Compassion is language of education award-winner

Compassion is language of education award-winner

KATHY MANIATES is one educator whose work goes far beyond her classroom.

An English as a second language coordinator and Urbana Adult Education teacher, Maniates is also part of a new program that helps non-native adults prepare for and pass their citizenship exams.

That's one of the reasons she'll be recognized with the education award at tonight's YWCA-sponsored Women's Achievement Celebration in Champaign.

Staff writer Tim Mitchell sat down with the 56-year-old California native for a conversation about her remarkable life and her work.

You've been an educator in Champaign-Urbana since 2002. Is this what you wanted to do when you were a little girl growing up?

Actually, I wanted to be a newscaster. I am white, and I grew up in a neighborhood in East San Jose, Calif., with all poor Latino people. I was one of five white folks in my school.

I grew up hearing birthday songs in Spanish and seeing pinatas at parties. I knew my neighbors were really great people. When I went to college at UC Berkeley, I started studying psychology and started working in some leadership training programs for high school students. I went to UCLA for grad school to get my teaching credential.

Who inspired you to become a teacher?

My public speaking teacher in high school, Patricia Aboud. I grew up in a poor neighborhood, and she took kids under her wing that she thought had potential to tour UC Berkeley and to get them going to college. It didn't matter if you were black or white or whatever. If you didn't have parents who were going to help you take the SAT and all that, you weren't going to college.

She took me under her wing and showed me Berkeley and we applied. When I think back of a role model and the kind of teacher I think I am and why students like me, it is because I know about their lives. I don't see what goes on in the classroom as separate from their lives.

She got involved in my life and got me into college. At 35, Patricia Aboud got breast cancer, and at 40 she had a brain tumor. She had the worst luck of any woman in the world, but her positive attitude kept coming back. Twenty-five years later, the cancer got her, with many of her former students around her.

Tell us about your first teaching job.

I taught in California in an area around Watsonville, which is where all your artichokes and strawberries come from. It is a migrant community.

After I got my teaching credential in bilingual education, I worked in a farm community, teaching fourth grade. Not all of my students were from families of migrant workers, but a lot of them followed the crops. It was a great place for me to get my Spanish better. I wasn't nervous on my first day teaching because I was young and not smart enough to know I should have been nervous.

My Spanish was not good enough. If you had a teacher come in and have the level of English to teach your kid that I had the level of Spanish of, it would have hit the fan. But you can put somebody who is kinda halfway bilingual in there and they can teach them better than nothing. At least there are some books in Spanish. I learned enough to know they deserved 100 percent fully fluid bilingual teachers.

And that is why I am now an ESL teacher, which is a different beast. I work using my bag of tricks and some background knowledge in Spanish to teach people with 19 different languages in my class.

What led you to Urbana Adult Education?

We moved here because my husband (University of Illinois Professor Paul Selvin) got a job in physics. I started looking around for jobs as my kids got a little bit older. I wanted a part-time position.

I taught for a year at Leal in bilingual ed, and I realized I'm too old and not a good disciplinarian. I didn't want to spend my days saying, 'Please sit down, por favor!' I decided to check out adults. And there happened to be a job listing for four hours a week at night.

How many students do you currently teach?

I have three classes, with 15 in each. We have people as young as 21. And last year, I had an 89-year-old man in my class.

You see these relationships between people, like a father figure helping a kid. In our classes, we have a big range of education backgrounds. We have a Ph.D. from Turkey learning English along with a Guatemalan who has had three years of education his whole life. And they could be in the same class. You may have a Ph.D., and you may have left school at third grade, but here in Urbana we are all equal. That's a really powerful thing. I feel a lot of the messages we give here aren't just about English.

Does it take a lot of courage for an adult to sign up for adult education?

It does, especially people who have just arrived here from another country. They got their house together, somebody in their family has a job, and they realize they are never going to get to the profession that they had in their other country. Many of these people are lawyers, accountants.

At this school, we really do stress that we are a family, and we will bend over backwards to support people. Because it is terrifying to come back. We do so many activities to build relationships.

For example, at the beginning of many of our classes, we have the second activity be bringing in photos of your families. Or bring them in on your phone. Or if you don't have photos, we have them draw because they left everything at home.

We teach them some language, but as people are rotating around showing their families to each other, there is a very powerful thing that happens. I may be terrified, they think, but they realize that you and me are the same. You have a family that you love madly. I do, too.

Also, we use a lot of volunteers so people can work in small groups. That is another way we try to take away the fear. All of our lessons involve talking to each other. We encourage them to use their native language to help each other be on the same page.

Part of the reason for your award is because of the work you do outside the classroom. Can you talk about that?

My students all have my text home phone number. I tell them: 'If you are ever in trouble, let me know.' Recently, somebody needed a ride up to Chicago because their child was in the hospital.

I hire people to work at my house who I know just got here and are really short on money. I helped somebody get a CPR certificate on the computer at my house. I have taken people to practice driving in my car so they can get a driver's license.

The reason I can do this isn't because I am any more great than anybody else. Because I only work part-time, I have this extra time. I am motivated to do that because the Latinos in my neighborhood who, when my dad was a drunk and my mom divorced him, we had just moved into a house. She had no college degree. It was my Latino neighbors that were at our porch, bringing food and baby-sitting my sister after school.

I feel what I do now is a little bit of payback for what these kind people did for us.

Are the majority of your students Latino?

It used to be. Now, we probably have 30 percent Congolese and maybe 20 percent Latino. If you look at our class, you will see mostly dark skin.

Do you know Congolese at all?

That's interesting. I checked out what was their main language, and they speak French. I didn't know that.

That's why I love this job. Now that I know Congolese speak French, I know that, if they are confused I can say something in Spanish. Spanish and French are very similar.

Do you have any students who are learning English out of love for a spouse or boyfriend or girlfriend?

Yes, it happened more and more. We had a guy from Afghanistan/Pakistan who came here as a Ph.D. student in nutrition. His wife had no last name. Women in their country have a first name but no last name.

He brought her in to take a test. She started to take this test with pictures and words but didn't say a word. Every time I talked to her, she would defer to him. I came to find out later that she actually did know some English. But being with him, it wasn't appropriate for her to show off her skills with him, even though that was the point of it.

She had worked hard and is now in our GED program to get a diploma.

Wonder Women

It's Women's Achievement Celebration night at the I Hotel and Conference Center, where from 6 to 8 p.m., the YWCA will hand out five awards. This year's winners:

— Education: Kathy Maniates, Urbana Adult Education

— Advocacy: Gioconda Guerra Perez, La Casa Cultural Latina

— Social Justice: Junior League of C-U

— STEM: Kathryn Clancy, UI Anthropology

— Business: Common Ground Food Co-op

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