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Paula Da Silva-Michelin 2011 ESL Teacher of the Year
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Posted: Fri Jun 10, 2011 03:19 PM

Tue Jun 07, 2011
One reason Paula Da Silva-Michelin is such a good teacher is that she once had a very bad one.

It could also be that she had a very good one - her father, Candido Da Silva, who was once director of the Economics Department at Pontificia Universidade Catolica de Campinas, the university in her hometown of Capinas, Brazil.

"My father always said if you want something, you have to work for it," Da Silva-Michelin said. "When I told him I wanted to take an English class, he said find one you can afford."

But the teacher who had almost as much influence on Da Silva-Michelin's career was not very good at all. A college professor, he berated his students endlessly, in effect showing Da Silva-Michelin exactly how she did not want to teach.

"I remember sitting in class and him going on and on about how you guys are never going to learn.

"It is not right to come to the classroom and tell a student you need to know this, because maybe they already know," she said. "You can't be condescending to adults, that's not really fair. Many of them found the courage to pick up their bags and come to this country. That means a lot."

Da Silva-Michelin took both examples of teaching to heart and blended them with her personal experiences since coming to New York for the first time in 1991. She took them to the classroom, specifically the English as a Second Language classes she has taught at LaGuardia Community College since 2002.

It has turned out to be a winning combination. In March, Da Silva-Michelin was named the 2011 English for Speakers of Other Languages Teacher of the Year by the New York Times.

"I like the idea of teaching immigrants in particular," she said. "I like the idea of showing them that if I can learn, you can learn, too. That attitude makes it easier, because a lot of students come in and say English is so hard, it's so difficult. You just help them overcome that idea, because if they don't have a mastery of English, it's very hard to live here."

This tale is made richer by the detail that even though Da Silva-Michelin always wanted to teach English, the language did not come easy to her.

"I had a hard time mastering the language," she said.

Da Silva-Michelin was sitting in the condescending professor's class when she and best friend, Claudia Vilares, decided, while passing notes back and forth, that they would come to the United States to learn English.


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