The Call to Do More
Marcelo Peralta wanted more than a paycheck. He wanted a purpose.
He found it in an Oregon classroom.
By Sara Kelm
While 25 sixth-graders meander into class, Marcelo Peralta cheerfully greets them in Spanish: “Buenos días, señioritas y señores.” They sleepily answer, “Buenos días, maestro Peralta.”
This is not where Peralta expected to be, even after spending time in his mother’s classroom as a young boy in San Pedro de Jujuy, Argentina. He took a winding path to his career as a teacher, working on his grandfather’s farm and attending a technical high school to become a mechanic technician before studying civil engineering at the Universidad Nacional de Cordoba in Argentina.
Peralta moved to the United States with his wife and two young boys in 1997 to find better job opportunities. He continued his education at the University of Portland, where he became licensed as a civil engineer. He worked in the field for a few years, but eventually felt something lacking in his life.
The money was good, but Peralta felt his job was “cold,” with little human interaction and impact. “I was solving problems, not helping problems,” he says. He saw the Hispanic community lacking role models and felt the call to do something about it. “I woke up one day and said, ‘You know, I want to be a teacher.’”
Peralta researched different Masters of Arts in Teaching programs in the Pacific Northwest, looking for a smaller university where he would be “a person, not a number,” and chose George Fox, which was, as he says, “the best experience of my life.”
The mentorship Peralta received inspires him to be a mentor to his students. Valor Middle School’s student population is from rural Woodburn, Ore., and most of his students’ parents work on farms in the area. Most are also immigrants from Mexico and Central America.
For these students, Valor has a bilingual program, in which half of students’ classes are taught in English, half in Spanish. Peralta teaches in the Spanish program, where he not only teaches in the students’ native tongue but can also “speak the same language” in a cultural sense.
Peralta also teaches an advisory class that includes English-, Spanish- and Russian-speaking students, the latter also a large immigrant population in the area. He laughs when he mentions that he is learning Russian from his students, and proudly rattles off a phrase.
Peralta’s goal for his students – attend a university. He believes all his charges have the aptitude to succeed in higher education, and he’s doing his part to give them the opportunity. He brings professionals into the classroom and makes home visits after school. Peralta also tries to stay in contact with students long after they leave his classroom so he can continue urging them forward.
Peralta does not limit his influence to middle school. He also teaches a class in English and, three nights a week, college algebra at Chemeketa Community College. The extra load means Peralta often works 12-hour days, not to mention the grading that happens at home. But the pride in his voice is evident when he talks about how his teacher’s aide at Chemeketa is one of his former students.
He values the success of his students far more than the salary he makes. “Being a teacher is not something I am doing for the money,” he says. “We are not making a fortune here, but you know, we have another kind of motivation: seeing the kids performing well and going to university.”