Killam Teaching Prize recipient Brianne Orr-Álvarez shares best practices and memorable moments

Dr. Brianne Orr-Álvarez, Lecturer of Spanish and Director of the FHIS Learning Centre, received the prestigious 2018 Killam Teaching Prize in recognition of excellence in teaching.

Here, she reflects on the most memorable moments of her teaching career and the lessons she has learned along the way.


“I thank my lucky stars every day that I had the courage to pursue this path after receiving advice from my professors. I really hope to do the same for my students.”

What has been the most memorable moment of your teaching career?

I have to say that receiving the Killam Teaching Prize has been one of the most memorable moments of my career. This award is public recognition of the idea that teaching excellence is such an important aspect of what UBC represents.  For me, this award also represents the coming together of so many voices and helping hands – beyond my own – that have shaped my view of teaching and learning at UBC over the years.

We often forget that, as teachers, it is never just about us; it always involves a community – the community of students that take our classes and test out our initiatives, the community of colleagues who serve as a sounding board for new ideas and as a support system when things go well (or not!), and the departmental community that shows appreciation and respect for your work, day in and day out. So, the Killam Teaching Prize is just as much a “thank you” to all of them as it is a distinction of my teaching!

Beyond this recognition, I have to say that I have at least one memorable moment a day with students. Whether it’s a student’s first visit to my office hours, someone’s first time finding the courage to contribute to class discussions, or seeing students from my beginner’s language classes now enrolled in 300-level courses, realizing how much they have improved in such a short amount of time – these little moments are what make this “job” so special. I feel so lucky to have the opportunity to experience Spanish through my students’ learning processes and achievements!

What best practices have you learned for teaching?

Over the years, I have learned so many “best practices,” but I will highlight three that are particularly helpful in shaping my current approach to teaching and shaping students’ learning experiences in my classrooms:

Trust your intuition – What works for one group of students, or even one student, may not work for all of them. It is important to stay open-minded, to demonstrate great flexibility, and to keep students on their toes, while upholding high standards for academic performance at the same time.

Treat your classroom like a learning community – The more opportunities for students to interact in the target language in meaningful and communicative ways, the more comfortable they will be using, and ultimately connecting to, the language.

Stay authentic and inspire connections – Whenever possible, speak in the target language, link classroom learning to current events in the languages, literatures, and cultures you teach, and encourage students to relate what they learn to their own lives, languages, and cultures. The personalization of learning will help them get more out of four years than just a university degree; it will enrich their lives and future careers as well.

What advice would you give to students in language, literary, or cultural studies?

Follow your hearts, be patient with yourselves, and use language and literary studies to pursue your natural interests.

I would give students the same advice that I received as a student of Spanish as a second language: follow your hearts, be patient with yourselves, use language and literary studies as a way to pursue your natural interests, and socialize (frequently!) in and about the target language and culture. Speaking and reading about other cultures opens minds and hearts, and breaks down walls!

I am a product of a very successful language and literature program, and I thank my lucky stars every day that I had the courage to pursue this path after receiving sound advice from professors who reinforced my interests along the way. I really hope to represent the same for my students.

What are the most challenging aspects of your work?

I think one of the most challenging, but also one of the most invigorating, aspects of my work is related to the fact that the way we teach language – and the ways in which students learn languages – changes at a pace that is often hard to keep up with. There is always new technology to bring into the classroom, a new activity to design, and nuanced ways of bringing students together through language learning.

For instance, students are extremely comfortable with using technology as a tool to approach many of their routine tasks and exchanges, so I think it is important to create opportunities for them to apply their technological knowledge to the language acquisition process. This also helps them to link classroom learning to their daily routines. One downfall to technology use is the question of whether or not students’ privacy is protected when you use certain applications and learning platforms, so I try to stick to UBC-endorsed technologies that comply with Canada’s privacy standards (FIPPA).

Another challenge that I face is how to promptly and properly help students in distress, both in and outside of the classroom.  I have made it a priority to better equip myself with strategies for dealing with urgent situations and by taking advantage of UBC’s processes and resources.

What teaching initiatives have you been involved with?

The FHIS Learning Centre was one of the first initiatives that I carried out at UBC when I arrived here in 2010. When I realized that students moving from course to course would benefit from having more opportunities to practice their reading and writing skills outside of the classroom, I made a proposal to create a Writing Centre that was linked to specific literature courses in Spanish, and later French. That initial project has now evolved into a multi-skill focused Learning Centre that caters to students of all levels and in all languages of the FHIS Department.

Though I direct the Learning Centre, it is largely a student-run operation that depends greatly on an undergraduate Learning Centre Coordinator (Emily Beatty), and qualified student-volunteers at the graduate and undergraduate levels, who act as tutors and facilitators for small-group work in our Centre. The Centre’s livelihood and purpose also depends on the students that take advantage of this service! It is our hope that student interaction outside of class in this safe and shared space will increase student motivation for learning, autonomy, and confidence in engaging with the languages, literatures, and cultures that we teach.

I was also involved in a pilot initiative aimed at evaluating the efficacy of alternative class structures and Graduate Teaching Assistant responsibilities in 200-level Spanish courses during the Summer 2018 term. For Spanish 201, I took advantage of the longer class sessions to create an immersion experience in the classroom, which involved more concentrated peer-to-peer conversations in Spanish outside of class through the Learning Centre. I also incorporated a group project in which students created vod or podcasts on Canvas related to broader cultural topics covered during the semester. Pilots such as this one serve as a logical point of departure for curricular change that is informed by the teaching and learning context, and the students who help shape it!

What are the most rewarding aspects of your work?

The most rewarding aspect of my work – and what most inspires me – is having the opportunity to interact with FHIS students and colleagues on a daily basis.

From my experience, the students that take courses in our department are highly motivated and interested in what we teach, and are very eager to put what they learn to use in their daily exchanges, volunteer experiences, and future careers. This is exactly what I strive for as an instructor, so it is so exciting to see it at work here at FHIS and UBC!

I am also excited to come to work every day because of the team of instructors that I work with. We support and inspire one another, and come together often to ensure that our programs and courses are relevant for the students in our classrooms, reflective of our unique skills and interests, and in tune with current events. The teamwork is inspiring, and the rewards of working together toward common goals are countless!

Visit Dr. Brianne Orr-Álvarez’s blog at


Dr. Brianne Orr-Álvarez is currently an Arts One Instructor and Lecturer at UBC’s Department of French, Hispanic & Italian Studies, teaching a variety of courses in Hispanic language, literature and culture. As a recipient of the Killam Teaching Prize in 2018 and Top Instructor Recognition from 2013-2016, she has been involved in numerous curriculum renewal and development projects, course- and program-based pilot projects, and Scholarship of Teaching and Learning workshops nationally and internationally. Currently, she serves as the Director of the FHIS Learning Centre, the Chair of the Graduate Teaching Assistant Training and Mentorship Committee and Program, and Course Coordinator at FHIS.