Pioneer Spotlight: Catherine Van Paemel
When students enter Catherine Van Paemel’s classroom, they have the opportunity to engage with a new language and culture. Van Paemel, a senior lecturer of Spanish, is passionate about playing a part in a student’s university preparation and has helped students at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville grow as young professionals for the past 17 years. She enjoys watching her students grow in their careers, sharing with colleagues about new ways to reach students and exercising to keep up with her children’s activities.
How did your interest in Spanish begin?
When I was in fourth or fifth grade, there was an after school program for kids at the University of Dubuque. The program was twice a week, and I participated in this throughout middle school. My parents made this and other activities, like piano lessons and ballet, available to me. The class acted out plays, sang songs and played games. We worked a lot on pronunciation rather than focus on grammar. High school was an awkward transition for me because I started in the sophomore class with my previous experience. I had the opportunity to go to Spain in high school, and these experiences helped me realize that I wanted to pursue this career path.
What do you enjoy most about teaching?
I love the students. I miss the interaction during the summer months. I enjoy the enthusiasm that can come from a classroom, and I appreciate the feedback and conversations that I have with students to find out what is working well for their learning. Students often open up about their lives, and I have found that if you can create a safe and enjoyable environment for your students, your teaching becomes more effective.
What do you hope students take away from your classes?
An appreciation for the Spanish language and culture. If I only get a student for one semester, I want to open their eyes to how hard it is to learn another language and to encourage passion and empathy for people in the United States who don’t speak English as a first language. People who take my classes are getting formal instruction in Spanish and are struggling to pick up a new language, so I want my students to imagine being at a workplace where that is the only time they hear the language they are trying to learn. I want my students to learn the importance of kindness for people who are in the process of learning.
If you weren’t a teacher, what would you be?
I worked as a salesperson in Latin America and in the United States. I became a salesperson for a while after my first job teaching Spanish-speaking students English. When I returned to the United States, I worked at Great Lakes Higher Education Corporation in Madison, Wisconsin, as a bilingual person. I worked at a few other businesses before pursing teaching again. The picture that I had for myself in my twenties was that I wanted to be at a university. But in teaching or any other position in life, it is important to learn how to sell yourself and your abilities to others.
How do you encourage students to practice the language?
I invited the dean and my department chair to come watch a teaching presentation this semester. I said that I wasn’t going to do anything differently than I normally would, but the weekend before my presentation, I decided to teach myself how to play the ukulele. It was definitely a way to get students to pay attention to what I was doing. I used playing the ukulele as a way to help foster a “let’s just do it” mentality of speaking Spanish instead of being self-conscious about how we sound. If the instructor can get up there with very little idea of how to play the ukulele and still try, then the students can try to speak Spanish. I need to show students that I am willing to take risks in order for them to take risks. People can be too obsessed with being perfect and that takes away from the fun of learning. Perfection is too hard and unreasonable to ask of yourself when learning something as different as a new language.