From BHM to OKJ: UAB senior prepares for first job teaching English in Japan

Class of 2017 option 2Graduating senior Sarah Leffel will spend her first year after completing her undergraduate education teaching English to children in Japan.
Read more stories about UAB's spring graduates on our Class of 2017 page.


sarah leffelSarah LeffelSarah Leffel, a graduating senior and Huntsville native, started her academic journey at the University of Alabama at Birmingham as a nursing major, but felt called to a different career path during a summer trip to Phuket, Thailand, her freshman year with a team of volunteers teaching English to victims of human trafficking.

When Leffel walks across the stage at Bartow Arena on April 29, she will celebrate her degree in early childhood and elementary education from the UAB School of Education, as well as her completion of the UAB Honors College Global and Community Leadership Honors Program.

“While in Thailand, I realized how much I loved watching people learn, and I enjoyed facilitating that process,” Leffel said. “When I came back home, I started praying and seeking guidance from faculty, and eventually decided to start the process of changing my major to education.”

Her journey will come full circle when she leaves Birmingham in June and heads back to Asia, not as a volunteer, but for her first professional job teaching English to children at preschools in Okayama, Japan. Leffel will spend her time each week working with children between the ages of 6 months and 6 years at three preschools in the area.

Shaping young minds is not something Leffel takes lightly, and the decision to apply for the position, and eventually accept an offer, was not easy.

“I take my job as a teacher very seriously,” Leffel said. “I want every child I cross paths with in the classroom to have the best foundation and the best environment that encourages learning. I believe having a good education is what guides you and leads you for the rest of your life.”

“Naturally, I had reservations about taking on such a role in another country, but I can’t put into words how grateful I am for the faculty in the School of Education. They have changed and shaped my life and encouraged me every step of the way. I know I have received the training I need to do my job well.”

“I want every child I cross paths with in the classroom to have the best foundation and the best environment that encourages learning. I believe having a good education is what guides you and leads you for the rest of your life."

The UAB School of Education Undergraduate Teacher Education Program gives students a foundation in the educational theories and innovative instructional strategies they will need to be confident and effective P-12 teachers. The school has a longstanding relationship with teachers and administrators in Okayama. For nearly 15 years, faculty and students have traveled to Japan to teach English or provide professional development in the form of literacy and math workshops.

Leffel says, if she had to impart one piece of advice that is applicable to anyone after her time in the School of Education, it would be what she has learned about mindsets in one of her first education courses.

“I’ve learned the value of having a growth mindset and want to encourage others with this philosophy as well, Leffel said. “According to Carol Dweck, there are two types of mindsets: fixed and growth. With fixed mindset, you believe that your skills are set. With a growth mindset, you believe that with the right resources and strategies your skills can grow.”

Leffel says she has been encouraged to become an expert learner while studying how to facilitate learning for others through the educational philosophy of constructivism — where learners are encouraged to ask questions, investigate, use a variety of resources to find solutions and answers, and assess how activities are helping them gain understanding.

“I will be learning how to be a good teacher for the rest of my life, and I will strive to grow through research, continued learning and experiences to be the best teacher I can be for the children who are put before me.”

Leffel will spend one year teaching in Okayama. Eventually, she hopes to pursue master’s and doctoral degrees in education.

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