It’s strange how life works out, how completely unrelated experiences connect, and it seems that all along, everything was leading to this time, to this place.
Here is Maria Berzins. She was born and raised in Santiago, Chile. By the time she graduated, she spoke Spanish, English and French. When she was 21, she traveled to Europe. She reveled in the different languages and cultures. She also encountered outright hostility in one country because she did not speak the language and therefore did not count.
Maria became a math teacher. She fell in love, left Chile for Denver, raised her family and worked as a babysitter and a Spanish tutor because her Chilean teaching degree meant nothing here. She missed teaching and became a teacher’s aide. It wasn’t enough.
She returned to school and became a teacher. Some people snickered at the time, she said; she’ll die the first week in the classroom with that accent, they said. But they didn’t know Maria. She earned her teaching certificate and then her master’s degree. She became a bilingual education teacher, a frequent attendee of education conferences, a ubiquitous committee member.
In 1996, Maria returned to Western Hills Elementary, where she first became a teacher’s aide 20 years earlier.
Things had changed. Maria had one Spanish-speaker when she was a teacher’s aide. Today, half the students are native Spanish-speakers. She decided to follow in the footsteps of a colleague, taking Spanish and English speakers together and, in simple terms, teaching each the other’s language. Her kindergartners read and write in their native language but learn math and other subjects in their target’ language. English for Spanish speakers. Spanish for English speakers. It is the latest in bilingual education backed by research proving students who have a foundation in reading and writing their own language can easily transfer their abilities to a second language. Maria speaks English one day, Spanish the next.
If the kids ask me a question, no matter what the language of the day is, I will always answer in their language and honor their language,’ she says. I want to show them both languages have the same value.’
Maria’s students are beautiful, fidgeting 5-year-olds who hum as they color and tell you they can count to 10 in Spanish and in English and they bet you can’t and do you know the song, Who Let the Dogs Out,’ because that’s a great song, and a girl asks, Did you know I was born in Mexico?’ and the boy next to her says, Did you know my mom is pregnant?’ Before you can answer, they’re singing: Who Let the Dogs Out?’
Maria introduces me to Leslie Contreras, a student from last year. Leslie spoke almost no English when she started Maria’s class. Now she’s reading in both English and Spanish, a first-grader at third-grade level. ‘It’s fun,’ Leslie tells me. ‘I like both Spanish and English. I like all the words.’
Watching her I see my own daughter. This is what I would like for her, to learn both languages, to value both cultures.
At 53, this is what Maria has learned.
>From her schooling: Kids can learn what you put before them to learn. If I could learn two languages at the same time, why can’t my students?’
>From her European experience: They wouldn’t have anything to do with me in Germany because I didn’t speak their language. That’s how these kids will feel if no one helps them. My heart goes out to them.’
>From her own success: I tell them every day: You are intelligent; you can do what you want. I don’t allow them to say they can’t do anything.’
And this is how things come together. Maria Berzins, a determined Chilean student, becomes a determined teacher who is named the best bilingual teacher in Colorado and then, just a few nights ago, honored as this year’s best bilingual teacher in America.