“Innovation also includes utilizing ways to bring the students together as a community,” Albrecht said.

Consequently, Albrecht has taught courses in a hybrid format, and used Zoom long before covid made it the norm. This allows her to combine undergraduate and graduate sections, which makes for a more efficient use of faculty, facilitates collaboration between pre-service and in-service teachers, and lets Albrecht schedule classes in the evening in order to accommodate grad students and adjunct faculty. Combining cohort groups online also gives students the opportunity to learn from their peers without having to meet in person.

Another level

Albrecht’s in-class approach flows from her overarching vision of education as empowerment.

“Success in the 21st century requires the ability to think globally, critically, creatively and with divergence,” Albrecht said. “Pre-service and in-service educators, as well as those in higher education, need the opportunity to be exposed to different ways of thinking and to experience cultures outside of their norm.”

To achieve these ends, Albrecht employs high impact practices, such as a student-centered classroom, nonstop interaction, project-based learning, student research, performance assessments. She considers herself a “guide and curator of resources and opportunities” in a professional learning community. It’s the students who search and discover.

Her method serves her purpose. To serve the underserved, students must teach differently, and to do that, they must learn differently.

But there is another level to Albrecht’s innovation that truly sets her apart: the development mindset.

For her, teaching is inseparable from advocating for universal empowerment. And so she works unceasingly to leverage her involvement in initiatives like the Indiana Language Roadmap, Indiana Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (INTESOL) and others to benefit the educational community she serves.

This is a fusion of teaching, scholarship, professional development and policy work. And whether Albrecht realizes it or not, she is modeling the skills of a prototype 21st century educator.

“Educators provide the environment and support structure around the students to enable them to succeed in this process of becoming highly contributing members of society,” Albrecht said.

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