Mayra Daniel considers herself among the fortunate ones.
Born in Cuba, she spent her first 11 years in the Caribbean nation with an extended family that included great-grandparents who’d emigrated from Europe.
“We left to escape the Castro regime. My father left with $5, and my mother, my brother and I followed seven months later,” says Daniel, who joined the NIU College of Education in 2003 and retired in December from the Department of Curriculum and Instruction.
“I was a very lucky immigrant. Because my parents were both educated – my father was a physician, and my mother was a teacher who spoke English – we could make a life in the U.S.,” she adds. “We brought the grandparents and the aunts and uncles to the U.S., and we were the very privileged part of the family because my father could continue his profession in this country. We had what is the key piece for success: an education. We could rebuild our lives.”
That doesn’t mean things were easy.
Relocating to Chicago rather than Miami, Daniel’s father, Martin, first needed to revalidate his credentials to begin work as a general practitioner in his new country. His wife, Irma, helped him prepare to pass his medical board exams in the new language he was working to master.
And when Martin’s wife and children finally arrived, Daniel says, “the hospital administrator took my mother to the Salvation Army, where we bought our furniture. We had very little, and it was before bilingual education came to be. Life was rough for a few years.”
Yet those times would prove formative for Daniel, who eventually would focus her professional career on bilingual/ESL education and the needs of English language learners.
She taught herself English through her love of reading “everything I could get my hands on,” and had a chance to polish those language skills while she worked to learn in English with her classmates at Chicago’s Visitation Catholic School.
“I had finished sixth-grade in Cuba – I also had skipped a grade, so I was kind of young – and sixth-grade there was the equivalent of eighth-grade here,” she says, “so I didn’t learn anything my first year here. I would just sit and read.”
Given that introduction to a U.S. classroom, she adds, “it’s not surprising that I ended up doing what I did, which was working with teachers to teach them how to help multilingual and bilingual children.”
Daniel first studied French – her mother loved the French culture – as she earned a bachelor’s degree in Spanish and French from the State University of Iowa. By the age of 21, Daniel had completed her master’s degree in Spanish Languages and Literatures at Iowa.
At age 22, she began teaching Spanish to middle school students in Galesburg, Ill. Ten years later, the school district asked her to make a larger impact and teach emergent bilinguals.
“I was offered a job where I would drive from one school to another. The town was crisscrossed by railroad tracks, and I had to make sure I would hit the underpasses so that I could get from one school to another and on time,” she says. “When I began to work teaching English as a second language, I had not had any training to do that, so that took me back to college.”
When she was offered a job teaching English to immigrant children from China, Japan, Venezuela and elsewhere, she realized her need for more education and enrolled in an M.S.Ed. program in Interdisciplinary Studies with a Focus on Bilingual Education and ESL at Western Illinois University.
“What was fabulously revealing after I took the courses that qualified me to teach the children in their process of becoming bilingual was that I saw I had the instincts. They were just there. This is what I was meant to do,” she says.
Her own story has much to do with that, of course: “I grew up in an environment where all of my parents’ friends were from somewhere else,” she says, “and being from the U.S. is also being from somewhere else.”
Naturally, it makes her mission a personal one.
“Children deserve, and have the right, to develop their bilingual, bicultural identity. They gain that when they have depth in their knowledge of their culture,” Daniel says.
“They need to be able to read the good literature from their country, to understand the nuances of the politics of their country and to be proud of their parents, regardless of whether they came to the U.S. to escape political persecution or if they came to make a better income to offer their children a better life.”
Education also advances that last parental goal, she says.
“We want children to be able to advocate for themselves. We want them to have high levels of self-esteem,” she says. “The majority culture is changing in the United States, and knowing that their language is as valuable – that their familial norms and customs are as valuable – gives the children a true sense of self.”
After entering higher education as a visiting assistant professor at Western Illinois University, Daniel joined the NIU faculty.
She has taught courses in Bilingual/ESL education, and her grant-funded collaboration with bilingual teachers in Rockford produced a series of workshops for bilingual parents at Nelson School and presentations at state and national conferences.
She served in leadership positions with the International Reading Association and the TESOL International Organization, and received the Jerry Johns Promising Researcher Award from the Association of Literacy Educators and Researchers in 2007.
Working with Terry Borg, director of the college’s Office of External and Global Programs, she helped in her role as coordinator of bilingual programs to launch several cohorts of teachers pursuing school district-financed M.S.Ed. in Literacy Education degrees with ESL/Bilingual specialization.
In 2005, while attending her first international conference in Guatemala, Daniel discovered an additional calling.
“Guatemala is a country of great economic differences in its population, and the schools need resources but have very few,” Daniel says. “I went back that summer to do a study with 775 teachers on how they supported literacy in their country, and I’ve been going to Guatemala a couple of times each year ever since.”
Her research showed her that Guatemalan teachers needed assistance in integrating constructivist philosophies and student-focused instruction in their work.
“The history of Guatemala is such that there are many at a high socioeconomic status but so many at the lower SES level, and the indigenous have suffered for a long time. It’s a society where children are not necessarily listened to, and they’re not asked their opinions,” she says.
“Schools there may have tin roofs so traffic noises interfere with in-classroom communication. They may very small windows, and the air is heavy and polluted. The schools don’t have libraries,” she adds. “But the teachers are just wonderful. They want to learn how to work with the children, and it’s as simple as showing them how they can read storybooks, link them to the children’s lives and help engage them in conversations where they can share their points of view.”
Daniel takes books with her to donate – “picture books that make sense to them; books with characters that look like them; books that can serve well in leading discussions,” she says – and has led teachers in activities to write, publish and distribute their own storybooks.
One of the Guatemalan books she loves was written by teachers with whom she has collaborated. The book equips children with strategies to overcome the anxiety that comes from living in high-crime neighborhoods.
“Children worry, but if they put their worries into a kite and fly the kite, the worry goes away,” she says. “Teachers can empower all children to talk about their feelings, giving them the right of expression and knowing that what they think matters, regardless of their age.”
Visiting Guatemala, where she has “learned as much from the teachers as they have learned from me,” shapes the preparation she has delivered to NIU College of Education students.
And, she says, providing that authentic knowledge is important.
“Our world is changing, and we have to keep improving our schools. Our teachers have more and more diverse students, and our teachers are very interested in knowing how attending school in the U.S. is different for them than going to school where they came from,” she says.
“My work in Guatemala has helped me inform our teachers of how to reach out to children: It is not only about the history and the math. It’s about making mathematics and science instruction congruent with the children’s lives.”
Daniel is confident that she’s made a difference with her NIU graduates who face “a tall order” in the classrooms where they work.
“The diversity that teachers are seeing in our schools now in the United States is making their teaching better – and is making them better people. Their horizons are widening,” she says.
“I hope they’ve learned tolerance. That social justice requires that they care on a daily basis. That it is the child or the adolescent who comes first before what they are being taught. That every student can be successful within the scope of what they’re able to cognitively master.”
Again, it’s personal.
“When I came to the U.S., and nobody taught me English, where was the social justice then?” she asks. “What if I had had special needs? What if I had come from a lousy school system?”
Retirement will bring continued collaboration with NIU colleagues on research along with more trips to Guatemala once it’s safe to resume that travel.
She also is looking forward to time with family. Her husband, George, whom she met in college when she was 18, retired about a decade ago from his career as pharmacist. Daughter Ani is a teacher in the Chicago Public Schools. Son Marty, who is named after Daniel’s father, also lives in Chicago.
As this new chapter begins, Daniel continues to believe in serendipity – “Life takes us where it’s supposed to,” she says – and feels that her parents likely shared that conviction so many decades ago when they fled Cuba.
“My mom and dad had, I guess, faith that I could survive,” she says. “We were in the good ol’ USA, and we were going to make it. We were being welcomed.”