Spanish teacher at local school brings gift of language

Barbara Hootman

It was an exciting five-day trip for the Castillo family, traveling from Monterrey, Mexico to Swannanoa.

Two adults and two children packed their car with clothes and headed for the Western North Carolina mountains to allow Claudia Castillo to fulfill her dream of teaching in the United States.

“I have taught every grade level in Mexico from university to kindergarten,” Castillo, a first-grade teacher at W.D. Williams Elementary School, said. “I have been teaching English to Spanish children for the past 11 years. Now I am teaching Spanish to English speaking children.”

Kimberly Ward, principal at Williams, is delighted to have Castillo on her staff.

“Mrs. Castillo is a wonderful asset to our W.D. Williams family,” she said. “She brings the gift of language to our school by providing instruction in two languages to enhance our efforts to better become bilingual, biliterate and multicultural citizens.”

Castillo earned a bachelor and master’s degree in Mexico.

“I was online checking on how to get a visa for my brother and saw a notice from a company about teaching in the United States,” she said. “I dreamed for a long time of coming to the United States to teach. I told my husband, Jonathan, about the notice and he said sure, apply, but don’t expect to get anything.

“I got excited about the possibility, but then feared that it wasn’t for real. I had five schools to reply to my inquiry, and W.D. Williams Elementary was the last school. Within 30 minutes after my interview by Skype, W.D. Williams told me that they wanted me to come and teach.

“My husband was employed with a large cookie company in Monterrey. He said if you want to go and teach in the U.S., we will go. We left our home in Monterrey with a friend living in it, and drove to Swannanoa.”

Castillo has a three-year contract and may return to Mexico at the end of the third year.

“My mother gave us $5,000 out of her savings, and my youngest brother gave us money to make the trip,” Castillo said. “I was able to get a credit card which has been helpful. Every month we send money to Monterrey to pay on our house and car.”

She remembers thinking they would never get out of the state of Texas, but they arrived in Orlando, Florida just in time to celebrate her son’s third birthday.

“We spent about 12 hours at Disney World and then drove another four hours to find less expensive lodging,” Castillo said. “The kids were great on the trip because they thought we were on vacation.”

Castillo said teaching first grade is what she loves to do. She wanted to be a teacher even as a small child.

“When I am at school, I think in English,” she said. “When I am home with my family, I think in Spanish. And if I am angry, I always think in Spanish. I really learned to speak English when I was studying to get the bachelor degree, because everything was taught in English. I had studied English in grade and high school, but only for a couple of hours a week.

“I taught English on the university level for a while and then started to teach high school, which lasted for two years. I went to a kindergarten level when I was pregnant with my daughter. Then I changed to an elementary school where daycare was provided for her. There I became the English coordinator. It was a small school and then added a secondary school. I was the coordinator and a teacher at the same time. I’ve had 11 years of experience teaching English at every level of education.”

Castillo and her family knew little about Swannanoa before they arrived.

“I knew it was surrounded by mountains, and that is about all I knew,” she said. “I really didn’t know what type of clothes to bring for me and my family. Everyone is very kind at W.D Williams, and we love the Swannanoa Valley Christian Ministry, where my husband is studying English every Friday evening. He is also studying English every night of the week somewhere. He is determined to learn English quickly, so he can find a good job. He is good at fixing computers, and he is a really good artist – creating murals in people’s homes.”

The Castillos are used to having two pay checks a month, and now are living on what Claudia makes as a teacher.

“I want to work with the Hispanic community when I am not teaching,” she said. “I can help them. I am here legally and know what they need to also be legal. They want a better way of life, and to live in the United States, work and contribute. I want to give back through helping them.”

Castillo is keeping a journal of her travels to the United States, experiences teaching and living here.

“I want to remember everything,” she said. “We just spent a weekend visiting Martin Luther King’s home, museum and other historic places in Atlanta. He was my mentor, and especially his speech, ‘I have a dream,’ influenced me. I bought a copy of the speech when we were in Atlanta.”

Castillo wants to be a part of the community in which she works and lives.

“I want to get to know people personally and want them to get to know me and my family,” she said. “I want to be at home here. We want to work and do things right. I just want to do my best. I have an opportunity to be here legally, and I want to share that with others.”

Kathy Franklin, a 30-year veteran teacher’s assistant, said Castillo is one of the best teachers she has ever assisted.

“She is very patientand caring with everyone,” she said. “She gets the children to speak Spanish easily. She talks to them in Spanish. Her teaching experience really shows. The kids love her.”