In Stories from Deans

Following in her teacher’s “magical” footsteps  

By Erica Cervini

After studying Indonesian in the first year of high school, Lesley Harbon decided to pursue a career in teaching languages. Later, she began researching issues related to cultural awareness and language teaching.


In her first year of high school, Lesley Harbon became mesmerised by the wonderments of her Indonesian language and culture classroom.

“It was magical to me. You could do this other code and make meaning. And I just thought, ‘How cool is that’,” says Professor Harbon, head of the School of International Studies and Education at University of Technology Sydney.

Professor Harbon became so entranced with the idea of learning and teaching other languages that she decided that she wanted to follow in her Indonesian teacher’s footsteps.

She kept to her plan and studied Indonesian throughout high school and picked up German at university. Professor Harbon then trained as a secondary school language teacher and went on to teach Indonesian at the primary and secondary school levels.

But teaching a language is not just about conveying new codes to students, Professor Harbon explains. It is also about intercultural awareness and internationalising the curriculum.

“This is definitely in my psyche,” she says. “It is definitely in my personal identity and narrative.”

After beginning her Indonesian teaching career in Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory, then continuing to teach the language in Toowoomba, Queensland, Professor Harbon was invited to teach Indonesian at primary level in the small NSW country town of Parkes, where she introduced a range of “international” experiences for her Indonesian classes. She brought Indonesian embassy staff from Canberra to the town and had Indonesian days attended by consulate staff from Sydney.

“We really internationalised the program,” Professor Harbon says.

The desire to foster intercultural awareness and internationalise school subjects has prompted Professor Harbon to conduct research her own research. Many of her investigations in this study area have involved getting pre-service language and experienced teachers to reflect on how they teach languages other than English.

In a number of case studies, Professor Harbon took pre-service teachers overseas to have an international experience and a practicum so they could reflect on their own practice.

“You actually have to take the students and remove them from their own familiar surroundings. It is at that point, when they are overseas and perhaps experiencing a cultural mismatch, when the real critical cutting-edge reflection can occur, when they can understand more about their home teaching context,” Professor Harbon explains.

The concept of getting language teachers to reflect on their practice and experiences is a theme in the book, Language Teachers’ Narrative of Practice, which Professor Harbon co-edited with a colleague Dr Robyn Moloney. In the book, Professor Harbon writes about her experiences of learning languages and meeting people from different cultures. These, she writes, have shaped her development as a teacher and as a teacher educator. She also highlights how these experiences have shaped her identity.

“I truly believe that I have a different identity in my mother tongue English to my Indonesian “self”, Professor Harbon writes. “My life is totally tangled – in a good way – in the webs woven by international friendships and collaborations. Not a waking hour of my life goes by without some kind of ‘moment’ and ‘consideration’ in another language of culture.”

Professor Harbon’s passion for using narratives to shape teachers’ perspectives on their practice has also led her to produce online learning modules for language teachers on narrative inquiry. In 2013 and 2014 when Professor Harbon was working at the University of Sydney, she and a colleague developed, Thinking with Stories: Uncovering Meaning for Practice Through Language Teachers’ Personal and Professional Stories.

Teachers undertaking the professional development modules view the online material and are encouraged to reflect on a series of tasks and questions. For example, teachers are asked to: “Try to encapsulate your own language teaching story inside a metaphor that you create to capture part of your current language teaching practice. What message are you intending that the audience gathers? How might your audience learn through your story?”

It’s unsurprising that so many questions underpin Professor Harbon’s Language Learning Space modules because, as she admits, she has an insatiable appetite to investigate. She tells a story to reflect this.

“One Saturday afternoon I was with my daughter who was only a couple of years old and we’re playing in the park there (Mrs Macquarie’s chair on Sydney Harbour), and all of a sudden all these Rolls Royces pull up with international brides getting out to have their photos taken against this gorgeous international backdrop. And I just thought to myself, ‘Well, that’s a social study in itself.’ It was then I realised that I ask a lot of questions and reflect.”

Professor Harbon’s continuing research project with colleague Dr Ruth Fielding is related to the primary bilingual programs for the NSW Department of Education and Training. In particular, she is looking at the experiences of students who have undertaken bilingual programs at the primary level and what happens to their language studies after they transition to secondary school.

In much of Professor Harbon’s writing, research and lectures, she highlights how the people she has met over the years have shaped her professional life. Some of those meetings from an early age have developed into life-long friendships. Donna Wood, the teacher who ignited in Professor Harbon a love for learning languages and cultures, has remained in touch. Ms Wood retired from teaching recently after an outstanding four decades as a teacher of languages and cultures in NSW schools.

“I just wanted to be her. Being a teacher like her was part of my career dreams from that moment on. I just thought that she was doing a magical thing being a teacher of other languages,” Professor Harbon says.





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