They Call Me, Mamá –Teacher of the Year Cordelia Fajardo Shares Why She Earned the Award
“To my first graders whose parents are gone, I tell them that we are their family. Their classmates are more than friends. They are also brothers and sisters. When they hurt I tell them, “You can call me, Mama.” Professor Cordelia Fajardo teaches first graders in Comayagua Honduras. Some of her students’ parents have left to the U.S.
An Interview by Soledad Quartucci
I didn’t choose a career in teaching. It somehow chose me. From a very young age I knew I was meant to guide children. I am 67 years old and I have been teaching for 42 years.
Mi name is Profesora Cordelia Victoria Fajardo. I work in the department of Comayagua in Honduras and I teach in the Escuela Manuel Andara.
I got my start at 23 years old. At the time, I didn’t have a fixed school. So I would travel to villages on teaching assignments getting around in carts, riding donkeys, on horseback and on foot. I started teaching in a small village known as El Sitio. From there, I moved around to various places where I was needed, like Flores, La Via de San Antonio and El Coquito.
First Teaching Experiences
At first, I had many difficulties in the classroom. I didn’t have any experience.
With practice and time, I was able to deepen my knowledge. To get through the hard times, I focused on the children who needed me.
My first students were children living in poor villages; they didn’t have enough to eat, and had almost no clothes.
It was in these villages that I grew a heart for solidarity.
The need was so great, that I quickly forgot about my difficulties and got the courage to do everything I could to help, including asking strangers, coworkers and friends for books, notebooks, and shoes.
Getting others involved in helping, energized me. Working on behalf of my students and their families felt good.
How I Learned To Teach
At my first stable job, I taught all grades from first to sixth grade. When I moved to the city I started working with upper division students.
I learned how to teach by asking questions. In my family all my sisters are teachers. I would ask them. How do I teach this? Since I was expected to teach all grades, this was a big task. My sisters helped me through sketching. They helped me with ideas and my heavenly father illuminated me along the way. I knew I was working with a higher force, because instead of being afraid or tired, I would make it through long challenging days with endless energy.
Each day, I would wake up and fight to learn more and to do better.
A Matriarchy of Teachers & Learning by Doing
Four of my sisters have worked in education. They have all retired. At 67 I’m still going. At our school, children go to school from 7 am to noon. We have two shifts. The second one starts in the afternoon. Our curriculum is varied and includes Spanish, math, social and natural sciences, English, physical education and computing.
For physical education, we have soccer and basketball fields. Girls play both sports.
I studied in Comayagua in the Instituto Inmaculada Concepcion where I learned lots of theories.
After we graduated, I knew that I didn’t know anything. I knew I was a teacher but I had no idea how to apply theories into every day teaching.
Life experience in the classroom inspired me with many methods. But the truth is, I invented my own style of teaching along the way.
Every day and with each different class it was like making a salad. I borrowed, adapted, added and mixed all my methods hoping that they would work.
Working with the older students in the upper divisions I felt so comfortable. I prepared my lessons, I explained things to them and they asked so many great questions. But once I moved to La Sabana, I was told I would be teaching solely first grade.
I said, “What? How am I supposed to teach first graders?”
At first it felt like a down grade. I was very sad. I remember staring at the little faces and feeling lost. How would I teach such young children?
Through asking questions and praying I made it through a tough first year. The wonderful thing is that by the end of that first year, all of my first graders had learned how to read. The school considered this a great success and decided I was perfect for this age group.
This was the start of 20 years of teaching first grade.
Nowadays I teach first, as well as second and third. But in my whole teaching career, my favorite grade has been first grade. I love this grade because children arrive in my class without knowing anything. I get to play a significant role in their lives. I guide them out of the dark into the light.
It is always so rewarding when I run into them later in life and see some of them have made it into doctors, engineers, mechanics, builders. I thank God and I say, Gracias!, because you pushed me to help others.
I was born here. It is a very beautiful and tranquil place. We didn’t use to have as much corruption as our country faces today. Our parents raised us with lots of values. Most of us are children of humble agricultural workers. My father worked in the fields and my mother was a homemaker.
I am so proud and grateful for the parents that god gave me. They were special. The taught us to give back, to teach. They gave us a strong foundation and it led us to find meaningful work.
Comayagua is a very devout place. We celebrate many religious festivals. During Holy Week, lots of tourists come visit us.
Today, very few people work in agriculture. Most work in businesses, factories like soap, juice and tomato paste factories. We export vegetables, cheeses and butter to the United States.
Comayagua is a flat valley. It is surrounded by mountains. About 150,000 people live here. It’s grown quite a bit. Many people have crossed over to our home. People seek work, and get around in bicycle, motor taxis and some cars.
Unfortunately, we suffer from unemployment and that’s why so many locals emigrate.
We Raise Our Children to be Street Smart
The authorities look after the children, as do the parents. Mothers and fathers drop off children and pick them up. We also advise them not to go with strangers and to keep their eyes open and to be careful. We want each one of them safe. If one is hurting, we all hurt. This past year, a stepfather killed his stepson and our school community suffered horribly. We love our students as if they were our own children.
My Homemade Pedagogy
I have been lucky to have been able to be a working woman my whole life. I now have the honor of teaching in Comayagua’s biggest school. We are fortunate to have internet, water and light. We also have plumbing. We do have some crimes and gang problems, but not a lot.
I have taught them to count by playing hopscotch, skipping rocks on the river, and jumping over running water. To teach them a love of reading, I have invented stories, and to build vocabulary I have emphasized the stories behind the words that hold a lot of meaning to us; important words like love, the sky, Maria and Dios.
It’s all About Reading, Writing, Storytelling and Vocabulary
Regarding our student body, some of our children are local and others come from marginal areas and arrive by bus. Many of my students love math and others love Spanish and reading.
Our biggest effort with first graders is to teach them to read and develop a love of reading. We want them to write without errors and to write neatly. We also emphasize reading with intonation and reading comprehension. First graders love reading time and writing on the board.
One of their favorite activities is questions and answers. They love that. They are naturally curious. They get so happy when we go outside. We usually take them outside for story time because we find that nature is a great source of inspiration for storytelling.
The Meaning Behind Teaching Vocabulary
Part of the reason we focus strongly on developing vocabulary is because many of our children are extremely shy and dislike talking. Some of these children come from single parent homes or live with grandparents because both parents have left to the United States.
These children suffer. Their parents send them money from the U.S. but what they need is love and guidance. They need that desperately.
We know our students’ particular situations very well. We know who these children are, and we do everything we can to give them the love and support that they need. Because these children can often act out, I pray for patience. Every morning I wake up and I pray: Lord, give me patience and give me endless love to reach the children who need me. Give me more love so I can pour it onto them.
I make time to talk to the children who are hurting because their parents are gone. I tell them that I love them dearly. I hug them. I remind them that their parents love them, too. I speak with love and I listen to them.
It may take them a little while, but once they open up, trust begins to grow and we are better able to help them. Children in the first grade are innocent and look up to their teachers as if they were angels. They tell us everything.
“My mama and papa they got in a fight today;” “We didn’t eat today;” “I only brought water for my snack, prof, my mom doesn’t have money.”
They feel safe at school and so they share all the little details of daily life that help us understand them better.
I Make Home Visits
In my years of experience I have found that to really serve my students well, I must understand their world. On the weekends, I visit my students in their homes and try to get to know their parents. I take taxis to get around. I don’t have a car.
The visits help me to understand my students’ living conditions and also the families’ needs. Life in the Marginal Areas of Comayagua can be a very difficult life. If you stop by and visit these families at lunch time, and ask them why they are not cooking, they’ll tell you, “I don’t have anything to cook or to eat.”
If I don’t catch them at home, I also get to know the parents when they come to school to enroll their children. Like their sons and daughters, many of the parents are eager to find compassion and resources. Most, tell us about their difficulties.
I have found that integrated families tend to have healthier children and more food. Their children behave better. In the classroom, when the little ones start fighting, throwing things and saying unkind words, we can tell that they are suffering and that there are problems at home.
To my first graders whose parents are gone, I tell them that we are their family. Their classmates are more than friends. They are also brothers and sisters. When they hurt I tell them, “You can call me, mamá.”
I visit not only my new students but also my professional, older students. To me, they are family. When they are home, they invite me to eat; they visit me. I have a group of students who attend the university, and some who live and work in the U.S. When they return to Honduras for visits, they get together with all of their school friends and they invite me to dinner. We have such a great time.
Horizontes Al Futuro—Horizons, Looking to the Future
On Wednesdays, after teaching first graders, I work with an organization called, Horizontes al Futuro that rehabilitates street youth. We have children as young as 6 years old, all the way up to eighteen-year olds. The director is Gregorio Alonzo Garcia, originally from Spain. Below, Garcia with his students in Horizontes.
At Horizontes I am a member of the directive committee and I also teach catechism. We always try to incorporate fun activities. To help support the program, we cook, sell food and sell raffle tickets.
The children, and teens who stay here are not orphans. They have families, but they are children who have gotten involved in drugs. They’ve stolen, and gotten in trouble. The police picks them up from the streets and then they call Gregorio, and he picks them up.
The children live in Horizontes during the week. Under don Gregorio’s leadership, they get an education, receive clothes, food, and job training. It costs the families nothing. If they get sick, they get medicine, too. On Friday afternoon, we take them to their homes, and on Sundays at 5pm we pick them up and take them back to Horizontes. We meet with the parents and we try to connect the families with resources.
Gregorio is greatly loved by Comayaguans, and especially by the young men who stay in Horizontes. He sets such a big example. Here he is, from Spain doing things for Hondurans that Hondurans don’t even do. Why aren’t we doing more for our own youth?
The children that stay in Horizontes love Gregorio. They call him, papá.
Horizontes receives help from churches in Spain and also from the Base de Palmerola, a Honduran base that houses U.S. troops in Comayagua. We have gringo godparents in the base that help Gregorio help the children.
In addition to our great director, the center also has teachers, homework assistants and workshop leaders. While in Horizontes, they learn computers, sewing and other trades. The focus is on rehabilitation, reintegration and learning marketable skills. We currently have 45 young men between 7 years old and 18 years old.
The gringos from the base, Base Aerea de Parmerola are retired and they are charitable and a big help. But most of our support comes from Spain. On the Dia de los Ninios, the day of the children, a national holiday, the Americans invite the children from Horizontes to the base. They throw a party for them, buy presents and food, and they also celebrate Mother’s Day. The children’s mothers get presents, too.
Sometimes, with all the help we get from Spain, and from the base, we still don’t have enough. That’s when we head to the streets to ask people to help us. We ask our families, our coworkers and our friends. People donate what they can, everything from money to work contributions. Some people send us monthly donations.
I even ask my fellow teachers,
“Do you want to godparent one of my kids?”
Our School is Beautiful
All of us teachers contribute to its upkeep. The parents and students help us, too. We are currently trying to expand our bathrooms. The school is big but we don’t have enough of them. We also lack in school books and desks. The government does not help us.
Fortunately, we have an amazing mayor, Carlos Miranda, who is dedicated to helping us.
Everything you see in our school we have bought ourselves. Even the boards. They parents have done their part to help us, when possible. We buy all the desks, we paint the classrooms, and we even installed the floors. They used to be made of mud, now they are made of ceramics. It gets really hot in the summer, and dirt gets into our classrooms. To help with this we’ve installed new windows.
Our mayor, Mr. Miranda, is really dedicated to helping us. He helped us finish the gym. We had done as much as we could and he stepped in. Since our school is close to a busy street, our mayor helped us build a different entry way so that the parents and students could come in and leave the school safely.
He also helped us fix five rotting roofs and walls that needed repairs.
I have a student who is disabled and used to sleep in a cardboard bed. I asked the mayor for a little bed and he gave it to me. This is the kind of mayor that we have.
Adolescence, Love and Advice
We cannot openly teach a class about sexuality. But we have our own ways of guiding our young. It is important that we counsel them in sexuality, because they fall in love so young and parents won’t talk to them about their bodies or about pregnancy.
When our children go outside to the playground, we always watch them. Out sixth graders fall in love so easily. So we talk to them, especially when they come to us with questions. We believe in teaching them that their bodies are sacred, but we also believe in providing them with real information.
Last year, one of our sixth graders got pregnant. Now, her mother raises both her and her daughter. It is important that we talk to our young about sexuality, how the body works and about pregnancy. The consequences for not doing so have so many ramifications for everyone in the family.
At our school, when it comes to advice, we have to tread carefully. Not all parents want us to discuss sex, or feel comfortable with talks of pills and condoms. But if the children come to me, and ask, I advise them to the best of my ability.
They call me, Mamá , Grandma and Auntie
Many of our students come to school hungry. They tell me, “I just didn’t bring my snack, prof, can I borrow yours?” We try to bring humor to difficult situations. Laughter helps us all to cope. I tell them, “and when are you paying me back? When I’m a little old lady, you’ll help support me,” we joke.
It makes me so happy to know that they feel comfortable asking me for food or anything they need.
I Feel So Loved
My students love me deeply, and I love them right back.
They say the cutest things. They hug me.
I know no greater joy than when I open the big school door and I see those little faces waiting for me.
“Good Morning, Prof;” they give me the biggest hugs. “You look so beautiful today.” “What a lovely dress!” “I like your necklace.”
When we have parent-teacher conferences, the mothers tell me that their children ask them to change their style to look like me, “dress more like my prof,” “mama, you should wear your hair like my prof.” “Mama, why don’t you put on make-up?”
I love them as if they were my own. I don’t allow anyone to harm them, or hit them. Last year, there was a first grader who wanted to stay in our school, but we were full. Two students were not able to enroll. I cried for those children. They had to go to another school, but I stayed in touch with them and their families. If they don’t understand the homework, I help them. Sometimes, teachers are harsh and lose their patience. I pray for patience. They need me to be loving and immensely patient.
I Tell them, Fight for Your Life, Fight for Your Children.
I have a young student who has serious anger problems. I have talked with his mother but she doesn’t want to accept help. I have told her about psychologists we have in Horizontes. I have offered to pick him up, take him to counseling and bring him home. She doesn’t want me to. The father smokes drugs at home. He is also a wife beater.
Defend yourself, I tell her. Fight for your life and for your son. Leave.
Sometimes, I even go to the grandmothers to enlist their help in helping my little students. After I have tried it all, I also pray.
I Was a Single Mother, and I Made It
I am a mother. I raised my son as a single parent with the most loving support of my parents.
I have been blessed with a wonderful son. My parents helped me every step of the way. I have also been very fortunate to have beautiful life-long friends. My close friends and my family were fundamental in my life.
I was raised to survive, to work and to serve. My father always told me,
”You will work. It is a sad sight to have single mothers beg for the daily bread.” I listened to my father and set out to work. I got pregnant at 21 years old. When my son turned five, my parents helped babysit him while I went to work.
If I made mistakes in my youth, they were due to ignorance. My parents tried to protect me. By not talking to me about the body, about pregnancy and sexual relations, they felt they were sheltering me from harm. These issues were taboo then, and for some families, they continue to be so, today.
My parents did the best they could for us. I grew up with a very tight knit family, always there to help me along the way. Today we all live close by. My granddaughter graduated in industrial psychology. My four sisters live on the same block.
Words for My Students
Keep charging forward! Use school to prepare yourself for life.
I have visited my students in jail. Some, I have lost to bullets. I have had to bury some of my students. I don’t want this fate for my little ones. I want them off the streets. I want them to see themselves as the future leaders of Honduras.
They deserve to be in universities, in great jobs, working in trades of their choice. Perhaps one of them could become our next president of Honduras. We hope he will be honest, a person of high integrity with a deep love for our country and its people.
We will be long gone, but my little students, they will inherit Honduras and its welfare.
I am a Mother of Many-One biological son, and the rest, hundreds of them, well, they could almost be!
I have thousands of children. So many have passed through my life. And they call me, Mama. I am now teaching the children of my first groups of students. When we get together we laugh, I tell them, “here comes my whole generation of students.” I get rewarded every day with so much love.
When they nominated me for teacher of the year, I told the supervisor—who happened to have been one of my students—”Ruben, I am not licensed. We have lots of licensed professors. I’m not one of them.” He told me, “Yes, you are competing with many but what I look for in teaching excellence is experience and a dedicated teacher who has accomplished impossible things throughout her career. I cannot think of a better candidate than you.”
I still cannot believe I was awarded such an amazing prize. Last year, on September 17th 2015, on our celebrated, “Day of the Teacher,” I was named Teacher of the year in Comayagua. I also received 2 medals, and a computer.
I submitted my paperwork to start my retirement in 2014. I have not receive the okay yet. In the meantime there is just so much work to be done. When the time comes to leave, I will walk home with my head held high and my heart filled with love and unforgettable experiences. I have been a teacher a mother, to thousands of children!