The Daytona Beach News-Journal | by Cassidy Alexander | January 30, 2021
Manuel Collazos is 11 years old now, but he can remember the first day he came to Spirit Elementary. He didn’t speak any English. He was overwhelmed and afraid he wouldn’t be able to make any friends. He was crying.
But then someone called Nitza Morales-Torres to the front office. She is a teacher at the school who works specifically with students who are learning English.
She went to class with Manuel, translated what his teacher was saying for him and began teaching him how to start a conversation in English.
“If it wasn’t because of her, I wouldn’t be talking with my friends — I wouldn’t even be able to make friends,” said Manuel, who is now in middle school.
Not all of Morales-Torres’ students are like Manuel. Many come in already knowing English, but need extra help with reading and comprehension. She works with small groups all throughout the week. Most of her students are in third grade, which is regarded as a pivotal year for students learning to read.
But that’s not the main reason she’s The News-Journal’s Amazing Teacher for the month of January: It’s because of how tirelessly Morales-Torres works to support families who don’t speak English or understand the school system. She stays at the school for hours after the last bell, gives parents her personal cell phone number and is always available to help translate or to offer whatever kind of support they need.
“She’s relentless but compassionate,” said Spirit Elementary Principal Carrie Devaney. “She will go every mile for every kid.”
Morales-Torres moved to the U.S. from Puerto Rico in the 1990s, and knows how difficult it can be to navigate the education system in the U.S. She had to do it for her own children, and for herself when she decided to go into teaching. She eventually decided to go back to Puerto Rico to finish her degree before beginning teaching in Volusia County Schools.
Being able to help families like hers is important to Morales-Torres. She has a masters degree now, and is one of several ESOL teachers (which stands for English for Speakers of Other Languages) at the Deltona school where more than half of the students are in the ESOL program.
“I understand the pressure, the differences we have in these systems. First they don’t have the language, then they don’t understand the system — they are lost,” she said. “I love the way that we can connect with the parents.”
For Dalia Marrero, a mom with two children who go to Spirit Elementary, Morales has made a big difference in their lives.
“She is always willing to help us and sometimes she even tells me you can call my personal number after school,” Marrero said. “(She says) ‘I can help you, don’t worry Dalia.’”
In a typical year, Morales-Torres offers classes for parents at nights to help them navigate the education system and learn English. She hosts two worship nights a year for them. And she organizes a multicultural day, complete with food, dancing and singing, that brings hundreds of families out on a Saturday.
Things are a little different this year thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only are those things not happening, but much of Morales-Torres’ 2020 was devoted to helping parents understand and navigate online learning — not just how to work with their students, but how to access the programs, how to communicate with the teachers.
“Nobody was prepared for that,” she said.
Especially in the first semester, she was worried that her students weren’t making as much academic progress as they needed to. But now, most of her students have returned to in-person learning, in line with district efforts to reduce the number of students learning remotely.
So she’s back to working with a few kids at a time, all wearing masks. She takes them to an empty classroom and starts methodically working through a passage, asking them what different words mean, helping them make connections to their own lives.
“Remember, we need to be like detectives,” she tells them. “Look for the words.”
Morales-Torres said that in addition to making sure her students can read and speak English, her biggest goal is making sure they know that being bilingual is a gift.
“I say to them that first they need to be proud they speak two languages,” she said. “Most of the time I say, ‘I’m here to teach you English. But I also want you to keep your language.’”
That’s how Manuel feels, after spending time with Morales. And he had a message for other students at the school who may be struggling:
“If there’s a kid in Spirit that doesn’t know how to speak English or that they’re having trouble speaking English, she’s the right teacher.”