GATLINBURG, Tenn. (WATE) — A Sevier County Schools teacher is using her Hispanic background to help parents and their kids whose first language is not English.
Ms. Miriam Alverez works at Pi Beta Phi Elementary School as an English Language Learner (ELL) teacher.
Every morning you’ll be able to find her at the front of the school greeting her kids. She says she does this to connect with her students and to check in with their parents.
Alverez explained, “With the Hispanics, we have them from different countries, like Venezuela. Most of our students are from Honduras, so I feel like I’m serving my country.”
Alvarez moved from her home country of Honduras to Miami when she was in her early 30s after a hurricane devastated her country. She spent several years in Miami with her dad and two sisters before moving to East Tennessee.
“I moved to Tennessee because I used to come on vacations, and it just reminds me so much of Honduras with the mountains and the windy roads, the gravel roads, no internet in some places,” she said with a laugh. “I just fell in love with it.”
In Miami, over half the population speaks a language other than English, which meant that Alvarez didn’t have to learn much English until she moved to Sevier County, Tenn.
“I was cleaning cabins, and cleaning houses, and the first three years just like any other multi-cultural in language culture person, the first three years I didn’t speak because I didn’t feel comfortable,” she said. “People would make fun of me. They still make fun, but I laugh with them now.”
When she had extra time between work hours, she would volunteer at her son’s school.
“I was just helping, cleaning the library or whatever was needed, and then Mr. Bogart gave me the opportunity to start helping in the office when Hispanic parents came because I could understand the English and then I could communicate it in Spanish,” she said. “I had no problem, but I had issues the other way around.”
Helping in the front office led to her becoming a substitute teacher.
She substituted so often, that Alvarez said, “One of the teachers, Ms. Randle said, ‘why don’t you go to school?’ She said, ‘you’re a sub and you’re very smart,’ and I said, ‘I don’t even know how to speak English, I’m not going to write it.’”
At 40 years old, Alvarez started her bachelor’s degree in Spanish. She would then get an English as a Second Language (ESL) endorsement for her to teach elementary school students. She is currently getting her master’s and has plans to get an Education Specialist Degree (ED.S.).
“I graduated Magna Cum Lede from both Walter State and Maryville College and was in five honors societies,” she shared.
“She’s a curtail piece to bridge the gap between our students’ culture and what many of the teachers’ cultures are,” Pi Beta Phi Elementary School Assistant Principal Carrie Williams said. “So, she helps to kind of unite us so that we can provide the best education for all of our students.”
According to Williams, the school’s demographic is over 70% Hispanic with Spanish being many of their first or only language.
Alvarez tells her students and their parents that if she can come to the United States in her early 30s, learn a new language, and continue her education, so, can they.
“I know what they’ve been through,” Alvarez said. “I think that was God’s idea because I’ve been through it all, and I know how they feel. I know that they’re nervous, I know that silent period, I know when somebody makes fun of them, how they look.”
Alvarez also knows it is important to embrace her heritage, so her students and parents feel comfortable embracing theirs too.
“We are Hispanics, and we are Americans,” she said. “So, we are here to create a better future.”
Alvarez’s hard work has not gone unnoticed by her peers: She was awarded Teacher of the Year for Sevier County for the 2020-2021 school year.
Along with teaching Kindergarten ESL, Alvarez is the BETA Sponsor and Family Engagement Chair for her school.