Teachers' learning experience
 By Lourdes Medrano


Being the best teacher she can to her kindergarten students is so important to Maria Irma Suárez that she left her students and her native Honduras in January for a yearlong study program in Tucson.
It wasn't an easy decision, Suárez said, because it also meant leaving her own four children. The youngest was an infant, the oldest just 6.
But she said her parents encouraged her to take the trip, promising to take good care of their grandchildren while she was gone.
"This is a great opportunity to better prepare myself as a teacher for the benefit of both my students and my children," said Suárez, a 30-year-old single mother.
She is one of 20 visiting teachers, mostly from Central America, participating in the Cooperative Association of States of Scholarships in Tucson.
The University of Arizona hosts the international development and peace program, which is administered through Georgetown University. The program, in its third year, allows participants to teach in various public schools and take courses designed to enhance their skills.
In addition to Honduras, this year's teachers come from Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala and the Dominican Republic.
Today the teachers will perform traditional dances from their countries at a Cinco de Mayo celebration. It starts at 2 p.m. in the cafeteria of Los Amigos Elementary School, 2200 E. Drexel Road.
Project director Elizabeth Arnot-Hopffer said most of the teachers are between the ages of 25 and 45 and come from rural communities. The program, which covers most of the expenses and includes a modest stipend, also pairs the teachers with mentors and host families during their stay. And the teachers go on field trips.
"It's not just an academic program," Arnot-Hopffer said. "There's a lot of personal growth that goes along with it."
She said one of the goals is for teachers to take leadership roles in their communities once they return home.
While in Tucson, the teachers rotate four mornings a week through four elementary schools. Suárez is now at Davis Bilingual Elementary Magnet School, working alongside third-grade teacher Christine Lara.
Lara, a teacher for 27 years, said Suárez and other visiting teachers have been a good addition to her bilingual classroom. "A lot of them are well-prepared to teach in Spanish, so we learn from each other."
Suárez said life in Tucson has been pleasant - and eye-opening. She finds the English language difficult and the city vastly different from her hometown of 10,000 people. Trujillo has no traffic lights, she said, and public buses in Tucson are roomier.
But Suárez said most striking is the abundance of school resources. She has noticed the copy machines, the libraries filled with children's books and the colorful playground equipment. Her school has none of those assets.
"There are so many things I'd like to take back for my students," said Suárez, who has taught for seven years. "I'm definitely getting them books."
Thinking of her students in Trujillo as she meets their counterparts in Tucson, Suárez said she has noticed that kids here seem more outgoing.
"They're a lot more independent than Honduran kids," she said. "They're not afraid to ask questions."
The students already have quizzed her about her age and her family, and Suárez said she didn't mind it at all. "I'm learning from them every day."
One of them, 8-year-old Seanna Portillo, said she wasn't sure where Honduras is, but her opinion of Suárez was clear: "She's cool and nice, and she reads books to us in Spanish."
● Contact reporter Lourdes Medrano at 573-4347 or lmedrano@azstarnet.com.