Tell Me Something, Marisel Rivera
Marisel Rivera moved from Brooklyn, N.Y. to Puerto Rico when she was 8 years old. She had visited the island many times to visit her grandparents, but living there was a very different experience.
She was in the third grade and spoke very little Spanish.
“I had been in English-only classes, and my parents moved us back in the middle of the school year,” she says. “My accent was very strong, and they made fun of how I spoke. I had a silent period where I didn’t dare speak.”
After a month, she learned to read very well and understood nearly everything spoken to her. Still, she refused to speak at school for nearly three years.
There were other things she found difficult to adapt to, as well. She loved being close to her grandparents, but she missed her friends. They didn’t have cable, so all the TV channels broadcast in Spanish. She lived in the countryside, not a bustling, energetic city. She even missed McDonald’s, which in her new home was an hour away.
She carried on, graduating from high school and enrolling at the University of Puerto Rico. But in 1989, Hurricane Hugo tore through the island, causing catastrophic damage. She was out of class for almost a month. She decided to move back to New York for a short period, save some money and move back to finish her education.
She did just that—even buying her first car—and earned a degree in elementary education. She also received a master’s degree in teaching English as a second language, but not before she got married and had two daughters.
“How can I tell my daughters to finish school if I haven’t finished?” she said. “I finished the master’s and was working and raising teenagers. It was always something I wanted to do, to give them an example. … I think teachers are eternal learners.”
She first worked in the States in 2007, recruited from Puerto Rico to teach at an elementary school in Dallas, Texas. The Dallas school district offered “more teacher supports, more teaching materials,” she said. “It was funny because one of the questions asked in the interview was how flexible I was in changing classrooms. In Puerto Rico, sometimes you don’t even have your own classroom; you’re always changing. You do more with less. I could teach under a tree.” She taught in Dallas for three years, but her husband missed Puerto Rico, so the family eventually moved back.
She soon got a job in Puerto Rico as a special education teacher. But in September 2017, Hurricane Maria devastated the island. It was the strongest storm to hit Puerto Rico in more than 80 years. Rivera’s family had no power for 66 days, but she considers herself lucky. Others went as long as a year without electricity. Her father-in-law lent them a generator, which allowed them to power the refrigerator for three to four hours at a time.
“I had a little stove so I could make food,” she remembers. “Even now, I think about the sounds of the generator and it upsets me. Even going to a hospital wasn’t safe at that time. Diesel was hard to find. Many people died. It was surreal.”
She started thinking that she wanted to try something else. “It was scary for me,” she said. “I knew that my husband might not come at first. I was having many doubts and thinking about what I wanted for my life. When I got old, would I feel happy with the decision of not accomplishing my dreams? That made it click for me. I didn’t want to spend days worrying about what is happening with the [Puerto Rican] economy, or with our retirement funds, which are not safe.”
She began looking for options to return to working in the States. “I saw a Facebook ad that MCPS was coming to Puerto Rico in January. I had never heard of MCPS, but I did some research and saw it was one of the best systems in Maryland and in the U.S. That motivated me more to apply.” MCPS has been actively recruiting in Puerto Rico as part of a commitment to diversity in hiring.
She was soon notified that two MCPS schools were interested in interviewing her for a job. She had scheduled two interviews—one at 3 p.m. and the second at 4 p.m. The first was to be done over Skype. Because power was spotty, the Internet was slow and part of the interview had to be conducted on the phone.
“We talked and five minutes later, they called back and made me an offer,” she said. “It all happened before the second interview even started!”
Last August, she started work at William Tyler Page Elementary School. She splits her time as coordinator of the Spanish immersion program and as a reading intervention teacher. Page’s total immersion program was relocated from Rolling Terrace Elementary School (where the program was partial immersion).
“We have a mix of students—some were in the partial immersion program at Rolling Terrace and some are new to the program,” Rivera said. “Most are not natural Spanish speakers. You can see such a difference with the kindergarten kids. In August, you have some kids who understand Spanish. Then the kids get all mixed together, and by November, they understand everything you say to them. Many answer you back in English; some use Spanglish.”
Rivera is learning Italian. “It opens doors,” she says of knowing more than one language. “It helps you understand other cultures. It will always give you more opportunities when you get to the workforce.”
The part she loves the most, Rivera says, has been starting a program from scratch. Her supervisor, Françoise Vandenplas, who heads up the World Languages team, has been amazing, as have her team at Page and program school coordinators at Rock Creek Forest and Burnt Mills elementary schools.
“It’s wonderful,” she said. “You want to do the best for your school. There are seven in my group. Just one has worked in Montgomery County. Four of us are from Puerto Rico. The responsibility is wonderful. [I’m] their leader but we’re also creating this program for success together. It’s not about who is the best teacher, but how can we grow and support each other. How can we help these students love the new language they are acquiring.”
It is these times that makes Rivera think about her childhood journey … and to be thankful for it.
“This is something that I’ve really wanted,” she said. It’s an incredible feeling to “do things you didn’t know you could and pushing yourself further than you ever imagined you were capable of. When you have support around you, it gives you more confidence.”
Though she misses her family, Rivera says it helps that they are incredibly supportive. Still in Puerto Rico, her husband and her daughters, now 24 and 19, tell her how proud they are. Her oldest daughter finished a degree in finance and is working. Her youngest is studying chemistry at the University of Puerto Rico.
“Eventually, my husband is going to come. They’ve all visited. We wanted to see how it was, learning the MCPS way, a new culture,” she says. “It’s beautiful here.”
Tell Me More
Hometown: Brooklyn, N.Y.
What is the one thing you couldn’t live without: The ocean
What do you wish for your students: For them to believe in themselves, to push themselves, to know that they are capable to do the things they want to do.
If you could learn to do anything, what would it be: Learn more languages
Favorite TV show: Grey’s Anatomy
Three traits that define you: Persistent, patient, friendly
Reading right now: Encantado de Conocerme (Knowing Myself) by Borja Vilaseca; it’s a self-help book that talks about personalities and how we get along. It has helped me as a leader and finding common good with my team. I also liked reading The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho.
Best place you’ve traveled: When I graduated high school, I did a mission trip that was life changing. It was to the Dominican Republic. We were seeing the simplicity of things. We were having Mass without electricity in the middle of the countryside with these people who have so much faith and friendliness. It makes you realize that life is how you help others, how you value the little things in life, just stopping and appreciating what the day brings to you.
First thing you would buy if you hit the lottery: An around-the-world plane ticket
If you could have dinner with anyone, living or dead, who would it be: Mother Teresa