Director of Communications Mark Chevalier sat down with Middle School Italian Teacher Ms. Irene Avaldi-Bianchini, who has been at TASIS since 2003 and feels more strongly than ever that this generation of students has a very bright future.
When did you start at TASIS, what do you teach, and what else are you involved with at the School?
I started at TASIS in 2003 as an intern. In that period I had the opportunity to work in an administrative role in several different offices of the School, which exposed me to a number of challenges and allowed me to gain an understanding of the big picture of a complex institution. The schools in Italy are organized very differently, so this was an important experience for me.
The following year I started teaching Italian in the High School, and a few years later I started the Middle School Italian Program after [Modern Languages Chair] Nilda Lucchini decided that Italian should be the official second language of the Middle School. This was a huge responsibility and represented another challenge that helped me grow immensely as an educator.
I now teach beginner, intermediate, and advanced classes in the Middle School. I am also an 8th-grade advisor and a Service Learning leader for the Cometa group. I am particularly thankful for the fact that I can be involved in service learning because I think it’s a huge opportunity for our students. TASIS understands very well the importance of having a good service learning program.
How did you find your way to TASIS?
I was raised in a simple and eclectic family in Italy, and I was fortunate to be exposed to many great educators in my youth. My high school studies in the classics (Latin and Greek) helped me develop an international vision, and I went on to study communication sciences with a specialization in education and training at Università della Svizzera italiana (USI) here in Lugano. My university studies gave me a solid foundation to start teaching, and I was immediately inspired by reflecting on the etymology of the word “communication” (cum + munus = "sharing a gift"). And what is the gift in education? The subject, because through that you expand your sense of the reality you live in.
While at USI, I took a class with [TASIS Foundation Board member] Michael Aeschliman. It was an inspiring and wonderful course, and Dr. Aeschliman told me about TASIS and his long association with the School. [Current TASIS French teacher] Florence Kofler was also taking classes at USI at the time and recruited me to apply for a position at TASIS. I was hired soon after by Joe McPherson, the Headmaster at the time. Ms. Lucchini was a great mentor right from the onset. She always believed in my potential and put a great deal of trust in me.
How would you summarize your teaching philosophy?
Teaching is a very complex activity. The world is changing fast. I often recall the word for “teacher” that we have in the Italian language, which is insegnante. Insegnante comes from the Latin words in and signum and means “to leave a sign/trace on another person.” I think this is a very good, genuine definition that I find particularly inspiring. Nowadays, how do you leave a trace on students? The starting point is a human atmosphere that you create in class by listening to them and embracing them for who they are—explaining to them that they are important to you and that you really care for them.
So this mutual listening is fundamental to having a good class. Then of course when it comes to the content of a subject, you should communicate passion and involvement and above all make them understand that what you are giving them is a good instrument to learn the reality they are surrounded by. But the thing is that they immediately understand if your enthusiasm is a bit fake. They are looking for authenticity and positivity.
Nowadays it is not easy to find solid positivity and authenticity in our world, but I think that these students deserve to find it in an educational institution. It’s their right to have it, and then it’s also important to manage a classroom with a mix of attitudes—to be very strict but to also create a dialogue with the students, to sometimes show them flexibility in an effort to develop balance in every relationship. The learning of the subject should be our first objective, but for good learning to occur, you must build relationships beforehand. It’s not like in the past when teachers would just start with the content without worrying about the human dimension first.
We cannot take these human values for granted.
I also like to see the lesson as a sort of parallelism with an orchestra. The teacher is the conductor. The teacher has the method and the knowledge, but the students must develop their own voice and their own story. Everybody has a different story to tell based on their character, their personality. The students are the ones who ultimately shape the symphony.
I can guarantee you that in this vision, every lesson becomes something that is of more use to the students. Each lesson requires a lot of thinking and reflecting, and the desired result is a harmonious mix of activities, ideas, and content. Delivering these elements in a balanced way leads to good rhythm, which is very important because when you teach a language, it’s like you are building a house. You add a brick every day.
What do you like the most about working at TASIS?
TASIS has been an exceptional place for me since the very beginning. What initially attracted me was that it was so different from the kinds of schools I was used to. In Italy, we have a great educational tradition in terms of content, but the schools are not so dynamic as here.
So it was another world for me and immediately got my interest. Then I met more experienced teachers at TASIS who had a stronger connection to Mrs. Fleming, and I came to better understand the great spirit of our founder. When I think about Mrs. Fleming, I see a woman who looked toward the future. In the 1950s she already understood what students needed to thrive in this complicated world: a beautiful campus and exposure to students from all over the world. If we think about it now, her foresight was absolutely extraordinary.
In the beginning, I was a bit scared to go to class. But as I entered Monticello each day, I would read the sentence on the plaque affixed to the building: “Education is man’s best hope for a better world. ”Seeing those words from our founder every day helped me gain the courage to teach my classes and motivated me to find the best way to do my job. I give a lot to my students, but at the same time I have the possibility to receive a lot from them. If you listen to your students, they give you so much in terms of different stories, different backgrounds, and different suggestions. Throughout all these years I can say that I have learned a lot from TASIS students.
So this probably is the most special thing. You stay and you work in a place that helps you grow. Any time I have wondered if another career might be better, I have always asked myself, “What’s really important?” For me it’s most important to simply be in a place where I as an adult can grow—because if I grow, it’s much better for the students.
How about working specifically with students at the Middle School level. What are some of the things you like about that?
Middle School is a very interesting time in a child’s life. I really like it because it’s a combination of intellectual curiosity and other dynamics. For example, they are very enthusiastic, they are very genuine, and they are very interested in the cultural part of learning the language, which is very important when we think about a subject like Italian. We have so much culture in Italy, so it’s good when you have in front of you young people who are so enthusiastic to learn about this side.
So it’s a nice mix of things. I can stimulate them intellectually, and we can do lots of different activities—like presentations, keeping diaries, or reading books designed for their level. We also create dramatizations of certain situations, which they love and which really get them to start using the language. All these different activities build involvement and enthusiasm.
I should say that I also loved teaching in the High School because I had extremely good conversations with students, as they were older and more mature. But still I like being involved daily in these kinds of creative activities that go beyond the more predictable intellectual work.
You mentioned that you teach beginner, intermediate, and advanced Italian. If you could only teach one of those levels, which one would you pick?
It is a tough question because every level has its own fascinating journey. Beginner is when you build the awareness about the daily life—how to acquire basic goods and handle common interactions. Intermediate is interesting because these daily interactions expand to add more details. In beginner you say, “I eat an apple,” whereas in intermediate you start to say when, where, and why and also learn how to describe your past experiences. Advanced is a very fascinating journey as well: in intermediate you learn how to express your experiences, and in advanced you start to reflect on them. What are the implications of these experiences, what are my feelings, and what do I want to pursue in the future? So it becomes really more personal and more deep—more like the sort of reflection you can do in a mother-tongue course.
But if I had to pick only one, it would probably be the beginner course, which is where we really have to establish the enthusiasm. Once you set the enthusiasm and get off to a good start in the beginner course, then all the other courses are a consequence of this good start. In fact, some people may think that the beginner course is easier to teach, but that is not true in my opinion. It’s actually the most challenging because you have to build from the beginning and motivate them, raise their passion. For sure, the beginner level is more fascinating in this sense.
Ms. Avaldi-Bianchini with her Advanced Italian class
We also teach French, German, and Spanish at TASIS. Do you find that your students are particularly eager to learn because they live in the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino and know the language will be beneficial to their daily lives?
Yes, of course. Being in an Italian environment gives them a lot of motivation. They want to feel comfortable in the place they are, and the language helps a lot. So this is a very important aspect, but there are also other aspects that I find important about studying Italian. The first is that this language is attractive to them because the sound of Italian is very musical, lyrical, and harmonious. This immediately attracts students who have this sensitivity, and students who like singing or performing are particularly drawn to Italian and motivated to develop the ability to make these appealing Italian sounds themselves.
There is another aspect that makes Italian attractive that might seem a bit silly, but it is something I have noted in my classes. As Italians, we speak with a lot of gestures, and the students love seeing how you combine words with movement. We are in an era in which the students really love these movements and the theatrical-like aspects of the language. If I use my hands, I don’t do it because I am a performer, I do it because it is really part of our culture. We grow up like this without even realizing it.
And last but not least, students recognize that the popularity of the Italian language is growing. Italian is now the fourth most popular foreign language studied in the world. English, Spanish, and Chinese are strongly in the first three positions, but Italian is increasing a lot. This is because Italy is overcoming some old stereotypes, and Italian is becoming the language of art, beauty, and food.
But I also think—and I tell my students this—that Italian will become even more important for economic and professional reasons. If we think about the fashion world, if we think about design, if we think about the luxury car industry. In this sense, we can see that social media is helping Italy overcome some stereotypes and helping others see examples of real Italian excellence, especially on Instagram.
How do you think your students will fare in the future?
I always get angry when I hear people say—not here at TASIS but elsewhere—that there is something wrong with kids these days or that education has lost its way. I don’t know if I am wrong, but working here has given me the belief that we are at a very good point in education. I am filled with optimism and hope for the future of this young generation. They have so much to give—even more so than in the past. Students are now able to reflect about things we could not think about ten years ago. It is up to us as adults to be positive role models and educate them. We are responsible for unlocking their fullest potential.