At Witchcraft Heights Elementary School in Salem, elementary school students learning English as a second language (ESL) have a champion in Marta García, ’14G.
“Language isn’t just about communication,” explains the ESL teacher. “It’s also about culture. Food. Identity. When you understand your students’ lives and where they come from—and when you use their native language as a vehicle to learn English and affirm their identities—you foster inclusiveness, respect and a sense of belonging.”
In recognition of García’s approach to cultural responsiveness and inclusion in the classroom, she was named the 2022 Massachusetts Teacher of the Year—a top honor that annually celebrates an educator who exemplifies excellent teaching in the Commonwealth.
García’s efforts extend far beyond teaching English. The Salem State University School of Education alumna also encourages children to be better citizens of the world, prioritizing social and environmental justice in social studies and science units as part of her curriculum planning. Featuring lesson plans on Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg, Pakistani activist and Nobel Prize laureate Malala and other indigenous women around the world fighting for social and climate justice, García’s students explore ways young people can help others when faced with adversity.
“Young people are our future leaders, and they speak truth to power. We must listen to them and provide opportunities for conversation,” she says.
Making the connection
García came to the United States as part of the Visiting Teachers from Spain program in 1990, initially landing in California for seven years before returning to Spain and eventually settling in Salem in 2006.
She started teaching in Salem Public Schools 15 years ago, and later began exploring graduate programs to elevate her skills and contribute even more to her students.
García found that the teaching philosophies espoused by Salem State University’s School of Education most closely matched her own. She explains that Salem State trains teachers to create equitable learning environments for children in public schools—helping educators learn how to design and implement culturally responsive lessons, manage classrooms of diverse learners, respond to students’ needs, and increase equitable access to learning.
“To see what I learned at Salem State translated into practice every day is simply amazing,” she says. “Life is often overwhelming for immigrant parents, who are working essential jobs and long hours to help put food on the table. They simply want teachers to care for and love their children; that’s enough for them. They are incredibly grateful that there are so many professionals in Salem Public Schools doing everything possible to help their child.”
One way she helps her students is by remaining sensitive to their cultural identities, careful not to oversimplify traditions that have great significance to immigrant families. For example, making origami becomes a creative outlet and vehicle for conversation, as her class explores this ancient art of folding paper and what it means to Japanese heritage.
An immigrant parent raising two bilingual daughters—one completing Salem State University’s nursing program—García deeply understands the challenges and opportunities that her students and their families often face. She says that Salem’s diverse and open community has afforded her children experiences that she “could only have dreamed about” before coming to the United States.
But her daughters aren’t the only family members who have thrived. “I came to Salem 15 years ago and now to be recognized as the Massachusetts Teacher of the Year is amazing. As an immigrant and non-native speaker, it says a lot about the Salem community and the state to give me this platform.”
Looking to the future
García plans to use her award to give a voice to those who need one. “I can amplify the voices of my students and my families. They have much to say and share that we, as a society, haven’t been paying attention to,” says García. “The bilingual world isn’t just about teaching language, it’s about anti-racist work and making the world a better place.”
Recently, when Witchcraft Heights Elementary students and teachers lined the hallways for a makeshift parade to celebrate García’s top honor, they gleefully cheered and handed her flowers as she and her family processed through the school after the award ceremony. “I’m so overwhelmed and overjoyed by this experience. And I just want to let my students know that they can accomplish big things in small communities. They have the power to make a difference, no matter what path they take in life.”