Growing teachers around the world through IGNITE

Posted on May 30, 2023

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UNC Greensboro’s Innovation to Grow, Nurture, and Inspire Teachers of English-learners (IGNITE) trains Spartans to be at the forefront of Teaching English as a Second Language (TESOL). The IGNITE program began in 2022 and offers six different programs for learners on different career paths, including a fully-funded opportunity through the UNCG TESOL master of arts in teaching (MAT) program. The program directors, Dr. Ye “Jane” He and Dr. Melody Zoch, both have multiple awards in the teaching field

Last month, the TESOL MAT program saw the graduation of two exceptional students, Karena Zhang, and Yue Yin. One plans to continue teaching in the U.S. while the other is taking her talent back to her home country.

Karena Zhang 

In 2018 Karena Zhang moved to the United States in hopes of becoming a full-time Mandarin immersion teacher. During a conference on professional development for Chinese teachers, Zhang met Dr. He and was introduced to the UNCG IGNITE program in 2022 which offered her the MAT for the TESOL free of charge. 

Student, Karena Zhang sitting in graduation attire.

“When I met Dr. He, I said, ‘Wow, look at this scholar.’ She’s so humble but she’s knowledgeable. She pointed out my areas for improvement because I’m learning the framework. She told me about future studies and how they would be helpful. I’ve wanted to be a teacher since I was young because I was bullied in high school, and I feel like it was a teacher that saved my life and changed it.”

While Zhang worked full-time as a Mandarin teacher in Wake County, she took UNCG MAT courses. It allowed her to succeed at her own pace. “My advisor, Dr. Melody Zoch, helped me tailor my own courses. I could not come to campus every day because I work and live in Raleigh, so she tailored all of the courses to be over Zoom. All of the professors and all of my cohort helped me to adjust. I feel like I’m just lucky and I don’t have any other words to describe the situation.”

Zhang could enjoy classes that she shared with her classmates and ones that specifically catered to her. One of those classes was called Early Literacy. “Before this course, I only had the traditional way of understanding literacy – like speaking and writing. What I learned from this course is that at the kindergarten level, when they can interpret what they are doing and understand, this is also a literacy skill and a starting point for them to build character.”

Karena put this mode of literacy into practice with her kindergarten class by having them write small books in English and Mandarin and read their books out loud. She was able to develop proposals for conferences, one of which was accepted by the Southern Conference on Language Teaching (SCOLT)

Although Zhang primarily took her classes online, she got to see the UNCG campus when she walked the graduation stage this spring. “I was there with all my colleagues. They all celebrated with me. They said they were so proud of me for making this happen. My professor says that I won the ‘Time-Turner’ award from the Harry Potter books because of quickly I made it happen, but I could not have made it happen without everyone’s help. It’s a celebration not just for me but for all the cohort and the professors, everyone.”

Now that she has graduated, Zhang is becoming a bilingual teacher in Missouri. “I will be teaching third grade, and every day I will spend one and a half hours teaching English; the rest will be teaching Chinese. I got this chance because of the TESOL program.” 

Zhang has one piece of advice for those thinking of pursuing a degree in the TESOL MAT Program. “Just come in. Last night I was finishing a group project with some people in my cohort, and I was thinking that with this program you will not only get the TESOL view, but you will also gain a global view. We have so much diversity. I can tell you that in this program, you will not only see the good courses they offer but you will also meet so many different people. You’re not just reading some texts; you are hearing the true stories from people globally. Other programs cannot give you this chance.”


Yue Yin (殷悦) ’23 was an international student from China in the TESOL MAT program from 2021-2023 and was able to walk the stage last month as an official UNCG alumna.

“I have always wanted to become a teacher,” says Yin. “There are a lot of teachers in my family; my two sisters and my aunts are all teachers. Most of them are English teachers in China. I wanted to be someone like them. I think they’re doing something great, something wonderful. During my first year here at UNCG, my advisor recommended me to the TESOL MAT program.”

Student, Yue Yin, holding up a peace sign in full graduation attire.

And from there, Yin was in love with it. “They provided me with a stipend which covered my expenses and helped me with my tuition fees. But the most important thing they provided me with was the opportunity to really step into U.S. public educational settings.”

Yin had the opportunity to observe different grades and classes. “I’ve already had the teaching strategies and skills from TESOL classes, but when you’re in a teaching setting, things are different. They combine with each other and are complementary.” 

Yin’s favorite course was Literacy Instruction for Multilingual Learners, taught by Dr. Mayra Hayes. “First, she taught us a lot of the practical teaching strategies, which was new to me because my bachelor’s degree is in English. Second, Dr. Mayra provided us with hands-on teaching practice.”

Dr. Hayes’ class gave her six weeks of fieldwork experience at a local Guilford County elementary school where students partnered up and took turns teaching a classroom. “My partner was also bilingual in English and Spanish, so when we would have newcomers to the class, I would use English and my partner would translate it to Spanish.”

There was something else Yin appreciated about the class besides the coursework: “She was really dedicated to providing us with rich cultural experiences.” With several international students in this class, Yin says Hayes took the time to drive them to various restaurants, grocery stores, and bakeries. “We went to the Korean supermarket G-Mart and a Vietnamese restaurant where we tried the soup phở; that was really great. She would even bring stuff to the classroom and show us how to make a pupusa!” All of these great experiences contributed to Yin’s enjoyment at UNCG.

“My favorite part of UNCG is the campus. When applying, I saw that the campus is very beautiful. It’s gorgeous, especially in the fall. My favorite part of campus is the two big trees outside of the Nursing Building because they’re so beautiful.”

Thanks to the UNCG TESOL MAT program, Yin will return to Qufu, China, and become a teacher. She shares this advice: “Enjoy every moment of the program. Everything is wonderful, I love the course arrangements and love the teachers here. All the teachers are so responsible, so caring, loving, and they’re always ready to help you. Just enjoy every moment of your program.”

Impact of the TESOL MAT Program

The program recognizes the significance of quality teacher preparation in ensuring equitable education for multilingual students. It has effectively advocated for asset-based, culturally, and linguistically responsive teaching approaches. 

Over the past five years, the program has provided support to numerous teachers through ESL coursework, professional development, and family engagement initiatives. It has also engaged families from more than 44 school districts. 

“Thanks to continued collaboration with local schools and community partners such as the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, Guilford County Schools, and Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, the program is growing. And to be able to recruit and support teachers from a variety of backgrounds so that paying tuition is not a hindrance, funding is integral,” says Dr. Melody Zoch.

With the support of community partners, the program is expanding and is devoted to recruiting teachers from diverse backgrounds to be the next generation of educators. For more information about the UNCG TESOL programs and how you can get involved in IGNITE, please contact Dr. Ye He at

Story by Dana Broadus, University Communications
Photos courtesy of Karena Zhang and Yue Yin

Teacher wearing Moss Street Partnership School yellow shirt smiling at student.

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