By Emily LaForme, Fort Campbell CourierOctober 11, 2019
Vanesa Diaz, fondly called "Ms. Vanesa" by her students, is the Marshall Elementary School English as a second language teacher, where she combines her Puerto Rican heritage with her role in helping her students transition and adapt to the English language.
"I'm originally from San Juan, Puerto Rico," Diaz said. "I've always had a love for children, I originally planned on being a pediatrician. My calling for teaching kept pulling me away from my science studies, and I ended up becoming a teacher. I was so in love with languages that I wanted to offer the opportunity for communication with everyone, so I got into teaching English as a second language."
Growing up learning English in school, she found a passion for speaking the language fluently.
"Teaching ESL gives the opportunity to students to make their lives easier, because it's not easy when you have to be exposed to a new culture and language," Diaz said. "It's a tool, it's an opportunity to give back to fellow human beings. I grew up speaking Spanish, it was my first language. Because it was always my desire to learn a second language, I would put extra effort into it. I used to take the dictionary and go over and over it, if I got stuck on a word, I would look up a synonym for it, which I think is why I have such an extended vocabulary. With my background learning it, I think that is why I'm so empathetic to my students."
She also has taught mathematics, science and social studies through her ESL teaching. After graduating from college, Diaz moved to the States for a period of time to improve her English skills. Later, she returned to Puerto Rico to raise her family, but decided to return to the U.S. to teach after her divorce.
"I attended graduate school at the University of Notre Dame for special education, and I taught in the private sector in Puerto Rico" Diaz said. "I taught special education aid at Fort Buchanan, Puerto Rico, first, and finally I ended up here at Fort Campbell, and I've loved it ever since. For the first two years, I taught Spanish, and when they did away with the program in elementary schools, I was offered the ESL position here at Marshall."
She strives to be creative when communicating with her students, especially if neither student nor teacher can speak the same language at first.
"I have a student who does not speak any of the languages we are familiar with here at the school. She is still starting out, so there is a language barrier and we do encounter tough moments when we try to communicate," Diaz said. "A few of my students who came here a few years ago with zero English speaking abilities, they are also able to help her. They understand what she is going through and they help her with such a great attitude. They are able to make connections."
Despite the language barriers, she gets through to her students slowly but surely.
"I use the phone, pictures, hand gestures, anything to get the communication flowing," Diaz said. "Technology and the computer are excellent tools, I can go from a movie as an example to a game, and a little bit at a time, they learn the language. It requires patience and understanding where their weakness and strengths are and putting them together to help them blossom."
For many students, her classroom becomes a safe place.
"I want my students to feel comfortable. When they come into my classroom I want them to lower their stress because they know it is safe for them to be themselves," she said. "I'm also able to help children learn the cultural differences, like with behavior expectations, because it can be a difference. I have my students from 45 minutes a day to several hours a day, and I also have different specialists, math, reading, so on, who work with them to have those tools."
Seeing her students grow and become comfortable with the English language is a big thrill for Diaz.
"The most rewarding part is getting them to where they are comfortable and happy and working hard," she said. "Most of the time I get a lot of Hispanic kids who come in with zero English. Most of my Hispanic population students are in their second and third years with me, and they are starting to communicate well, writing, reading, they are doing well and not just surviving through it."
Diaz makes sure her students know that it's OK to be different and to have some difficulties. She lets her students know they are still part of the school community and they are working together to help them.
"It can be really hard when you don't understand anything," Diaz said. "One school year is a short time for a student to learn, but we can get some done. The goal at the end of the first year is for them to communicate somewhat comfortably socially, usually by the end of the second or third year is when we see them become comfortable with the language."
She also is proud of her Hispanic heritage and the work she does supporting the Soldiers and their Families.
"I'm a proud U.S. citizen who speaks Spanish," Diaz said. "Puerto Rico is part of the United States, but our Spanish and Puerto Rican culture is so rich that it becomes intrinsic, it's part of me. I want to give my students the same values I have -- having so much love and respect for their culture, but also being a proud U.S. citizen. My class is about embracing who they are and flourishing with new skills and a new language in a country where they need to be good, productive citizens. I always embrace my heritage, that is what makes me successful."
There is a strength in being able to speak multiple languages and being immersed into different cultures, she said.
"I want them to know there is a strength in being bilingual, I don't want them to forget their language, and we can use it and respect it, but I also need them to learn English, too," Diaz said. "We talk about our other languages and cultures, we learn from each other in that way, because it's a part of them and we want to respect our cultures."
Change and growth doesn't happen overnight, but she is happy making one small difference at a time.
Teaching reminds Diaz of the allegory of a person walking along the beach who is throwing starfish that have washed up along the shore back into the ocean, she said. Someone else comes along and asks why this person is putting so much effort into returning the starfish to the ocean because not all can be saved. The person replies, "one that I save is still one saved."
"As a teacher, this is my philosophy," Diaz said. "If I can change the life of one student, if I can make a difference, then it is worth it. Even a small impact is a lot of satisfaction for me."