Friday, January 12, 2018

By Chelsea Keenan

The field of education is facing many challenges – but the new head of the department charged with preparing the next generation of teachers remains upbeat about the profession’s future.

“The need for good teachers and quality teaching is not disappearing,” says Lia Plakans, associate professor and departmental executive officer (DEO) of Teaching and Learning at the University of Iowa’s College of Education since July 1. “When I observe a class or have interactions with our students, I feel optimistic. There’s an exciting future – and our department is in the thick of it all.”

Teaching is a dynamic profession, she says – school demographics are changing, technology is being infused, and best practices are shifting.    

“That makes our research very important so when we have to make decisions in that changing climate – while we may not know 100 percent the right way to go, we know what the possible options and approaches are.”

In fact, opportunities are expanding, with 688 graduate and undergraduate students enrolled in the Department of Teaching and Learning in fall 2017, making it the largest academic department in the UI College of Education.

The department has expanded its impact beyond campus through online programs and professional development for practicing teachers. The National Council on Teacher Quality has also ranked the secondary education program in the top 2 percent nationally and the elementary education program in the top 6 percent nationally.

UI College of Education Dean Dan Clay says that Plakans brings great expertise and energy to this program.

“Lia is an exceptional scholar and trusted colleague.  I am thankful that she has agreed to serve the college in this leadership role, and I’m confident that she will be very effective,” Clay says.

Moving into an administrative role has certainly been an adjustment, Plakans says.

“Even after 10 years here, I’m still learning new things about the college and department,” she adds. “But my goal is to make us as effective as possible while being as efficient as we can.”

New things are always popping up, she said – changes in admission procedures or reports from the state on new education initiatives – while also working to keep the ship afloat.

“My job is to support faculty, staff, and students in the department so they can do the best in their work around teaching, research, and study,” she says. “I also have to keep eye on the budget, so we have the funding to do the things we both need and want to do.”

Before moving into her role as DEO, Plakans was an associate professor in Foreign Language and English as a Second Language Education. She’s had a love of language since she was a child.

Love of languages took root early

Her father was born in Latvia and – after spending seven years at a refugee camp in Germany – moved to the United States with his parents. Her grandparents learned English as adults. When she was in high school, her mother started teaching English to southeast Asian refugees living in Iowa, and Plakans watched their children.

“Those were formative early experiences, which still provide perspective and insight,” she says.

But when she went off to school at the University of Iowa she didn’t start out in education. Instead, she received her bachelor’s degree in child psychology and cultural anthropology before moving to Austin, Texas where she helped Spanish-speaking immigrants learn English.

She realized quickly that while she knew the language, she didn’t know the best way to teach it. So, after about four years, she came back to Iowa, attended Iowa State University and got her master’s degree in teaching English as a Second Language (ESL)/Applied Linguistics.

“I really liked the altruistic side of teaching," Plakans says.

Her work and studies eventually brought her back to the University of Iowa – both to get her doctorate in Foreign Language and ESL Education in 2007 and later to teach in 2009.

“After I got my Ph.D., I thought I’d continue teaching ESL, but I really love research,” she says. “I was interested in exploring questions.”

Last year, Plakans, along with David Cassels Johnson – an associate professor in the College of Education – secured a $2.2 million, five-year grant from the U.S. Department of Education to help in-service and pre-service teachers in Iowa be better prepared to teach English language learning students. 

They spent 2016 developing the programming, titled "Advocacy, Capacity, and Collaboration for English Language Learners (ACCEL) in Iowa," which includes professional development for dual language teachers and content-area teachers, a Baker Teacher Leader Center English Learner Certificate, and revisions to the K-12 ESL Endorsement offered in the department. This year was spent implementing and piloting the program, she adds.

Teachers’ ability to provide equal learning opportunities to English learners is becoming more necessary with the start of each new school year. The number of students learning English has grown more than 560 percent between 1991 and 2015, according to Iowa Department of Education data and reported in a Des Moines Register article

Her excitement about research is one of her favorite aspects of her new role – because now she gets to spend time outside of her area of expertise and discover what other faculty members are studying.

“It’s been fun to hear what other people are doing,” she says. “I get to engage in thinking about scholarship across all areas of teaching and learning rather than just my area. That’s been very inspiring.”