By Megan Gilmore
On the last day of school, Giovanni Peña ’05 wistfully packed away decorations and school supplies. They will remain in storage for a year or longer.
He examined his favorite picture books and gifts from colleagues and students (his #1 Teacher mug and “Where the Wild Things Are” plush toys), debating over what he could take with him and what he would leave behind.
He rolled up rugs and stacked furniture against the wall. Some of his students broke away from watching a movie in an adjoining room to help tidy up, reflecting sadly on the bare room.
On his way home later that day, a block away from school, the reality of his decision struck Peña. He would not be returning to his classroom in September.
An admired and award-winning teacher at Oyster-Adams Bilingual School in Washington, D.C., Peña spent the last two of his three years with the same students. Parents had requested that Peña move up with his second graders to teach them in third grade also.
The relationships that Peña developed with students, parents, and faculty are what made his decision most difficult. Peña resolved to fulfill his longtime desire to travel abroad and, with the administration’s support, he is taking a leave of absence to teach elementary social studies and science in Barcelona, Spain.
Because his parents emigrated from the Dominican Republic, Peña, who grew up in Vineland, N.J., has wanted to live in a Spanish-speaking country, fostering a deeper connection with his heritage.
Not only is he looking forward to immersing himself in his parents’ native language, he’s also anxious to learn about different teaching approaches and the education system in Barcelona. He predicts that school there will be similar to Oyster-Adams, meaning the students have been immersed in both English and Spanish. Peña taught in English at Oyster-Adams, and will do so in Spain.
Peña grew up in a bilingual home, but he didn’t really have a chance to speak Spanish outside of his home. Because of this, he appreciates even more the opportunity and advantages that a bilingual school can provide for students.
“A huge benefit of working at a bilingual school is that we get different approaches to teaching,” Peña says, “because generally all the Spanish teachers are native Spanish speakers from other countries.”
Since students, based on where they reside, are assigned to D.C. public schools, some families move closer to Oyster-Adams so that their children may attend. Parents find value in their children attending bilingual school, especially in a city as diverse as the nation’s capital.
“I think especially here in D.C., [the Spanish language] is something that the students experience daily,” he says. “A lot of parents work abroad or have some kind of political position where their children already have been immersed in Spanish.”
His first co-teacher at the D.C. elementary school, Spanish teacher Nora Bustios, serves as his greatest teaching inspiration.
“She is from Latin America, and her teaching philosophy is completely based on nurturing students, fostering their creativity, and making them aware of each other and their feelings,” Peña says. “She puts this before academics. It completely shifted my mindset.”
Reflecting on what he learned from Nora, he focuses on getting to know each student personally, even attending birthday parties and recitals outside of school.
Peña received a 2011 Agnes Meyer Outstanding Teacher Award that recognizes excellence in teaching and dedication to improving education in the Washington metropolitan area. At Oyster-Adams, he served as a student council advisor, was a member of the curriculum team, organized social events and hosted fundraisers.
Peña earned a bachelor’s degree in education from Cabrini in 2005. Prior to teaching at Oyster-Adams, he taught in charter schools in D.C. and Philadelphia. He currently is finishing coursework toward a master’s degree in English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL), and a certificate in Teaching English for Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), both from American University.
As Peña reflected on his favorite memories at Oyster-Adams, he remembered his first day there. More than 50 staff members participated in a warm-up exercise, sharing their backgrounds and little-known facts about themselves. He felt excited to be around such an eclectic group, and was hopeful about what might be in store for him.
On the last day of school, with his colleagues’ compliments and farewells still reeling through his mind, Peña realized that this day, too, will earn a spot on his list of favorite memories.
“I’ve worked with amazing people who have taught for many years, so when they told me that I have taught them something, I was humbled,” he says.