Educator of the Month, November 2022: Tianyi Kou-Herrema

Michigan State University is fortunate to have passionate educators who are committed to enhancing the experience of their students and who help to provide the best education possible.

The Graduate School is featuring some of these educators – graduate and postdoc educators - every month to share their unique stories and perspectives on what it means to be a dedicated educator, how they’ve overcome educational challenges, and the ways they have grown through their experiences.

To begin this series, we are featuring Tianyi "Titi" Kou-Herrema. Titi, a doctoral candidate in German Studies and a graduate teaching assistant in the Department of Linguistics, Languages, and Cultures at Michigan State University, is a recipient of MSU's Excellence-in-Teaching Citation. This citation recognizes the best graduate teaching assistants and highlights their contribution to their undergraduate program.

What does it mean for you to be an educator at Michigan State University?Tianyi Kou-Herrema seated at a table and smiling

Every educator was first a learner. Growing up in Beijing, China, I spent five years learning German at a university before moving to Erfurt, Germany. In 2016, I visited the United States for the first time and was attracted to the strong research atmosphere of cultural studies, and soon decided to pursue a doctoral degree at MSU. Currently, I mainly teach classes on learning German, my third language, with my second language, English.

Being multilingual provides me with the benefit of understanding the process necessary to learn languages. I am also able to empathize with the challenges specific to language learning. Sometimes I share my personal learning experience with students and show them how I overcame obstacles. Most importantly, I believe that my background and identity help infuse the class with a different culture perspective and the diversity I bring helps foster open-mindedness in and beyond the classroom.

Having taught in two countries, among different levels of learners (including elementary school, high school, and university students), I have not only adapted to various teaching environments, but also come to understand a core tenet of teaching: Being an educator means assisting students to acquire knowledge based on their abilities and strength.

MSU has a very diverse student population, and I aim to help students from different backgrounds to enhance their abilities to solve problems independently and eventually become lifelong learners.

What are challenges you have experienced and how have you grown from these? 

I started as a GTA in Fall 2018 and predominantly taught in-person classes. Though I was aware that the German Studies program offers online language courses, I never taught any in my first year and a half of teaching.

When the pandemic hit, all courses were switched to online in a short time and it was challenging for me on several levels:

  • I needed to continually provide quality instruction in a way that I was not familiar with.
  • GTA team meetings were also switching to online, and I was no longer able to sit in my office and exchange teaching ideas with colleagues.
  • Students and I were all feeling the isolation caused by lack of social interaction. 

To improve the situation, I reached out to the online teaching specialist of our program and asked him to help me familiarize myself with not only the technologies used in online teaching, but also some transferrable skills and activities I can use to motivate students in the digital learning environment. I learned that teaching online courses doesn’t equal moving in-person courses online. Online courses are designed differently from the beginning, and it takes time and effort to make them communicative and engaging. 

In terms of the second challenge, I learned the importance of having transparent conversations with supervisors and colleagues. Whenever I needed help, I sent clear messages to my supervisor and colleagues and stated explicitly what kind of difficulties I was encountering. I stopped worrying about whether “asking for help” could be interpreted as being a “less-qualified” GTA.

Finally, after noticing how excited and engaged my students were during class discussions on certain topics (e.g. “my life before/during/after the pandemic”, “best pizza/burrito/Asian food in East Lansing”), I decided to keep the Zoom classroom on even after class for at least once a week. During this time, students decided what they wanted to chat about, and they were not asked to stay in the target language (German). Many of them stayed for an hour or more and only left because they had to attend another class. These conversations helped students to form social bonds during an exceptionally difficult time.

I also noticed that this friendly environment helped their in-class engagement and participation because they stopped worrying whether they would say something in German and look bad in front of others, which was a huge challenge for online teaching. I experienced firsthand the power of cultivating the classroom as a safe space in the online environment.

What value do you see in Teaching Professional Development? 

Professional development provides the skills needed in teaching. From tools to strategies to resources, we don’t have to re-invent the wheel. Sometimes I don’t know exactly what I need because I don’t even know what’s out there. It’s much more efficient to learn about these resources in professional development events, utilize them in practice, and adjust plans based on your own experience.

Moreover, I appreciate the community building component in teaching professional development. Educators who attend these events genuinely care about teaching and want to improve their teaching. Whether they are emerging scholars, junior doctoral students, or experienced professors, we all share a common goal.

I am comfortable in such a community to share the success and challenges I had. At the same time, I also learn from others’ experiences and reflect on what they have done. To me, both the skills and the community support entailed in teaching professional development are important and beneficial. 

What is one piece of advice you would give other graduate educators?

I don’t really like giving advice to others, as we all come from different backgrounds and have our unique perspectives. What works for me doesn’t always work for others. One thing I keep reminding myself about is that it is okay if I don’t have an answer for everything. Being an educator doesn’t mean that I can always provide answers to all questions.

I am also a learner of many things. Teaching and learning should never stop at a specific point, because to me these happen throughout my life. I constantly learn new things from my students or from the questions they propose. That’s why at the beginning of each semester, it states in the syllabus that “I look forward to learning with you.” Sometimes I don’t have the answer for the students, but I know someone that might or someone who is specialized or trained in helping students on these matters. Providing resources and pointing out directions can be equally helpful for students in need.

What do you enjoy doing in your free time?

I like to spend time in nature, walking around and observing animals and plants. These days when I travel, I like to rent a bike, ride around, visit smaller towns/villages, and talk to locals. I also watch sports games whenever I can. Soccer and ice hockey are my favorite sports to watch. I recently started to follow women soccer both internationally and locally at MSU, and it has been fun!