Mineola Immigrant Teacher in Running for National Award

In Mineola High School during the 2015-2016 academic year, the success rate in the algebra class  English as a second language (ESL) students was a scant 6 percent.  Learning concepts in school can be difficult, and much more so if you are learning a new language simultaneously. This leads to low success rate among immigrant students, who see their English speaking counterparts pick up lessons rapidly. The administration at the Long Island school wanted to do something to combat this.

In Their Shoes

That May, they hired Karen Gutierrez, 31, to a full-time job teaching math. She seemed like a natural fit for the job; she’s charismatic, she’s naturally empathetic, and she’s been in their shoes. Mrs. Gutierrez crossed into this country from El Salvador at 17 before becoming a legal citizen, and had her own struggles learning the English language while attending high school in a new country.

Her first year teaching the class, the pass rate went up to 50 percent. This year, her second year as a full-time teacher, she is currently looking at an 100 percent success rate.

The reason for the change wasn’t just the new materials she brought to the class. It was her passion and her commitment to student’s learning.

Natural Teacher

After hiring Gutierrez  two years ago, Garry Desire, Instructional Leader for K-12 Math for Mineola School district, only has positive things to say; “What struck me about Mrs. Gutierrez was not that she was an accomplished teacher. It was her willingness to try anything to ask the tough questions in terms of how can I be better.”

Gutierrez says she would do anything for the kids, because at one point in her life, someone cared enough to do the same for her. “My motivation goes back to high school. When I came, I was 17, I did not speak English, not even enough to say hi. I had always liked school but found myself falling behind. I would come home from school and cry because I could not understand a thing. Then there was this teacher, Mr. Georgiadis, who spent the extra time I needed to learn the concepts, and after that it was easy.”

“She shows certain things in not only teaching, but as an individual that you cannot teach. You have it or you don’t. She’s a natural in terms of caring.” says Desire. “Students know when a teacher truly cares. She’s taken strides in her first two years you don’t normally see in teachers until their sixth, eighth year teaching.”  To ensure their learning she has taken extra classes to get her bilingual extension, after completing her bachelors in secondary education at Queens College. “I’m so sad that before I came a lot of my students were not achieving things and they are smart.” says Gutierrez. “It’s just the language.”

Students know when a teacher truly cares.

Had it not been for Mr. Georgiadis spending the extra time, she says she may have never found success. She wants to be that level of person for someone else. “I just want my community to stand out. I want people to say Spanish students are great and they achieve many things. Right now it is not like that. You hear the Spanish population does landscaping, restaurants, housekeeping, babysitting; that’s my friends, that’s my family. I want to change this.” 

Instilling Motivation

Initially, reaching the kids and getting them to want to learn was Mrs. Gutierrez’s major problem. But when the kids saw how committed she was to their education, she says it became contagious, and they were willing to work for her.

She didn’t think that the school week was enough time to teach these kids, so she started coming in on Saturdays, and she started making food to make the environment a little more like a club, and a little less like a classroom.

The principal of Mineola High school, Whitney Smith, says her efforts are working. “She’s a rockstar… a true inspiration.”

If Gutierrez wins the grand prize, her school district wins $5,000, she wins $5,000, and she’ll get to attend the award ceremony in Bermuda. When asked what she’d do with the money, she said “I’ll invest it in my education. I never want to stop learning.”