Donna Clarke found herself interested in education as a path to international development. She completed a Bachelor of Education from McGill with the goal of making changes to an education system in which she herself had struggled. After teaching in the Bronx and overseas for ten years, she returned to Canada. With no jobs available at the Calgary Board of Education, she drew on her knowledge and experience teaching English in Taiwan and started teaching in the LINC program at The Immigrant Education Society (TIES).
Her passion for ESL literacy stems from identifying a gap in her first LINC classroom. She had literacy students but nothing set up in the system to address their needs. With this knowledge, she advocated for an ESL literacy program at TIES. Since joining TIES in 2009, Donna has developed a dedicated ESL literacy program, written funding proposals, and has launched the Reading Room, a one-on-one tutoring service for LINC literacy learners funded by Calgary Learns.
Donna’s classroom is one founded in respect. She doesn’t allow her students to call her teacher, as she believes that sets an unequal precedent. In her words, “the only difference between me and the students is that I know English. If we were to go to their country the roles would be reversed.” The time and care she puts into building strong relationships, based on trust and respect, is what makes her so successful as a literacy teacher. With a philosophy of celebrating achievements and a belief that everyone can learn, Donna creates a safe and welcoming environment for all her students. She designs her lessons to give learners opportunities to be successful regardless of their level. Her logic is if they are successful once, it will be easier for them to progress to something more challenging. Donna credits ESL literacy learners for making her the best teacher she could possibly be. Everyone can learn, and ESL literacy learners are no different. They come into the classroom with a wealth of knowledge and experience, and it is Donna’s job to present them with the opportunities to succeed in the classroom.
Donna was instrumental in moving TIES’s LINC programming online when the pandemic hit. She researched online learning platforms, developed materials to move the Portfolio Based Learning Assessment (PBLA) online, and offered tutorials for anyone who needed help, teachers and students included. She created a virtual staffroom for her colleagues to try to recreate some of the same connection that teachers find during breaks. At a set time, teachers can login and connect to chat, visit, vent, collaborate, help, brainstorm – all the benefits which a break in the staffroom provides. All of the materials she has created are online for other teachers to access and she is enthusiastic about working with anyone who is looking for assistance.
Donna’s drive for literacy programming doesn’t stop in her classroom, or even at TIES. She has taken all her work and shared it with the ESL community in Calgary and Edmonton. Thanks to her many presentations at ATESL, and the workshops she has conducted, Donna has been able to connect with literacy practitioners around the province. This year is no different as she will be presenting at the 2020 ATESL conference.
The best example of her commitment to collaboration is the role she holds as lead at the Literacy Centre of Expertise. The Literacy Centre of Expertise, funded by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, aims “to be a collaborative hub and information centre supporting ESL literacy service providers in Calgary, Alberts and beyond.” The website is complete with online tools, a resource bank, and professional development. The Centre also has a Facebook group to promote collaboration among ESL literacy professionals in the province.
Donna is constantly looking for new professional development opportunities, whether it be formal courses, knowledge sharing at conferences or making connections in new communities – she is fully committed to the development and success of ESL literacy programming.