Tar Heel of the Week

Tar Heel of the Week: Jane Vella focuses on the students

Her experience both nationally and abroad shaped her methods

CorrespondentNovember 3, 2012 

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Jane Vella is Tar Heel of the Week and is photographed here at her home in North Raleigh on Wednesday, October 31, 2012. Vella used the teaching methods she learned in African villages to launch a Raleigh-based educational company with a global reach that has recently garnered several awards.

SHAWN ROCCO — srocco@newsobserver.com

  • Jane Vella Born: June 30, 1931, New York, N.Y. Residence: Raleigh. Career: Founder, Global Education Partners; author of adult education books. Education: Bachelor’s in education, Mary Rogers College; Master’s in English, Fordham University; Doctorate in education, University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Awards: Named Honorary Faculty Member, School of Medicine of the Pontifical University of Chile, 2012; Dory Storms Child Survival Recognition Award, The CORE Group, 2012; E.J. Boone Enhancement Award for outstanding contributions to the practice of adult education, N.C. State University, 2004. Fun Fact: After decades of globe-trotting – including a whirlwind five-year stint as director of training for the nonprofit Save the Children – Vella is content to stay put in Raleigh. She even declined to travel to Chile to receive her honorary degree; a dean of the medical school held a ceremony at her Raleigh home instead with his colleagues participating via Skype.

— On Jane Vella’s first day in front of a classroom, she watched in horror as her gentle admonitions were ignored by an increasingly rowdy group of Harlem third-graders.

Finally, a sympathetic student stood up next to her and screamed, “She means ‘shut up!’ ”

Now a revered educator and author, Vella says that student taught her an enduring lesson.

“He was my first translator, and he helped me understand that the issue was dialogue,” says Vella, 81. “If I can’t speak their language, I can’t teach them.”

Vella continued to patch together her insights about teaching over thirty years as a Catholic nun teaching Tanzanian villagers. She refined them later while teaching at universities and earning her doctorate.

The result was an approach called “dialogue education” that Vella has put to work with students as diverse as Ethiopian prostitutes, Nepalese farm workers and Raleigh city employees. She has detailed her theory using a colorful assortment of these stories in eight influential adult education books, and founded a company, Global Learning Partners Inc., devoted to using its methods.

Vella sold the company years ago, but she continues to write and guide current practitioners of her ideas. And she is still reaping accolades as the impact of her work ripples across the globe. Last month, she received an award from an international group of public health organizations for her role in boosting child survival – and was named an honorary faculty member of a Chilean medical school.

The crux of Vella’s approach is simple: Students learn best in classes focused on them – where their teachers respect them, and where they talk and act, rather than listen. It was radical when she conceived it, but it has become increasingly relevant, says Tuere Bowles, coordinator of the adult education program at N.C. State University.

“Dialogue education is essential for the 21st century skills that students need,” says Bowles, who frequently invites Vella to speak to her classes. “We need people who can communicate and collaborate – not just in higher education, but in the community and workplace.”

Bowles, who first read Vella’s books in her own graduate classes, says Vella’s approach has also empowered some of the world’s most vulnerable people by valuing their input when offering aid to poor countries.

“She has helped bring so many of those voices from the margins to the center,” Bowles says.

Valuing the students

Vella, the oldest daughter of an Italian immigrant family, grew up in New York City. Her father died when he was only 36, and Vella says she was her mother’s partner in raising her sisters, helping to keep the household in order as her mother worked three jobs.

The three girls attended Catholic schools, and Vella went on to study at Mary Rogers College as a Maryknoll sister who would teach in Catholic schools.

If her first training in Harlem was a shock, the cultural divide was even greater when she arrived in Tanzania in 1956. She taught English, catechism, social studies and other subjects at a missionary school that had long used traditional Western teaching methods.

But she found she could teach the villagers more if they learned how they lived: cooperatively, in small groups. She also learned a lot from listening to their stories. That back and forth with students became central to her teaching practice, and the insights she gleaned from their culture pepper her books.

In a place where the divide between the educated and the uneducated was deep, nothing bothered her more than to see a student feel belittled by a teacher.

“A lot of times students walk out feeling like they’re dumber than when they came in,” she says. “That’s the power play that dialogue education addresses.”

She later helped train local teachers as a professor at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. She left Tanzania, and the Maryknoll sisterhood, in the late 1970s.

She decided to strike out on her own, bringing her notebooks full of observations to complete her doctorate in education at the University of Massachusetts; she wrote her dissertation on educating communities in international development projects.

From there, she headed to N.C. State University, where she planned to stay. Instead, she left to take a job setting up a literacy program for the government of Zimbabwe.

‘The purpose is peace’

Back in Raleigh, she started a company called Jubilee Popular Education Center, which is now Global Learning Partners Inc. It was then, she says, that the struggling entrepreneur refined her education ideas into a program that could be taught and replicated in a wide variety of settings.

While much of her work continued to focus on international development projects, she also started working with businesses and nonprofits on better ways to train their employees. She has since worked with state and national education departments, private companies, universities and nonprofits.

Habitat for Humanity is a national client, and the City of Raleigh a local one. At the Pontifical Catholic University in Chile, the entire medical school adopted her methods after she visited there nearly 20 years ago.

The award from The CORE Group, a consortium of international health organizations, cites her methods in helping their programs reach underserved women and children around the world. Most honorees to date have been medical researchers.

Since 1981, she says has personally taught more than 6,000 people in 40-plus countries. And they have taught others; her former company is currently run by a group of her former students, who continue to call on her expertise.

“What we teach is that the heart of education is a focus on learning, not teaching,” Vella says.

These days, Vella continues to write and teach – and to learn. She is taking up the piano, and lately she’s been reading scientific studies that seem to bolster her ideas, including the work of James Zull, a biologist who studies the effect of teaching on the brain.

The former nun eventually followed her sister, an Episcopal priest, to that faith, and is now an active member of Raleigh’s Church of the Nativity Episcopal Church.

She says her passion for teaching is part of a loftier goal that is an extension of her faith.

“The purpose is peace,” she says. “The way we learn and the way we teach is the way we shape our culture. Fear and domination aren’t good for anyone.”

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