Source: The Miami Herald - Published on May 21, 2007
Engineer-Turned-Teacher Excels With Special-Needs Kids
By James H. Burnett III, The Miami Herald
May 21--It cannot be easy, this artful transformation Rafael Mendiola likes to describe as "shaping young minds," particularly when these nine children are so special, are trying so hard and have so much -- language arts, math, reading, social studies, science -- to learn.
But Mendiola, a small, hyper-energetic man who looks at least a decade younger than his 51 years, is all smiles and soft-spoken patience on this Wednesday morning, reminding 10-year-old Angel to raise his hand before he speaks, peering over the shoulder of 7-year-old Brandon who once had a two-minute attention span but now buries himself deeply into a book, and bestowing a wink and a nod on 9-year-old Marie who struggles with math but reads so well that she has volunteered to help a new student with his alphabet exercises.
At Fienberg/Fisher Elementary School, a pink, 1934 landmark on Miami Beach's Washington Avenue, the walls of Mendiola's classroom are papered with slogans pumping high-five optimism and subliminal affirmation -- I Make Mistakes So I Can Learn. Yes, I do!! I Wipe My Nose. Of course I do! I Put My Things Away. Aren't I great? Every day's soundtrack is a steady chirp of MisterMendiola! MisterMendiola! MisterMendiola! as students who sometimes are hobbled by their emotional problems or learning disabilities show off spelling skills or wait their turns to read aloud from Charles Tiger or Cows in the Kitchen.
In February, Mendiola, a former metallurgical engineer who decided to switch careers and earned his four-year education degree from Miami Dade College in the spring of 2006, was named Miami-Dade Public Schools' Rookie Special Education Teacher by the Miami Chapter of the Council of Exceptional Children. His skill at helping his first- to fifth-grade students integrate spreadsheets and other computer wizardry into their lessons boosted him over the 40 other teachers competing for the prize.
"Rafael was selected for infusing technology into his classroom and making his classroom come alive," says Magda D. Salazar of Miami--Dade Schools' Office of Professional Development. "He had his students create power points, research online and is preparing them for the 21st century by the innovative technological opportunities he provides them. With that, he has allowed his students to move forward."
In October, Mendiola will represent Miami at the Florida Council for Exceptional Children Annual Conference in Fort Lauderdale. "So," Salazar says, "we're cheering him on!"
Mendiola grew up in Veracruz, Mexico. "And, really, when I was younger I was not a very good student," he admits. "I was flunking one year in middle school, and I remember asking the teacher to make a deal with me" -- a better grade for a better performance.
The teacher agreed, and Mendiola, as promised, improved. At 18, he enrolled at the University of Mexico in Mexico City, eventually graduating with a degree in metallurgical engineering.
TEACHING HIMSELF, OTHERS
"I worked for a large manufacturing company in Mexico City, helping improve production processes for stainless steels, high-alloy steels and super alloys," Mendiola says. "Unofficially I taught myself computers -- programming, design. And in the process, I taught my coworkers."
Mendiola says that when he came across colleagues who were struggling to decipher factory manuals and blueprints, he'd organize them into groups and, with his employer's blessing, teach them reading, basic math and basic science. But by 1995, Mendiola was a single father and decided he could give Rafael Jr. a better life if they moved to the United States.
"I admit I had looked for places where I might teach," he says. "and I saw there was a huge need in South Florida for teachers."
But, still not convinced that he should make teaching a formal commitment, Mendiola spent eight years working as an engineer and consultant. He finally enrolled at Miami Dade in 2002.
BACK TO SCHOOL
"Going back to college was difficult," Mendiola says. "My studies were easy, but doing paper work and working full-time while a student, I had forgotten how tiring that was."
Eduardo J. Padron, MDC president, says Mendiola was a perfect fit for the college's teaching division.
"I can't emphasize enough how important it is to have adult students, especially second-career students," Padron says of MDC's education-degree program. " . . . They have so much practical experience, and they have maybe perfected other aspects of life, so that they have wisdom from their prior careers to offer their classmates."
Mendiola interned at Fienberg/Fisher, and -- after graduation and with Rafael Jr. enrolled in computer engineering studies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology -- he accepted principal Olga Figueras' offer of a full-time job.
Figueras says the school was lucky to snag the new teacher.
"He had developed quite a reputation for integrating computer technology into his curriculum," she says. 'It's interesting. I recently offered him a computer lab-type environment for next school year, because of how good he is with technology in education. And he told me, 'No thank you.' He said he's so thrilled to be making a difference with his kids. He wanted to continue working with them."
Mendiola had not worked with exceptional students during his internship. "So at first it was overwhelming," he says. "I spent 80 percent of my time with a single disruptive student. It took a few months, but I figured out that you have to engage every student differently, according to his needs, and you have to make the learning process a group process, so that students who are better at certain skills can help educate their peers."
Today, Brandon, who once could not concentrate on anything for more than minutes, works on math tables for two hours at a time, and Mendiola almost has to pull the boy away from his book for a writing lesson. Brandon blushes and murmurs, "Thank you."
Every lesson is wrapped in a lesson on civility and manners, which is why Joao, 8, offers to help 7-year-old Ana retrieve a book from a high shelf.
"They're not just learning to do specific tasks," Mendiola says. "They're also learning how to treat one another."