Feature stories

Inspirational ‘maestra’

AP Spanish teacher brings world to her students

Jonathan Fickies

María del Pilar García works with groups of students during her AP Spanish class at Bayside HS.

Jonathan Fickies García’s students work in teams to discuss the day’s topic in Spanish.
Jonathan Fickies Students in García’s AP Spanish class take on complex issues.

The hallways of Bayside HS in Queens are what you’d expect when students are moving between classes: a big, churning mass of teenage energy, with a higher-than-average decibel level. When 34 students file into María del Pilar García’s AP Spanish class, that energy doesn’t disappear. It’s harnessed.

Students immediately take their seats, and at García’s signal, turn their desks inward to form teams of four for group work. García wants the juniors and seniors to think deeply in the language so she asks them to discuss sophisticated topics.

“What is an educational community, and how does it reflect a community’s values?” she asks in Spanish, following up on a homework assignment. The students begin to talk in their groups. And as García roams the room, she eavesdrops on the animated discussions taking place.

Next, the students are discussing in Spanish how to complete the sentence: “We learn best when…” They write their answers on butcher-block paper that they have taped to the walls.

It’s no surprise when several students complete the sentence by citing the importance of a “maestra” or teacher who knows how to teach and connects with the students. García commands their attention — and their respect.

“She’s very engaged with students,” said Jennifer, a 16-year-old junior. “She likes to get everyone involved. She gives a lot of homework, but it helps. It’s AP; it’s going to be harder.”

In recognition of her teaching style that brings Spanish alive for her students, García was named Teacher of the Year, Secondary Level, by the American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese. The association cited the following observation by one of García’s colleagues: “María del Pilar García is a motivator, a self-starter, and a catalyst for positive instructional change.”

“Every lesson should be exciting, motivating and different, where students feel the necessity to attend class,” said García, who teaches the AP class in conjunction with St. John’s University, as well as regular Spanish classes for grades 10–12. “They’re alive in my classroom, and I’m always moving around. There’s no time to get bored. There’s a lot of talking and presentations in front of the class, explaining in Spanish.”

But García also weaves in fun activities: a trip to see performances at the Repertorio Español, a Spanish-language theater, or writing scripts for their own plays in Spanish. She brings the AP students to the St. John’s campus to get a taste of university life. And she takes the AP class abroad each year to learn about and compare other cultures. Not just Spain, where her AP class traveled in 2012, but to Germany, Austria and Switzerland last spring and to Italy and France this coming spring. “The best way to teach globally is to experience other cultures,” she said.

Her approach to teaching is grounded in understanding and valuing diversity. It’s a diversity that can be found in her own classes, where students come from various racial and ethnic groups.

From an early age, García knew she wanted to see the wider world, even as she bore heavy responsibilities at home. She was born in Cali, Colombia, the oldest of eight siblings. Her grandparents and two cousins also lived with them. “My mother used to say I was the pillar of the house, a play on my name Pilar,” she said.

As a student, she loved geography and dreamed of travel. In 9th grade, at the urging of a teacher, she entered — and won — a contest with a 3-D map she’d created of her personal “wonders of the world.” Sites in the United States and New York City figured prominently. When she was 19, she left her home in Colombia to live with an aunt already settled in New York. She picked up English by watching English-language TV and movies. She eventually acquired bachelor’s and master’s degrees in secondary education and Spanish, and a certificate in Caribbean and Latin American studies.

By her own account, it was a journey that started with the encouragement of her 9th-grade teacher in Cali.

“That teacher was my role model,” García said. “I learned how to set my goals and try to accomplish them.”

Now she seeks to inspire her own students to reach new heights.

“I try to lift students up,” she said. “In teaching, you have to encourage students in all things.”

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