Educator & Leader Inspires Students to Persevere!
“Lead from the heart,” is Dr. Maria V. DeChristofano’s passionate leadership motto. She was born in Salinas, Puerto Rico and raised in the South Bronx.
Growing up in a Spanish speaking household with a strong ethnic culture, Maria brought her Spanish language to school and learned to speak English through the rhythmic sounds of poetry. She remembers how every classroom wall in her primary class, was covered with poetry, art, and inspirational literature. The captivating colorful, bright displays of art and words, and the English sounds that she heard as a youngster were both foreign and intriguing to her. As she faced her first life challenge, she felt lost and alone, and yearned to speak English. Maria was fortunate to find comfort in her teachers who quickly grew fond of her and took her under their wing. Determined to teach her and other Spanish speaking students English, Maria’s teachers labeled everything in the classrooms in both Spanish and English and spoke Spanish words as needed. They used hands-on objects and real-life experiences to teach math and took their students out on frequent field trips to the local parks to learn science in the natural world.
Although school opened up a whole new world for Maria, her home life was a constant battle. Being newcomers to the South Bronx was a struggle for Maria’s young parents. Her father worked two jobs to make ends meet while her mother stayed home in the small two bedroom apartment to raise three young children. Having served in the Korean Conflict and achieving a high school diploma in Puerto Rico, Maria’s father quickly assimilated to American culture. Her mother, on the other hand, had only completed 6th grade, knew nothing about American culture and was reluctant to learn English. As a stay at home mom, she lived in isolation never learning how to speak English. Although, Maria loved and respected her mother, the lack of communication in English, caused a great divide so deep that it fractured the mother / daughter relationship.
During Maria’s middle school years, she faced many of the challenges Hispanic teenagers struggle with today and chose to persevere. She quickly overcame the language barrier by learning to speak English while retaining her native language. In high school, her English language achievement proved to be a blessing when she was accepted into a special college bound- program started by her school. During the program, Maria focused on literature and writing and was inspired to pursue higher education. Maria saw it as a way out of the poverty that was quickly engulfing the South Bronx’s Hispanic community.
During this period, the Bronx was undergoing tremendous change as gangs and drugs filtered their way into the Hispanic community. Drug related crime was everywhere and drug users (tecatos) lined the sidewalks of the neighborhoods that Maria frequented. Maria noticed that even the friendly neighbor who lived in the apartment next door, was a drug dealer. Gun shots and the sounds of screaming fire engines were heard at all hours of the night and day. Sensing the urgency to protect the family, Maria’s parents moved to a three story brownstone on a safer and quieter street in the Bronx. Although, the new place had four bedrooms and was much nicer then the two bedroom apartment that had been their home, Maria felt a constant sense of despair because she could still hear the cries of the fire engines from her bedroom and every day walked past the tecatos on her way home from school. Every day she held her head up high and found the strength to walk passed the tecatos. Likewise, sensing her strength, the tecatos never approached her. She vowed never to become one of them, to rise above the poverty, and to follow her dream of achieving an education.
As strong, Puerto Rican Catholics, Maria’s parents instilled strong values and pride in their daughter. At an early age, her parents shared the importance of pride in one’s culture, respect for others, and like her teachers, the value of a good education. Through their actions, they modeled the nurturing qualities that drive Maria today in both her personal and professional life.
Maria graduated from Thomas Edison State College with a B. S. in 1990; received a Masters in Teaching from William Paterson University in 1993; completed a Specialist Degree from Nova Southeastern University in 2007; and an Educational Doctorate in Educational leadership in 2010. She has been teaching students and teachers since 1993. During her career, she has inspired many students to continue their education, to persevere against life’s challenges and to take pride in their culture. She has also encouraged many teachers to teach through inquiry and to nurture students with their hearts. In the process she has been recognized by Exxon Mobil and New Jersey Bell Atlantic through their Teacher Awards. She has also been recognized as Teacher of the Year, ING Unsung Hero Teacher, Exemplary Science Teacher, and County School Area Award.
Maria is now a teacher leader and an aspiring school principal in Florida where her motto has become, “lead with your heart.”
Maria, to this day, shares fond memories of her teachers in the Bronx with her students who taught her to love learning and to appreciate the natural world.
Latino Alliance is proud to count Dr. DeChristofano as a Champion of Character, and urges Latinos to take heart from her story and example!
Link to Dr. Maria's Blog
Link to Dr. Maria's Website
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