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Back Where She Started

By Carrie Ann Perez

January 7 2005
Copyright © 2005 SO FL SUN SENTINEL. All rights reserved.

Katiria Mateo of Lantana has known she wanted to be a teacher since fourth grade.

Now 23, Mateo teaches second grade at Rolling Green Elementary School in Boynton Beach, the same elementary school she attended and where she shed her struggles to learn English.She works with the woman who inspired her to become a teacher: Pat Shuler, her fourth-grade teacher, who tutored her in English and reading.

"She helped me, and I knew I wanted to do that same thing. I wanted to help other people," Mateo said.

Mateo's family moved to Connecticut from Puerto Rico when she was 2. At 3, she started in a Head Start program, where she learned some English, but spoke only Spanish at home. Then she attended a bilingual school, where half the day was in English and half in Spanish.

Halfway through her third-grade year, her father, sick of the cold New England winters, moved his family to South Florida.

She finished third grade at Poinciana Elementary School in Boynton Beach. Because she was still struggling with her English, both speaking and reading, the teachers recommended summer school.

She attended summer school at Rolling Green Elementary, where she met Shuler, who was her fourth-grade teacher and tutored her in English. Mateo remembers being embarrassed to speak English because she pronounced English words with a Spanish accent.

"I was so worried about my pronunciation, but I was also having a problem with my comprehension. I wasn't paying attention to what I was reading, I was only paying attention to how it sounded when I said it," Mateo said.

Shuler worked with her on her comprehension.

"Mrs. Shuler sat me in the front of the classroom. I felt like I had all her attention. If I sat in the back, I would lose focus," Mateo said.

Mateo remembers Shuler as being very encouraging.

"The kids thought she was strict, but I understood she was just trying to control the class so we could learn," Mateo said.

Shuler, who has been teaching at Rolling Green since 1976, remembers the summer she tutored Mateo.

"I noticed she was a struggling student. She hadn't been in this country very long, and we needed to work on her English," Shuler said. "She went on and did really well."

After Shuler's class, Mateo started to earn good grades. Once the grades showed up on her report card, they were all the motivation she needed to continue going.

She soared at Congress Middle School in Boynton Beach and Santaluces High School in Lantana, graduating from high school with a 3.96 grade-point average.

While she was in high school, she started working with a child-care program, where she helped tutor younger students. "I thought, `Wow. I really like this as a job,'" she said.

Mateo also knew if she earned good grades, she would qualify for scholarships, which was the only way she could afford to go to college. She earned several and attended Palm Beach Community College before enrolling in Florida Atlantic University's early childhood education program. While at FAU, she kept in touch with Shuler, asking to do student teaching assignments with her.

She graduated from FAU in Boca Raton with a 3.8 grade-point average.

She got married to her husband, Juan, and had a son in college, but that didn't deter her career goals. Her parents, Martin and Maria Maldonado of Lantana, help take care of her son Anthony, 4.

"I was going to keep going and finish college," she said. "If you're determined to do something, you just do it."

She graduated from FAU in May and sent out a bunch of applications. Finally, toward the end of summer, she learned about an opening for an interim position at Rolling Green Elementary.

"I really wanted to work here because it was my home school," she said.

She interviewed with Principal Gay Voss, who offered her the position.

"She never lost sight of her dream to become a teacher," Voss said. "It definitely sends a message. Just because some of the children don't speak English doesn't mean they are not smart. She's definitely a role model to the Hispanic girls."

Mateo said the first day of classes was memorable. "I walked up to Mrs. Shuler and said, `I'm here.' We were both so excited," Mateo said.

Shuler said she has had former students come back to Rolling Green to visit, but her influence on Mateo is something rare.

"It's great to have children become a teacher," Shuler said. "I get goose bumps when I think about it."

Mateo would like to get her master's degree in education and wants to learn sign language. She said she hopes her interim position leads to a permanent spot at Rolling Green.

"I accomplished my goal, something I wanted to do when I was little," she said. "I feel like I'm at home here."


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