ESL Teacher Interviews: Katie Hull-Sypnieski

In the latest Interview with the Experts series, Kaplan talk to Katie Hull-Sypnieski. Katie is the co-author of The ESL/ELL Teacher's Survival Guide: Ready-to-Use Strategies, Tools, and Activities for Teaching English Language Learners of All Levels and has been teaching for more than 15 years.

Katie was kind enough to provide a press release comment for the celebrity aspect of Kaplan's How to Teach English research. You can find her quote on the infographic page.

What made you become an ESL teacher?

During college I volunteered at a high school in San Jose, California and met so many amazing young people from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds. I realized I had so much to learn from them.

I was also fascinated, and still am, with the learning process—how we learn, especially the way our brains acquire language. I could relate to this experience at the time because after studying French all through middle and high school I decided to minor in Spanish in college!

How would you describe your teaching style?

I would describe my teaching style as very student-centered. After nearly 20 years as a classroom teacher I've learned it really isn't about me—what I’m interested in, what books I like to read, etc.  The students determine the decisions I make as an educator which is why building relationships with my students and their families is such a priority for me.

I try to get to know them as best I can—not only their academic strengths and weaknesses, but also what they are interested in, what their goals are, and what strategies help them learn best. This enables me to tailor my lessons to their needs and interests which we all know increases motivation and learning!

What cultural insights can you get from teaching ESL?

Wow . . . I've learned so much over the years from my students.  Our high school is a large and very diverse urban school so each year I get students from countries and cultures that are new to me.

One thing I’m reminded of each year is that while communication patterns, religious beliefs, and cultural expectations may differ, the human experience at its core is what connects us all—we all feel good when we learn new things, we all experience frustration, we've all made mistakes.

Have you experienced cultural difficulties from teaching ESL?

I think I've just learned not to make any assumptions and to be honest with students and their families.

Which other ESL teachers do you admire and why?

I admire my teaching partner of the last nine years Larry Ferlazzo. Sometimes he drives me crazy because somehow he’s always generating more work for me, but I truly appreciate having a colleague who pushes me and gives me constructive feedback. I admire his reflective nature as a teacher and all of the easy and good educational technology opportunities he has shared with me.


I also greatly admire all the hard-working and greatly talented teachers I've met through the California Writing Project and the WRITE Institute (both are non-profit professional development organizations started by teachers).  The wisdom and support they've shared with me over the years has been invaluable.  There is nothing more valuable than teachers teaching other teachers.

What would you say to someone who was considering becoming an ESL teacher?

Go for it! You will learn so much about yourself and the world. I would also say be open to collaboration, be willing to make mistakes and learn from them, and challenge yourself to be a learner alongside your students.

What do you think is the future of ESL teaching?

The digital age has made the world smaller in many ways and opens up so many opportunities for ESL teachers and their students.  We can instantly access more resources and technology, the latest research, and can easily collaborate and learn from each other.

Which superhero would you be and why?

My first instinct is to say Wonder Woman because I am a good problem solver and can switch roles quickly—whether it’s teaching a class of teenagers or driving my three kids to baseball or swim practice.  But, I've always loved the Wonder Twins because they have to combine powers and work together. I really am a collaborator at heart and feel like I am pushed to be better when working with others.


Many thanks to Katie for some great answers. Are you part of the ESL/EFL community? What other community projects do you feel warrant a mention? Please let us know by leaving a comment.

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