Laura Barberia often tells her students that being able to speak both Spanish and English is the reason she got to stay in Connecticut and be a teacher.
Originally from Spain, Barberia was recruited by Southern Connecticut State University to play soccer and pursue her education. She said she came to the Nutmeg State with very little knowledge of it, other than it was between New York and Boston on the map.
“I did not know where I was going but I have not regretted it,” she said.
What she discovered was a state teeming with people from all over the Spanish-speaking world making their way in a new and mostly English-speaking one. A world that needed more people like her who could navigate both, especially teachers.
“I was shocked at how many students here speak Spanish,” Barberia said. “I feel like I’m at home when I’m in a classroom where all the kids speak Spanish and I know that it is more meaningful to them that I am a native speaker.”
She said she always knew she wanted to be a teacher even though she was more into sports.
Throughout the years, I had a few teachers who really inspired me to like a subject and that’s the kind of teacher I was inspired to be.
During her first year as a new teacher, the visa that allowed her to stay in the country as a student expired. Barberia learned she either needed to apply for a green card, which is also known as a permanent resident card, or one of the various visas that allow a non-citizen to work and live in the United States. All of these can be difficult to obtain, she said.
Barberia’s colleagues at what was Christopher Columbus Family Academy (now the Family Academy of Multilingual Exploration) in New Haven and the parents of her students rallied around her.
They lobbied the New Haven Board of Education to sponsor her for a permanent resident card, noting the district’s need for bilingual teachers and she said it’s the reason she’s headed into her seventh year as a bilingual teacher in Connecticut.
““The reason why I got it is because the community rallied and supported me and because I'm bilingual,” she said of her green card.
Barberia, now a bilingual first-grade teacher at Thomas Hooker Elementary School in Meriden, said she tells that story to her students to inspire them to be proud of who they are and where they come from.
Her class size in Meriden is smaller but she’s trying to continue to instill that same sense of pride in her new first graders. And one of the ways she wants to do that is by continuing something that she and her students in New Haven created during the ongoing global pandemic.
“It was a really hard time for everybody,” she recalled. “Everybody was teaching through virtual learning and all my kids were at home.”
To motivate and encourage her students, Barberia worked with them to devise a community point system. For every positive thing a student did, whether helping each other or participating in class activities, they would get a point. That point was equal to one dollar.
Barberia solicited donations to help match the points the students accumulated with an equivalent amount of money. She asked the students what they’d like to do with the money, giving them the options of buying toys for recess, or starting a school food pantry for students who might need it.
“One of the girls raised her hand and said ‘Miss, I don’t need any toys, but a lot of kids don’t have food; let’s buy food for the kids who need it,’” she said. “A lot of these kids don’t come from high-income homes. Everyone struggles in their own way. For them to say, ‘I don’t want something for myself, I want to help someone else’ is a big reason why I am a teacher.”
She said teaching her students how to care for each other and help one another is as important to her as teaching them how to skillfully use Spanish and English to navigate the world.
Barberia said being a bilingual teacher can be a struggle because there often is a lack of resources that are actually in Spanish. That means she and her colleagues spend a lot of time translating curriculum written in English for English speakers into Spanish. She said she’s grateful for the supervisors who have fought to provide more resources to bilingual teachers. Despite the struggles, she said she loves being a bilingual teacher.
Although there are days where it feels like a lot of work, it doesn’t feel like a job, because it’s a part of me. The moment the kids walk in my classroom, it’s like, ‘Let’s have fun and just enjoy what we’re doing.’