VIF teacher enjoys fourth year exchanging culture at Rock Rest Elementary
Katya Velarde spent more than a decade teaching at a private Catholic school in Lima, Peru, with no intention of leaving. But then a series of events encouraged her to participate in the Visiting International Faculty program. Now Velarde is in her fourth year of teaching kindergarten at Rock Rest Elementary in Monroe.
After 14 years of teaching at the same school in Lima, Velarde began wondering if she would spend her entire career doing the same thing.
“I thought, ‘Do I want to stay here forever and retire?’” Velarde said. “What is out there in the world that I haven’t seen?”
Velarde found out about VIF, a “cultural exchange” program that allows international educators to receive a visa and teach in America, through a fellow teacher at her school. The teacher had spent time teaching in Georgia and encouraged Velarde to apply.
Velarde’s first reaction was fear and uncertainty. The idea of going to a foreign country where she wouldn’t know anybody and would be unfamiliar with the culture was very intimidating. But Velarde visited the VIF webpage and spent time researching the program.
“The more I read, the more I felt like the program was for me,” she said.
After a long application and a series of phone and Skype interviews, Rock Rest Elementary picked up Velarde and hired her to teach kindergarten.
Although Velarde studied at a bilingual school in Peru and already knew English, coming to America was a bit of a culture shock.
Each VIF teacher is given a local advisor, who prepares the teachers for the culture shock they will experience, guides them through the process of finding a place to live and gives them information to help them acquire a driver’s license.
During her first year at Rock Rest, Velarde taught kindergarten in English. However, during her second year at the school, Velarde worked with principal Kristy Thomas to start a bilingual program within the school. Because Rock Rest has a large population of students with a Hispanic background, Thomas asked Velarde to participate in this program and so the Peruvian transplant taught kindergarten in Spanish for her second and third years at the school.
For her fourth year at Rock Rest, Velarde was asked to teach kindergarten in English once more. She is required to teach the entire class in English, even though she said she has some students who speak only Spanish. However, Velarde throws out “hint words” occasionally to help those students know what the lessons are about.
As the class gets deeper into the school year, Velarde sees her Spanish-speaking students beginning to absorb the English language.
“All of my Hispanic students now are speaking in English,” she said. “It helps them to be in the same room with children who speak English, because if they want to communicate, they need to learn the language.”
One of the major differences between the Peruvian and American school systems is the structure of the school year. Because Peru is in the southern hemisphere, its summer months are December, January and February. Instead of spanning over two separate years, such as the 2011-2012 school year, academic years in Peru run within one single year, from March to December.
Like other international schools, the start of the school day in Peru is much later than in Union County, usually around 8:30 or 9 a.m. Because she has to be at Rock Rest by 7 a.m., Velarde often finds herself commuting before the sun rises.
“I find myself driving when it’s dark, and I had never done that before,” she laughed. “It’s still dark, I just can’t believe it’s still dark.”
Velarde sees many of the same subjects taught to the same grade levels in America. However, one major difference in American education is the presence of the workshop model, which teachers are required to use. “I think it’s a wonderful way of teaching,” she said. “I feel like that methodology will be something wonderful to teach my friends (in Peru).”
Ironically, when Velarde was teaching kindergarten in Spanish at Rock Rest, Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Llosa had written one book for children, so Velarde quickly ordered it from Amazon.com and read it to her children.
“I told them about this prize, how important it is in the world, how proud I felt about that,” she said. “Those are things you can’t imagine that you’re going to have the opportunity to share. It was great.”
Velarde strives to give her students a global perspective and encourage them to learn about other countries and cultures. Her class picked Peru as the country to study for National Hispanic Heritage Month. She also keeps a table full of paraphernalia from Peru, such as literature, money, models of vegetables and Peruvian CDs.
“(Having an international teacher) makes (the students) realize that the world is not just where they live, but the world is a bigger place where other cultures and other countries are, and it’s interesting how they can remember that,” she said.