Everyday Heroes: AFT Early Childhood Education finalist
Marshall School, Hempstead, N.Y.
Hempstead Teaching Assistants Association, Local 4664
Prekindergarten programs run on strong connections, and nobody understands that better—or uses it to better effect—than Maria Alamo. A paraeducator for the past 13 years in the prekindergarten program at Marshall School, Alamo discovered her passion for working with young children when her daughters attended the center and she began working as a parent volunteer. “I just loved the interaction—all the ways that the students learn and discover.” Alamo also made her own discoveries about the dynamics of early childhood education in place at Marshall and other centers across the nation: Many of the children hailed from families who speak English as a second language, a background that frequently made their first days in school seem daunting and overwhelming. Spanish was the language they spoke at home, and Alamo discovered she could usually make them feel at ease—not merely because she spoke the language well but also because “her caring and loving nature has created a sense of family,” her nominator explains. Today, when questions and concerns arise about students at the center for whom English is not their first language, teachers and staff look to Alamo as the “go-to” educator: that warm and attentive adult who can connect with very young learners to get to the core of the matter.
She also has built a strong reputation for extending those connections to the home, communicating on a regular basis with parents and guardians, explaining ways they can take active roles in the education of their children. “Her sensitive nature is like nothing else I have ever witnessed,” her nominator says, and many classroom stories bear out that point. There was the time, for instance, that Alamo was working with a young boy who struggled as he tried to participate in a group engaged in a worksheet task, matching pictures with letters. He was upset, and when Alamo took him aside to find out what was wrong, he said, “I’m not going to school anymore.”. Just come in tomorrow and it will be different, she assured him. The next day, Alamo had arranged letter squares on the floor, and the boy spent a happy and productive morning hopping onto the right letter when Alamo pointed to each word. “Kinesthetic learner,” she says with a chuckle, “that was all it was. He did great after that.” The only way to find these answers is to really listen for the problems, Alamo adds. “You help them feel like they are safe, and after a while they start to open up and are ready to learn.”