This is what I was born to do
Published: April 27, 2007 | 6083rd good news item since 2003
Wendy Gallegos stands before her class and writes “concer” on the board.
One of her students raises her hand.
“Ms. Gallegos, you should have written ‘concocer’ instead,” she said, referring to the Spanish verb for “to know.”
Gallegos looks at the board, smiles and quickly erases her mistake.
“You see, I have taught you so well, you pick up on my mistakes,” she said with a laugh.
To Gallegos, the scene in her classroom is typical of the children she teaches. They are the bright students of Immokalee Middle School.
To her students, Gallegos is the teacher who they think is most deserving of one of Collier County’s Golden Apple Awards.
Gallegos teaches high school Spanish 1 and 2 to Immokalee Middle School students. But she is quick to dismiss any assumptions one might make about her students.
“The assumption, because the majority of my students are Hispanic, is that they speak Spanish. I have a lot of second-, third- and fourth-generation students who don’t know any Spanish at all,” she said. “And for those who do, sometimes it is harder to unteach any bad language habits.”
It is not easy to be in Gallegos’ class. Students must be in the top of their class and have to pass the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT). They must sign a contract, saying they will be committed to the program for three years, taking Spanish 1 over their sixth- and seventh-grade years, and Spanish 2 in eighth grade. They also must earn a B or higher in the class.
“I become part of their lives for three years. I become part of their families. If they forget their homework, by the end of that period, that child will call home,” she said.
Gallegos said she is willing to go out of her comfort zone to help her children succeed.
“I pay my mortgage in Naples, I sleep in Naples, but this is my home,” she said. “Why shouldn’t I do that?”
Maria Plata, 14, said after a couple of years, Gallegos’ class becomes like home.
“You learn a lot, but there is also some pressure to do well,” she said.
Gallegos’ Spanish class is taught mostly in English in sixth grade. By the time the students are eighth-graders, they are speaking fewer words of English and more of Spanish during the 50-minute classes.
“My goal is to get my kids to say something in Spanish every day,” she said. “I want them to be able to talk to me. That’s why I help them, I praise them, I recognize them when they do good work. And we have fun. The day I stop having fun is the day I am going to consider a different job.”
If a student needs help, Gallegos offers the student a “lifesaver,” which is help from a classmate. The lifesaver gets a piece of candy as a reward.
She also offers a 50-cent question of the day for a student in her class. One of her students asks if the question could be the $1 of the day.
“No, it can’t be a dollar,” she said with a laugh. “Gas prices are up!”
Sixth-grader Cheyenne Green, 12, said Gallegos’ class is anything but boring.
“She’s not like regular teachers,” she said. “She elaborates a lot. She makes sure we learn something. My sister had her, so I was really excited for her to be my teacher, too.”
Gallegos also doesn’t let her students get away with much. She reminds them that, no matter what their circumstances are, there is someone out there who has it worse. Her eighth-grade class sponsors a Colombian girl through the World Vision Program, which is a humanitarian organization dedicated to working with children, families and communities to tackle issues of poverty and injustice.
The students do not get extra credit for their participation in World Vision, nor do they have to participate. Gallegos has the students take home permission slips explaining the financial commitment — $2.50 a month for students — and the parents agree.
“I want to impact my kids in a positive way,” Gallegos said. “I don’t teach a subject. I teach kids. This is what I was born to do.”
Gallegos also knows where the kids are coming from. She grew up in the projects in the Bronx, N.Y. She is the first person in her family to graduate from college, to own her own home, to get her master’s degree. Her husband, Israel, grew up in Immokalee and she has heard about his experiences, leaving school early to go to the fields and pick.
“There was one way out and that was through education. I tell them that no one can take their education away from them. It’s how you break the cycle of poverty,” she said. “I have the authority to tell them that because I have been there.”
Gallegos, 35, met Israel, a physical education teacher at Immokalee High School, while working for the district. The couple have four children: Juan, Lissette, Tony and Ariana. Gallegos proudly says that her children attend Immokalee schools by choice.
“It is in the best interest of my family,” she said.
Gallegos said she is glad that her Golden Apple Award, which is the first for Immokalee Middle School, is bringing attention to Immokalee.
“People need to know good things happen in Immokalee and that good things happen at Immokalee Middle School,” she said. “They need to see we have awesome kids.”