Claudia Castillo Enlightens American Students with her Passion for Language
Inspiration to teach can come from surprising sources, and the path to becoming an educator can take a variety of forms. For Claudia Castillo, her love for language and pride in her home country led her to become a Spanish Immersion teacher.
After graduating with a degree in Applied Linguistics in her home country Mexico, Castillo quickly realized her passion was in education. “I always dreamed that I would travel around the world teaching English to all the Mexicans that live in each part of the globe,” she says. With that dream in mind, in 2008 she began working in Mexico as an English as a Second Language teacher. Later she would go back to school for a Masters in Education Sciences and even become a teacher coordinator for her school.
Castillo found being a language teacher to be her true calling. “Language for me is the most important tool that a person can use. I strive to teach people language in order to help them to communicate their ideas,” she says. However, she still longed to teach in another country in order to share her Mexican culture with the world. “I’m proud of my country, history, and traditions,” Castillo says. That is when she discovered Educational Partners International (EPI).
Castillo’s journey with EPI in 2015 led her to W.D. Williams Elementary’s dual language program in Swannanoa, North Carolina. As a dual language teacher, she is able to teach her students all school subjects in her native language—Spanish. As a result, the students graduate from the program bilingual and biliterate.
Teaching in the USA provided more opportunities than Castillo originally expected. Not only is she able to teach students of Mexican heritage, but due to the USA’s rich diversity, her students come from a variety of cultural backgrounds. Instead of focusing on the challenges this might bring, Castillo sees it as a chance to empower her students. “I feel it’s my responsibility as a teacher to get to know my students’ background, how they live, where they live, where they are from, and to include different perspectives from different cultures, so they feel accepted, respected, and they feel proud of who they are.” she says.
When she is not busy looking for opportunities to showcase her students’ unique perspectives while also teaching math, science, social studies, art, music, reading, and writing, she is looking for creative ways to introduce her students to her Mexican culture. For Castillo, inspiration came from something all cultures have in common—holidays.
Castillo uses holidays as a vehicle to share her Mexican culture and to give her students the opportunity to compare cultural similarities and differences. She has been able to celebrate Mexican independence day, Latino Christmas, and Dia de los Muertos in her classroom, but one special event for her is Mother’s Day. “Mother’s Day in Mexico is a really big celebration. For us mothers are the base of the family,” she says.
Every May children in Castillo’s class invite their mothers to W.D. WIlliams Elementary to celebrate Mother’s Day the Mexican way. Her students put on a performance in the auditorium that includes Spanish songs and poems, traditional dancing and clothing, and a mariachi band. It never fails to bring tears to the mothers’ eyes to be celebrated by their kids in such a big way.
Another popular event that Castillo annually organizes is Dia de los Muertos. Instead of taking over the auditorium, for this holiday Castillo transforms her classroom into something you might see on the streets of Mexico. She covers the walls in Calaveras (what we commonly call in the USA “sugar skulls”) and creates an offeranda (a commemorative altar) in the center of the classroom. During the event she takes the chance to clarify common misconceptions about the relationship between American Halloween and Dia de Muertos. While Halloween is about candy, pumpkins, and costumes, Dia de los Muertos is about remembering loved ones who have passed on. She uses the day to celebrate her grandparents.
Castillo cherishes these celebrations because they enable her to educate her students beyond the content of a traditional classroom. “They aren’t learning culture from a book, they’re learning culture from a real person,” she says.
During her time at W.D. Williams Elementary, Castillo’s commitment to cultural education has not gone unnoticed, and she’s received several accolades recognizing her exceptional work in the classroom. Her school nominated her for teacher of the year twice during her tenure there. She also received her Global Educator Digital Badge. Developed by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, the honor recognizes teachers who go above and beyond in building competencies in international education, by completing 100 hours of global professional development and completing a capstone project.
As an EPI teacher, Castillo has seen her hopes and passions come to life, and she wishes that others can have the same life-changing experience. “EPI made my dream come true,” she says. “I’m just really happy to be here. I’m really happy to be part of EPI, and I just hope everybody joins us.”