Colombian educator salutes hardworking teachers

VIF teacher Michele Dyroff enjoys a change of venue, gives props to coworkers’ dedication

by Josh Whitener

WAXHAW – After nine years of teaching at the same private school in Colombia, Michele Dyroff was ready for a change. But the Colombian native had no idea just how much change was in store for her until she arrived at Western Union Elementary.

“I was kind of tired of being in the same place for so long,” Dyroff said. “You never stop being Mrs. Dyroff. You’re Mrs. Dyroff at the supermarket, you’re Mrs. Dyroff at the pool. It was a nice place to be, but it was time to move on.”

Dyroff heard of the Visiting International Faculty program from several fellow teachers who participated in the past. Having visited the U.S. before and enjoyed her stay, Dyroff applied to be a VIF teacher.

Dyroff heard stories about other teachers applying three or four times, only to receive rejection notices again and again. Thankfully for her, the application process went smoothly.

“I would say either I was lucky or blessed, because I know a lot of teachers go through a long process to get hired,” Dyroff said.

Dyroff’s 14 years of teaching experience, coupled with her lifelong familiarity with the English language — she attended a bilingual school and has been speaking English since kindergarten — worked in her favor. After a series of interviews she quickly landed a job at Western Union Elementary.

In August, Dyroff embarked on her first-ever teaching experience in America, bringing her husband, Jorge, two daughters, 4-year-old Luna and 18-year-old Nicole, and 2-year-old son, Camilo, along for the ride. She loves having her family with her to share the adventure and is excited about her children’s learning experience here.

Luna, who knew no English prior to coming here, is now absorbing the language like a sponge.

“You should see how she’s speaking English,” Dyroff said. “She’s going to be fully bilingual.”

Dyroff has proven to be an asset when it comes to intercultural communication. Because she is the only teacher at Western Union fluent in Spanish, Dyroff is often called on to translate during conferences with Spanish-speaking parents.

Dyroff loves being able to share her culture with her students and, in turn, learn new things from them.

“It’s not just me teaching, but it’s me learning from them, too, and I love that,” she said.

One of the things Dyroff admires about American education is the emphasis on reading and the enjoyment students seem to experience through books.

“Back home, I had to force my (students) to read,” she said. “Here, I don’t have to tell them to read. Sometimes I have to say, ‘It’s not reading time! We’re in math!’ They want to grab a book all the time. They are awesome readers.”

Getting used to the daily schedule was challenging. She’s had to learn to manage her lesson time on her own, instead of relying on bells to notify her when a certain subject block is over.

“There were no bells here, so I was late everywhere,” she said. “I was like, ‘I’m still teaching math. Where is the bell?’”

Schools in Colombia give students over an hour for lunch around noon, and teachers never eat with the students. Here, Dyroff accompanies her students each day around 11 a.m. for a 30-minute lunch.

“To me that’s a snack, not lunch,” she joked.

The heavy emphasis on testing and paperwork also threw Dyroff for a loop. In her previous experience, the education system focused on critical thinking and hands-on learning rather than standardized testing.

After coming to the U.S. and seeing the amount of hours teachers are working, the number of teachers and teacher assistants being laid off and the heavy cuts to the education budget, Dyroff is surprised and saddened at the current state of American education.

“Teachers here really work hard,” Dyroff said. “It’s really sad that things aren’t getting better. You know that Colombia is a Third World country. I would say that teachers are doing better there than here. It’s sad for teachers, and I think that something needs to be done for teachers.”

Dyroff, who was given a three-year visa that could possibly be expanded two more years, hopes to remain here as long as she can.

“I think North Carolina is a really nice state for families, for kids to grow,” she said. “There’s a little bit of everything, and I like it.”

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