Q & A with Iowa’s 2015 Teacher of the Year
Clemencia Spizzirri, a native of Ecuador, has taught Spanish at Merrill Middle School in the Des Moines Public Schools for five years. She helps needy children and families understand the power of a high-quality education and works to cultivate culturally aware students. She also works to ensure that children learning English as a second language are truly part of the culture of achievement.
Spizzirri, 38, lives in Waukee with her husband, Robert, and children Arian, 17, and 3-year-old twins Aidan and Gia.
What was it like growing up in Ecuador?
I come from a country that has a robust diversity and where high-quality education is a privilege – that sparked my passion on how to help the impoverished through education. Education is a catalyst for upward mobility. I was a lucky kid and went to a private school through the university level.
Back then, there was an economic crisis going on and the country had very fractured reforms. The kids are the ones who were hurt by that because there is no consistency. There are so many kids living in poverty, working in the streets instead of being in the classroom.
One day I decided to quit law school in order to teach. I started working in a public school that needed an English teacher. I didn’t have a teaching license, but knew how to teach English. No one wanted to work in this particular school because it was in a very dangerous neighborhood. I went ahead and applied for the job. The principal hired me with one condition: that I go back to school and get my teaching degree.
Why did you come to the United States?
In 1999, the country had its biggest economic crisis in which it even lost its own currency. We applied for a visa to come to the United States, and finally got one in 2003. We wanted to come here because the economic situation is stable – and my brother had already moved to this country.
What or who inspired you to become a teacher? When I was a child, I used to play with my oldest brother and he would be my teacher. I remember my brother’s book case, and loving all the books that he had on it. But many of the books were above my reading level, so he bought a dictionary for me so that I could understand. I loved to go to school always. My mom would always read to us and tell wonderful things about school. When you grow up in a society seeing that education is a privilege, you go to it and take advantage of it.
Why did you choose to be a Spanish teacher?
I come from a developing country, and I assure you that most of the people there speak a second language. I am grateful to be here at Merrill because they are advocating to have all students learning a second language. In the United States alone, there is something like 38 million people whose primary language is Spanish, so it’s easy to see why it’s important to be able to communicate.
You also emphasize multicultural education?
I think that is the biggest influence I have with my students. Every Friday we have Cultural Friday. In those classes, the kids learn about any culture within the Spanish-speaking world. Recently, for example, the class focused on numbers. We are learning to tell time. The section was called, “Does anyone know what time it is?” We talk about what is time, and we focus on the numbers one to 60 – the numbers you need to know to tell time. In this case, it’s a mixture of science and culture. When you know something in your first language, it is very easy to transfer it to your second language. That’s why it’s important to be fully literate in your first language so that you can learn in your second.
What is your philosophy about teaching?
I think that our students learn more by example and by hands on. Lecturing lasts five minutes, at tops, eight. Students need to do in order to be able to learn. I believe in collaboration and independent work. But there should be a balance. I put a lot of weight on multicultural manners and the social and emotional learning of my students. Our main goal is to create global citizens in world-class schools.
Is teaching in the U.S. different from education in Ecuador?
It is different because in the Latino American culture, the teaching profession is held in higher esteem. For instance, the custom there for when a teacher enters a room is that the students stand up out of respect. When you are a teacher in Ecuador, a teacher is almost like your second mother or father. It’s the culture – it goes back to education is a privilege and should not be taken for granted.
What are the challenges with teaching?
I try my best to meet the needs of my students and match that to my curriculum -- get that balance. Sometimes I feel like I am not doing enough for all of them. My biggest challenge is to always try to meet their needs and apply social and emotional learning, such as empathy. We don’t always know what is going on at home. I ask myself, “What can I do to make a difference for each student, all of whom have specific needs?”