A South American Ambassador for Teaching

Mar 17, 2015

The 2015 Iowa Teacher of the Year is a middle school Spanish teacher from Ecuador, who is on a mission to introduce more multiculturalism into classrooms.

Clemencia Spizzirri is introduced as the 2015 Iowa Teacher of the Year during an assembly at Merrill Middle School in Des Moines.
Credit John Pemble, Iowa Public Radio

Clemencia Spizzirri stands before fellow educators at a luncheon to honor the state’s best teachers and confesses she’s nervous as she and presents herself as the changing face of America.

“As the first Latina and Hispanic to win this prestigious award in the state of Iowa, I’m the living example of how demographics are changing in our country,” she says.

She cites research that indicates within the next 25 years 40 percent of students will speak native languages different from English.  So, during her reign as Iowa’s Teacher of the Year, Spizzirri says she’ll help prepare teachers and students for the classroom changes ahead.

“Teachers may need to be multiculturally responsive, culturally educated, learn about multicultural manners," she says. "Pretty much like etiquette in different cultures, what is acceptable, what is not acceptable.”

Spizzirri will bring her own foreign-born heritage to the task of bridging the gaps among the many cultures. She was raised in Quito, the capital of Ecuador, high in the Andes Mountains in the north of the country.  She says she was privileged to receive a private-school education.  But she saw less fortunate children on the streets selling flowers and candy.

“One of the moments when I realized I wanted to be a teacher was because in my country I saw a lot of poverty," she says. "I saw children who were my age, but they were not attending schools.”

She says her first teaching job was one nobody wanted.

“I started as a teacher when I was 21 years old teaching English as a second language in a community that was very poor and nobody wanted to work there because it was dangerous," Spizzirri says. "That was my first job. I went there.”

Spizzirri came to the U.S. in 2003, landing first in Miami where a brother was living and eventually arriving in Des Moines, where she earned a master’s degree at Drake University. She now teaches Spanish at Merrill Middle School on Des Moines’ west side.  On an unseasonably warm morning, she’s playing word games with her students.

“You’re going to unscramble 10 sentences in Espanol, so you will have un minuto, one minute, to unscramble 10 sentences," she explains to the class. "We’re keeping score on the board."

This class of kids epitomizes the multicultural aspect of the emerging 21st Century Iowa school. They come from multiple ethnic backgrounds. Spizzirri says she admires their spunk.

“Middle school is like the powerhouse of education, because they are in that transition where they don’t know where they belong, adulthood or childhood," she says. "If you can channel that energy in the right direction, I think it’s empowering for both the students and the teachers. I love to teach middle school.”

She says some students respond to her message of multicultural inclusion. Others take a bit of convincing.  But the message she promises to deliver during her tenure as Teacher of the Year is all children deserve a quality education. She tests the theme out before the friendly audience of teaching colleagues at the awards banquet.

“We share the belief that every child can learn regardless of their race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, disability, and social, economic, and cultural background,” Spizzirri tells them.

Clemencia Spizzirri will be given many chances during the next year to grow comfortable with public speaking as she crisscrosses the state as Iowa’s chief ambassador for teaching.