Call him 'maestro'

Teacher Sal Tamayo wins award--and pupils' hearts

In Salvador “Sal” Tamayo’s 5th-grade bilingual class, a soft mini-soccer ball flew around the room like popcorn in short bursts from teacher to pupil and back again. In short order Tamayo posed a question and hands shot up. “Maestro, maestro,” pupils pleaded in their native Spanish, hoping to catch Tamayo’s attention.

The ball zipped, and whoever caught it had to identify a geometric shape on the chalkboard: cilindro, rombo, esfero. Tamayo asked for English answers too: “cylinder,” “rhombus,” “sphere.”

“If they don’t know, you help them,” he told his pupils at West Chicago’s Turner School. “And if he doesn’t know, and she doesn’t know, you help them!”

Tamayo, an award-winning teacher, believes that sharing knowledge is key. As a high school student in Mexico City, Tamayo once caught the end of an astronaut’s speech. Although the speaker’s name didn’t stick, the message did.

“He was talking about walking in space, about seeing all the greens and blues of the Earth,” said Tamayo, 41. “But he turned around and didn’t see anyone to say, ‘Look, it’s such a beautiful thing.’ It was his biggest experience but the saddest, because he had no one to share it with.”

Long-term lesson

He still holds that lesson as a guiding principle. “I went to school so many years,” he said. “I travel and do all kinds of stuff, but if I don’t have anybody to turn around and say, ‘This is what I know and what I see,’ then it’s worthless.”

Tamayo is beginning his eighth year as a teacher, a job that has provided classrooms full of pupils to share his life and vice versa. He also makes a difference in the community and on the soccer field.

In late June, Tamayo traveled to Los Angeles to collect a $25,000 prize for outstanding teachers. The Milken Family Foundation Award, an honor presented this year to 145 educators nationwide, comes with no spending restrictions. In October, when the announcement came, Tamayo had instant ideas about how to use it: for the children with whom he works.

Not without strings

Tamayo will pay off expenses he incurred in January taking teams he voluntarily coaches to a Florida soccer tournament. The Aztecas, a team of girls younger than 14 and a team of boys younger than 16, include many of Tamayo’s former pupils. The money will also fund a fourth classroom computer.

In Tamayo’s eyes, the award is not without strings. “There’s responsibility to it,” he said. “You have a lot of people coming to your classroom now. Other teachers see you as someone to come to with questions. Students see all the awards so they think they have the best teacher.

“But I believe it’s not because I’m the greatest teacher but because of the students whom I have. They are the ones who are doing the work.”

In West Chicago Elementary School District 33, Tamayo seems to get far more praise than he’s willing to accept.

“If it’s for the good of the children and for the good of the families, Sal is really willing to go out and give of his time,” said Karen Mulattieri, director of language assistance for the district.

Mulattieri cited several examples: Tamayo has received multiple awards for: producing Web sites in Spanish and English; making presentations at state conferences on using technology for second language learners; organizing the district’s popular Spanish language computer classes for parents; recently helping launch the district’s Welcome Center for families arriving from other nations; and the new dual-language program, which offers an elementary curriculum aimed at fluency in Spanish and English.

Tamayo has also been known to come in on Saturdays to help children with school projects.

Gaining parents’ trust

For most bilingual teachers, the role carries additional duties. It’s not unusual for Tamayo to accompany families on medical visits, translate documents, assist with immigration questions or help wherever an understanding of Spanish and English is needed.

“You see the parents from the regular classrooms going to school, no problem,” Tamayo said. “But with the bilingual students, [the parents] go through you. You are the office, you are the nurse, you are everything until they feel comfortable.”

Tamayo thrives on these relationships. He is regularly invited to first communions, family reunions or celebrations for one pupil or another.

“The parents know you and get the feeling that you’re good for them and good for their kids,” Tamayo said. “That’s when it feels really good for me. That’s my biggest accomplishment, that I can relate with their families at that level.”

Through a system called “looping,” Tamayo welcomes to 6th grade this fall the same pupils he had last school year as 5th graders. The idea is to give children a two-year rotation with the same bilingual teacher.

Considering that double dose of classroom time, the extra reliance families place on him and Tamayo’s soccer program, it’s little wonder that he has become part of the Turner School community.

Kids can’t say goodbye

“A lot of times, older kids whom he’s had will come to Sal and say, ‘I’m applying for this job,’ or ‘I’m having trouble filling this out,'” said Sue Wulff, Turner’s principal. “When they leave us at Turner, it’s often not goodbye.”

Tamayo and the school are tied in other ways: His brother, Alejandro, teaches 2nd grade there; and Tamayo’s wife, Elizabeth Walrath, is a special education teacher there. Tamayo and his wife plan to have the mother of one of his pupils look after their son, Salvador Douglas, who was born May 26.

Twenty years ago, Tamayo could not have predicted any such future.

He received a bachelor’s degree in communications in Mexico in 1983 and became a television producer. In 1985 he came to the U.S. intending to study film and broadcasting.

Tamayo had an uncle who had settled in the Chicago area, so Tamayo moved here and enrolled at Columbia College Chicago, where he earned a second bachelor’s degree, in computer graphics and media, in 1993.

While a student, he worked in the restaurant at the Lisle Hilton as a busboy, waiter and supervisor to pay his way.

A tip leads to teaching

“One day somebody told me there was an opportunity to be a teacher assistant in West Chicago–that they needed people who spoke Spanish and English,” Tamayo said.

After being hired at West Chicago Middle School, he received another tip.

“One of the teachers said I should be working as a teacher. They saw potential. So I thought, ‘I want to try it.'”

Tamayo obtained a temporary teaching certificate and then returned to Columbia College, where he received a master’s degree in urban education in 1998.

“I started teaching, and it totally changed my life,” Tamayo said. “I apply everything I learned in broadcasting. It’s great because these students are really the users of media and computers.”

What do the children say about Tamayo?

“He’s funny. He’s the best teacher I’ve had,” said Jose Martinez, 11. “He’s really special to us.”

Marlenne Ramirez, 11, said that laughing and learning go together in Tamayo’s classroom.

“When we try to learn he tells us about it funny,” she said. “He doesn’t really get mad unless we hurt other people.”

Perhaps Maricela Ballines, 14, a former pupil and current member of the Azteca team, said it best.

“He makes it exciting,” she said. “When he teaches it’s like he really wants us to learn.”


Salvador ‘Sal’ Tamayo

Age: 41

Title: Bilingual teacher, 6th grade, Turner School, West Chicago.

Years in field: Eight.

Favorite aspect of job: “When I’m teaching something the kids don’t know–when they discover something new and say, ‘Really?'”

Least favorite aspect of job: Paperwork.

Hardest assignment: “Working with schools from Japan and Canada to create one Web site. Communicating was difficult. The time zone issue was another problem. We couldn’t agree on anything at first. Then we started with pictures and that was a huge way to communicate. We ended up winning honorable mention for cultural awareness in an AT&T competition.”

Goals: “It is no longer enough to speak one language in a society that’s going to go global. We need to be able to communicate with people not just across the street or across the country, but you have to be familiar with other cultures. We have to prepare kids for that future.”

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