Elizabeth Gonzales,United States
"What I like to do is teach but I spend most of my time making the peace"
Amidst the burnt-down buildings and smoky factories in the Bronx, the poorest area of New York and one of the poorest in the United States, 25-year-old Elizabeth Gonzalez teaches 6-year-olds at the Claremont Community School.
Elizabeth's pupils had never
seen a skyscraper until
a school outing
Elizabeth became a teacher "to give something back, because I feel I have been given a lot. Originally, I wanted to go to Mexico, my father's country, but with my two languages, I can be more useful here, where almost half the pupils are Latin Americans." The other half are Afro Americans.
Parents and children see Elizabeth as a "a kind of bridge with linguistic resources. One mother asked me for advice because her husband beats her." she says. "Because of a family row, one of my pupils hid for three days in a shelter, missing out on school."
Widespread unemployment and single mothers on welfare characterize this community. Although Elizabeth finds teaching in this context hard, it is, she thinks, infinitely more rewarding than in a more affluent school. "Here I have to deal with a wider range of situations."
Keeping the peace is one of them and a major part of her work is teaching the children values usually learnt at home. The fights and outbursts of anger of these 6-year-olds constantly surprise her. "What I want to do is teach but, if a child disrupts the class, I have to stop and make the peace. I insist that they respect each other." she adds. A favourite lesson is cookery. "Once a day, we cook and then share out what we have prepared. Some children get angry because they haven't been given the best portion, so we discuss how to take turns."
An outing to Staten Island, half an hour's drive away, was a memorable event for the young pupils. Though they live in New York, it was the first time that they had seen its skyscrapers and also their first time on a boat. "They said it was like TV coming to life," adds Elizabeth.
To help her in her work with slow pupils, Elizabeth has taken on extra studies to explore ways of awakening intelligence. She explains: "A little boy in my class simply didn't speak. I knew he loved building blocks so I got the pupils to play with blocks in groups and to talk about what they were doing. The vocabulary the boy picked up gave him confidence. He now participates in class."
Elizabeth is not worried about the low social status of the profession. "In this country your position in society depends on how much you earn," comments Elizabeth. "I earn a small salary, but go home feeling that I have touched these children."