January 19, 2012 | Queens College
Nathalis Wamba encourages teachers and administrators to listen, think outside the box, and see what happens next.
A teacher can be an all-powerful figure in the classroom, the sage on the stage imparting knowledge from behind a podium in a well-crafted lecture that displays masterful grasp of the issue at hand. But Nathalis Guy Wamba (Educational & Community Programs) has found that teachers can be equally powerful by paying attention while students do the talking.
“To enhance rather than inhibit learning, you have to be a good listener,” says Wamba, who has taught in QC’s educational leadership program since 2005. “You have to be able to give up control. Once you do, students can take ownership. People have to educate themselves, and you become their facilitator.”
Listening is just one strategy; a great teacher has many others. “You need to use a variety of methods,” Wamba says. “If one method isn’t getting through, you need to move on to something else.”
Finding new strategies is essential for successful administrators, too. Wamba believes that educational leaders need to have the courage to think differently than their peers. “If you begin to clash with the common ways of thinking, you can become a leader,” he comments. Associate Professor Terence Quinn, who coordinates QC’s educational leadership program, says his colleague practices what he preaches. “He encourages his students to question the policy, to see if it really works and is educationally sound,” notes Quinn.
Wamba’s perspective has been shaped by more than 20 years of teaching, research, and community work on several continents. Born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, he grew up shuttling back and forth between his homeland and Europe; his father, Albert, was posted at embassies in Belgium and France, where he served in the Congolese diplomatic corps. Three years after earning a degree in economics at the University of Lovanium in the Congo in 1979, Wamba enrolled at New York University. There, he earned his master’s degree and doctorate in business education.
While he was a graduate student, he worked with homeless teens, cofounding the Epiphany Youth Hostel in Brooklyn and serving as its associate executive director from 1984 to 1995. Wamba then became project director of the Resilient School and Community Program, an anti-drug initiative targeted at middle school students in Harlem. He also made time during grad school to cofound the Stay-in-School Partnership Program, which linked NYU graduate education students with high-needs high schools to provide extra help to struggling students.
Wamba, who resides with his family in Hastings-on-Hudson in Westchester County, isn’t content to discuss the achievement gap between minority students in impoverished urban neighborhoods and suburban youths raised amid plenty. He sees it as an opportunity gap, with suburban students enjoying significantly more resources at home and in school. That opportunity gap extends to the teaching staff, with suburban systems wooing personnel away with less troubled classrooms and higher pay. “You have a pyramid, with many top teachers going to the top schools, and the terrible teachers at the bottom,” Wamba continues. “We need to turn that pyramid into a circle.”
To bring about real change in their classrooms, he urges educators to engage in “action research”: conduct small-scale initiatives to identify problems, design a way to address them, and see if those new methods have an impact. Wamba has incorporated this process into courses he has taught with adult students. For example, if eight of 20 students don’t understand a certain concept, he will ask them how they might better learn. Perhaps the teacher could go more slowly, or break up the task. Wamba will try that approach, receive feedback, and keep changing the pedagogy until the students get it. “This isn’t research for research’s sake,” he observes. “It involves action, and action can change lives.”
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