Languages specialist: Changing world, changing job

Don Reutershan, Maine DOE’s world languages specialist, says it’s an exciting time to be involved in language instruction.

By Tess Wrobleski and Lynne Cooney

Article image: Don Reutershan discusses his job.
Don Reutershan, world languages specialist at the Maine Department of Education, discusses his job in an interview.

Don Reutershan has spent much of his time over the past few years making the connections needed to ensure Maine schools have the teachers they need to teach Spanish, Chinese and other languages.

Now, the Maine Department of Education’s world languages specialist is turning his focus to using online technology to expand access to foreign language instruction and helping schools successfully implement a standards-based course of study that requires students to master foreign language skills before they graduate.

In a recent interview, Reutershan described his March trip to China to recruit Chinese language teachers through the College Board’s Chinese Guest Teacher Program and the fast pace of change in his job amid a shifting world order.

Below are excerpts.

Describe your recent trip to China and what was accomplished.

The purpose is to bring Chinese teachers to the United States to help with establishing programs of Chinese and also for expanding current programs of Chinese, because we don’t have enough teachers to fill all the positions or all the programs. We find this is one way to provide for some of those teachers.

We interview candidates who are teachers. All of the people who we see are Chinese native speakers; they’re Chinese citizens and they have been teaching for at least three years. And they also have a minimum level of proficiency in English. They have at least the equivalent of a BA degree.

At the end of the week we all got together and we made decisions on which candidates we wanted for our states.

How many Chinese teachers are in our Maine school systems now?

We have 15 schools that have Chinese programs. Of those 15 schools, three have teachers from this guest teacher program. The other schools have native-speaking Chinese teachers who are here living in Maine or they are Americans who have learned Chinese.

How are these teachers incorporated into the curriculum at their new school?

As far as incorporation into the school, we require that each of these teachers have two mentors. One is a professional mentor, such as a teacher mentor who is there to help them, to meet with them on a regular basis. Also, there is a mentor who we call a cultural mentor, someone who can help the teacher with those cultural questions and situations that come up because of the very differences we have found and we see in the culture between where they are coming from and Maine.

Are you involved in online language classes?

I think that (online courses) are a very important piece that we need to do more of in Maine, especially with the languages because we don’t have all the teachers we need.

Here in the state there is a big capacity issue. We need to use technology more in language classrooms; we need to provide those online opportunities and right now we don’t have that many in the state. We have a couple colleagues who work in technology, and I would like to work with them so we can provide more online opportunities.

The one caution that I always throw into the mix for online learning is you have to make sure that there are certain criteria, and one of the most important is there has to be that two-way communication between the teacher and the student and also communications among students — which can and, in fact, does occur in online learning.

Anything else you would like to discuss with us?

Because the world is changing very fast, my work is also changing. It’s very exciting.

I’m looking forward to the next phase, and the fact that we’re talking about all students learning languages, and as we look forward to a standards-based diploma where all students will have to demonstrate that they can meet the standards of not just math and English, but all eight content areas, including languages. I think that will be a very exciting time as we move forward to prepare teachers and students to do that.

Lynne Cooney and Tess Wrobleski are recent graduates of Falmouth High School.

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