By Shawn Annarelli
One reason is that Franco de Gomez, known as Señora to Penn State New Kensington students, didn’t readily try to learn all of the English language in her first few years in the United States.
“To be honest, I didn’t take it that seriously, because I thought I would only be there for a little bit,” Franco de Gomez said.
Franco de Gomez never imagined their move to the United States from Mexico would be a permanent one.
“When we came here my husband was studying for his PhD at the University of Arizona,” Franco de Gomez said. “That was the only goal we had, to get his PhD and go back to Mexico.”
However, the economy in Mexico had gone from deteriorating to being in a state of crisis when Gomez-Calderon earned his doctorate. With three children and limited employment opportunities in Mexico, the two decided to remain in the United States.
“My husband applied at several universities, and we decided to come here,” Franco de Gomez said. “It seems that Penn State in general, they knew exactly about the process that they would have to follow with us for us to be working here legally.”
Gomez-Calderon began instructing mathematics to New Kensington students in 1986. Franco de Gomez, despite having a Bachelor’s in Mathematics, began taking two classes per semester at the University of Pittsburgh to earn her Masters in Latin American Literature to teach Spanish.
“I was teaching mathematics for about four years in Mexico,” Franco de Gomez said. “When we came to Arizona I wanted to teach, but I wasn’t comfortable teaching in English. I wanted to teach in Spanish, so the only choice I had was to teach Spanish.”
Franco de Gomez’s own challenges with learning English have enabled her to put herself in her students’ shoes as they learn Spanish.
“English is a second language for me, and having to learn another language is really a big challenge for me,” Franco de Gomez said. “I know my accent is something that will never disappear. I really understand the difficulties to learn another language.”
Franco de Gomez began teaching Spanish to New Kensington students in 1995.
“One reason I went back to school was because I missed teaching a lot,” Franco de Gomez said.
However, Franco de Gomez has occasionally faced language barriers in the classroom.
“When I have to teach the culture classes it’s a big challenge for me,” Franco de Gomez said. “Students who have had me before follow me more easily, so when I have to teach these classes that are only in English it’s a big challenge. It’s hard to prepare my classes without any language barriers.”
Still, Franco de Gomez has learned to communicate in ways to take those barriers down.
“The expressions of students, for me, are important,” Franco de Gomez said. “I learned to read the expressions of students when they understand something or when they are confused. I can see the students’ facial expressions, and that will tell me to stop or keep going.”
Franco de Gomez’s students have also taken note of her ability to communicate ideas and lessons to the class.
“I think that her strong accent can be a little difficult at first, but by mid-semester everyone’s pretty comfortable with it,” said Shanna Williams.
Franco de Gomez’s liveliness in the classroom also keeps students engaged.
“She does whatever she can to get the students to get involved,” Williams said. “I took every class I possibly could take with her, and when I ran out classes I could take with her I kind of was upset about that.”
Franco de Gomez’s colleagues have also taken notice of her concern for her student’s ability to communicate across language barriers.
“She is so concerned that her students succeed,” said Senior Instructor of Biology Dr. Deborah Sillman. “She’s always thinking about ways to make the classes more interesting and fun for the students, but at the same time that they gain the skills that they need. She’s the kind of teacher everybody should want to be or have as a student.”
However, there will be a sad ending for students like Williams, because Franco de Gomez will retire within the next 13 months.
“I would like to spend more time with my family and my kids with more flexibility,” Franco de Gomez said. “Another thing I would like to do, I know that the Hispanic community in Pittsburgh is pretty big, and I would like to help. I don’t know the problems that they would have, but I would try to get more involved to try to help the community.”
That doesn’t necessarily mean she will leave the classroom altogether.
“I have plans to take some classes, probably at the University of Pittsburgh,” Franco de Gomez said. “I can take one or two classes a semester. I don’t know what I’ll do, but at least I will be in a classroom. There’s always something to learn.”