When you are teaching students a new language, pictures are very important.
Maria Cabrera’s classroom is full of them.
“It’s about teaching them survival. We do pictures, we use a lot of dialog like, ‘My name is...’ or ‘I am in so-and-so’s class,’” said the Sea Gate Elementary English Language Learner teacher, looking around her room. “I love what I do, it’s very rewarding.”
The first pictures that you see walking into Cabrera’s room, however, are photos of Cabrera at Gov. Charlie Crist’s mansion in Tallahassee. There are photos of her holding an award, smiling. In the center of the display of photos is a large check for $1,500.
The photos and check are all reminders that Cabrera is an excellent educator. She is one of three educators across the state who won Gov. Charlie Crist’s annual Excellence in Education Award contest. The award, which is given during Hispanic Heritage Month, is open to all Hispanic, full-time educators at an elementary, middle or high school in Florida. One winner is selected for elementary, middle and high school.
“It’s an honor and a privilege, especially after so many years of doing what I am passionate about,” she said. “And it was very surprising.”
Cabrera, 49, has been the ELL teacher at Sea Gate Elementary School in North Naples for 10 years. She opened the program here, which now has 91 students in kindergarten through fifth grade.
“I just love it here,” she said. “I am just blessed. I know what I need to do and I am given the freedom to do it, be it home visits for my students, whatever I need.”
Cabrera was nominated for the award by Sea Gate exceptional student education teacher Ann Riggs and speech therapist Martha McCaughna. Saying Cabrera was “one of the most valuable resources” at the school and one of the most giving people on staff, Riggs and McCaughna wrote of a teacher who is dedicated not only to her students, but to their families and the school population in general.
“Maria is always looking to promote enrichment for her English for Language Learners (ELL) students. She wants each child to feel pride and awareness for their ethnic background with the hope that their native language, customs and traditions will be continued as they become adults,” Riggs wrote in an e-mail. “Maria communicates to all her students and parents the high educational standards that we believe in for all our Sea Gate families.”
Cabrera said she believes it’s important to celebrate where her students come from. At the back of her room hang hand-drawn flags from Peru, Bolivia, Hairi and other countries. Each flag represents a student or students in her class.
“I want them to be proud of where they come from and I want them to continue that cultural identity. We have Spanish speakers, Creole, Albanian, Vietnamese. It is wonderful to see children from all over the world,” she said. “They often come with good educational backgrounds and are able to transfer their skills quickly and adjust to this new way of life. It is not easy to do, but they are like sponges. They are able to absorb so much.”
Cabrera said she feels an obligation as an elementary school teacher to set high goals for her students at a very young age because she believes high goals will make students successful.
“Every child can learn if they work hard and are motivated. And most ELL students are motivated,” she said.
Cabrera understands more about her students than they might know. She was born in Cuba and immigrated with her family to the United States in the 1960s. She, like 44 percent of Collier County students, grew up in a household where her parents did not speak English.
“This is my purpose,” she said. “It’s why I’m here - to help even the most limited English proficient student succeed, go to college, have a wonderful future.”
Cabrera is also dedicated to the families she helps.
“Maria is constantly sensitive to the needs of our less fortunate ELL families. She scours the Sea Gate Elementary (SGE) donation bins to provide these families with clothing and household items. Even when teachers have needed to contact agencies for health and/or various therapies for our students, Maria has been there to contact parents so that communication could be established between the teacher and organization,” McCaughna wrote in her nomination. “As the child progresses through their elementary school years, Maria encourages parents to complete volunteer forms so that they can remain an active part in their child’s life.”
Sea Gate Elementary School Brian Castellani said Cabrera’s award is a celebration of the school’s ELL program and her dedication to her job.
“She is an expert on English Language Learners. .. She is an outstanding advocate for our families as well. She helps them with materials. She follows up with all of her students, even after they leave the school, to make sure they are successful,” he said. “She helps all of our teachers and they all feel a part of it. It is a great award and she has worked so hard for it.”