Language not only binds people together but also brings about greater understanding among cultures and helps break down stereotypes. In teaching Arabic at Moraine Valley for the last 13 years, Dr. Maha Sweis-Dababneh works hard to foster that type of learning, helping her earn the 2020 Master Teacher Award.

Teaching has always been Sweis-Dababneh’s passion. Originally from Jordan, she realized the need for instructors with this specialty and felt it was her responsibility to teach her native language.

“I knew in my heart I could contribute to enhancing the teaching of Arabic in the United States. As an Arab American, I take much pride in my culture, and I enjoy sharing it and  breaking the stereotype,” she said. “When people see each other as humans with different languages, and they understand that language, tolerance becomes the norm. Once people explore the language, they start learning about the culture and become more open to accepting different ideas and different ways of life.”

Teaching for Sweis-Dababneh is an essential part of her life. At the start of any semester, she makes sure her students feel connected and comfortable in the classroom. She compared it to the theme song from the TV comedy “Cheers” where “everybody knows your name.” She develops new methods for instructing with technology, making it fun and interactive.

To really master a language, she believes additional work is necessary outside of classroom hours. She has built a free library of videos, flashcards and educational games online to help her students learn Arabic, making it easily accessible from any device. After teaching each class, she posts the recorded session on Canvas for anyone who needs to listen again or for those who missed class.

In 2012, Sweis-Dababneh won the Innovation of the Year Award for her online Arabic 101 course. Written right to left, this tricky language uses a wider range of mouth and throat positions than English and can be confusing with its unique word order. A present tense word has 13 forms and everything must be addressed by gender, she explained. Despite these challenges, she encourages her students, teaches to their learning styles and always remains enthusiastic.

Over the years, Sweis-Dababneh has heard from a number of students thanking her for helping them learn Arabic and expressing how it has influenced their lives personally and professionally. One student wrote, “I traveled to Lebanon this summer, and I was able to communicate with my grandparents, and that was priceless.” Another said, “I work in the medical field, and it’s unbelievable how many people come to the emergency room who don’t speak English. I am able to translate and help.”

Aside from the accolades, Sweis-Dababneh loves her job and is appreciative for winning Master Teacher. “Winning this award is an honor that is not only encouraging but genuinely humbling. I am grateful for the recognition I have received for my work and to be included among such high caliber nominees. This validated my work to myself. I am committed to continue doing all I can to remain faithful to this award,” she said. “I would like to thank my nominator and the Faculty Development Committee and former Master Teachers for selecting me. Winning this award would not have been possible without the inspiration I have received daily from the colleagues I work with and the management team that offers continuous support and guidance — Dr. Wally Fronczek and Dr. Tom Dow. They have always given me confidence and encouraged me to try new ways of teaching. I am honored and grateful to be part of the Happy Valley family.”