Teaching above and beyond

To the common person, the thought of jumping out of an airplane would likely cause the hair on the back of their neck to rise, but to one of Bellevue College’s American Sign Language instructors and tenured faculty, Rick Mangan, the act is second nature.

Outside of his time at BC, Mangan is an avid aviator. “I’m a pilot and a skydiving instructor, skydiver and former skydiving competitor,” said Mangan.

“When I was five years old, if you had asked me what I was going to be when I grew up I’d tell you ‘a parachute.’ It’s just something I’ve always wanted to do.”

Mangan made his first jump the day after he turned 16, and by that time the following year, was unofficially recognized by the United States Parachuting Association as the youngest instructor they had ever licensed. It was during his training to become an instructor that Mangan began to discover his knack for teaching.

“Skydiving is … how I learned to be a teacher,” said Mangan. “When learning how to teach people to skydive, I had to learn about how to teach people, and discovered that [it] was something I was pretty good at.”

Mangan enrolled in college for the first time at BC in summer quarter 1989, pursuing an English degree. The stereotypes that had previously kept Mangan away from college were “all shot down completely.” Mangan credits this to the instructors.

“With a few exceptions, all the instructors I had were life- changing people. They were passionate about what they were doing and they cared about their students.”

“I went to the University of Washington to finish my degree, and I never had instructors there like I did at Bellevue; it was just not the same experience.”

Having learned to fingerspell as a child and later sign as a young adult, when Mangan experienced hearing loss in the midst of his junior year at the university, he used an interpreter to finish his degree.

“After that it all fell together that maybe teaching sign language [was] what I should be doing.”

It was this decision where Mangan found he could tie together ASL and all that he’d learned previously as a skydiving instructor.

Mangan recalls an instance where a skydiving student was having trouble executing turns in freefall and wasn’t understanding the instruction. By simply changing the manner in which he was explaining the maneuver, the student’s next jump proved successful.

“You learn to teach people from different directions. If they don’t understand when you teach one way, you can turn around and try and teach it from another direction…, explain it differently.”

Mangan believes this “responsive teaching” approach is vitally important to a student’s success in the classroom, particularly when teaching a visual language such as ASL.

“When you’re trying to teach someone a language that doesn’t use sound, the ears, the tongue and the mouth, but rather the eyes and the hands, you have to be ready to reframe all over the place, especially when you have a student come in who is a very strong auditory learner.”

Mangan doesn’t leave his parachute at the drop zone during the week however; he brings it with him into the classroom at BC.

In the higher level ASL classes where students are learning how to describe things and understand descriptions of their functions, Mangan believes it’s “a perfect time to bring in a parachute.” Mangan gets particularly jazzed about this as it allows him to show-and-tell, utilize grammar and vocabulary for all the different parts and their functions and provide students with a completely different experience than most other ASL classes.

Mangan hopes that this unique experience will spur students to leave the classroom with a new appreciation for learning.

“The experience I had here was so life altering for me it changed my future. It changed the quality of my life,” said Mangan. “Valuing education is the number one thing that I hope people see, because the more we learn about our world and each other the better the world we live in is for everybody.”