By STEPHEN O'KANE, Staff Writer | Published February 16, 2012
The Spanish class at St. John Neumann School is about much more than learning vocabulary and conjugating verbs. Spanish teacher Elibeth Torres strongly believes that all people belong to the family of God and strives to incorporate this truth into her lessons.
By blending cultural information, educational lessons and religion, Torres shares her Puerto Rican background while teaching youngsters at the Lilburn school how to master a language, all in the context of the Catholic faith.
Each day begins with a recitation of a Bible verse in Spanish, putting the faith of the children first before addressing the practical applications of the Spanish language.
“Here in Spanish class, I’m centering on God 100 percent,” Torres said. “I tell the kids that it’s all about what Jesus has to offer all of us. I think Catholic education is crucial” because we get to incorporate those elements, she said.
A recent classroom lesson focused on preparing empanadas with a third-grade class. The interaction between the students and Torres created a positive learning environment, incorporating a hands-on lesson with language and cultural facts. It also encouraged family interactions as the kids were prompted to take the food home and cook it with their parents.
Family is something that has always been important in Torres’ life, which can be seen through her personal story as well as her classroom environment. Torres initially came to the U.S. in 2002 to visit her uncle in Georgia and was scheduled to take a trip to Canada with her family. However, her uncle told her that he noticed a job opening for a Spanish teacher at a local Catholic school and encouraged her to apply.
“I applied for the job, and it was God’s plan,” she said. Torres canceled her trip to Canada to stay in Georgia and begin teaching at St. John Neumann.
Leaving behind her family and friends in Puerto Rico, Torres took a leap of faith to follow what she felt God was calling her to do. Even though most of her biological family returned to Puerto Rico, Torres found a new family in the staff and students of the Lilburn school.
“I left everything in Puerto Rico,” Torres recalled. “The teachers and staff just welcomed me like I was one of them. They did not just see a new person—they saw another family member. It touched me.”
Being chosen by her peers as teacher of the year at the school was a humbling experience for the young teacher, who continues to thank God for the opportunity she has to share her culture and language with the youth in the archdiocese.
While she is known around the school as one who never seeks attention for herself, Torres said it felt good to be recognized by her peers for the hard work to which she has dedicated herself. She feels blessed to be a part of the St. John Neumann community and looks forward to many more years of educating youngsters.
“It has been a blessing,” said Torres. “The feeling I get every morning waking up, and the feeling that I get to come to this school and know that I have friends that I can trust … is just priceless. It was just meant to be. It was God’s plan.”