Pedro Carrion doesn’t have a lot of decorations on his classroom wall next to his desk, but one of them sticks out the most — a banner that says “Believe in yourself.”
“In my opinion, that’s the most important thing that I can teach a child,” Carrion said about being an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher at Union Elementary School.
He was recently honored as one of the top educators for Sampson County School’s 2018-2019 Teacher of the Year (TOY). The other finalists were Michelle Smoak of Sampson Early College High School and Amy Tart of Union Intermediate, who earned the TOY title.
“I’m very happy — not for me, but for my school,” he said. “I want to tell all the teachers here at Union Elementary School, that I was glad to be chosen as one of the three finalists. People need to know about schools like this and what they do for the children.”
He’s one of the few male teachers in the building. As a Latino educator, Carrion expressed how it’s important to build bridges between teachers and Spanish-speaking students who have different cultures.
“I think that’s very important because this country is made up of many cultures and many people,” Carrion said. “We have people who can represent each of those cultures and races very well.”
Carrion added that he wants to help ESL students be heard and be a voice for them if they’re misunderstood because of their language or culture. During the school year, he worked with kindergarten and third-grade students. His overall experience as a teacher also includes middle and high schools. Prior to Sampson County, he taught Spanish in Warsaw.
“I have learned a language myself, so in a way, that allows me to empathize with my students,” he said about coming from a Spanish-speaking country. “But I always tell my students that there will be times when you’ll have to face adversity.”
Carrion was born in Panama and was raised in a family with six children. His father made money by working as a tailor, while his mother was a housewife.
“My life is very similar to some of the students that we have here at Union,” Carrion said about his ESL students. “There was a lot of things that I didn’t have while growing up in my country.”
While growing up in Central America, Carrion was inspired by some of his teachers. One of them was a foreign language teacher who taught English.
“He was an athlete, he played sports and he was a cool guy,” Carrion said about Mr. Jackson. “But at the same time, he was a teacher. I just wanted to be like him.”
Later in life, he earned a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Panama. After teaching for 10 years and being selected to represent his county during a national conference in Japan, he arrived in the United States to teach ESL. He came to the country after his wife, Geovana, was selected to teach through the Visiting International Faculty (VIF) program.
Carrion continued his education by earning a master’s in Teaching English to Speakers of other Languages (TESOL) from Greensboro College. He’s been teaching in the United States for 18 years and stayed in the country with a visa. Along with his wife and son, Gabriel, the family became American citizens about five months ago. Gabriel went to Sampson Community College and is now attending North Carolina State University.
Carrion said he was thankful for Sampson County Schools for giving him an opportunity to become a citizen of the U.S. and being next to his third-grade teachers.
“I respect them and I admire them,” he said while referring to teachers being underpaid. “For me, they are the real heroes.”
Carrion added that he admires the residents of Sampson County, but he would like to see more ESL students embraced. According to his research, Sampson County is one of the top areas with students learning English. Carrion would like to see dual immersion programs where two languages are used in a variety of topics such as math and science.
“If you do the research and you check the wealthy counties, like Wake County, Chapel Hill and places like that, they are implementing a lot of dual language immersion programs in the big cities,” he said. “In the rural areas, we’re not doing that.”
In the future, Carrion may consider pursuing a master’s degree in school administration. He believes it’s important for students to see a teacher’s desire for continuous learning.
“They have to see that, so they’ll want to be learning too,” he said about setting an example.
For Carrion, education has played a major part of his success during his life.
“Education has been my lottery ticket,” he said.