Photography by Jehadu Abshiro.

When Maria Viera-Williams was a child in Massachusetts, her mother would make little dolls from chickpeas, napkins and toothpicks. Sitting in a circle on the living room floor with her twin sister and four other siblings, she listened to stories of her family’s life in Puerto Rico before Viera-Williams turned 5.

Today, she teaches reading and writing to English-language learners at Lake Highlands High School. Many are immigrants from distant countries fighting to acquire enough English to graduate and land jobs. Others aspire to earn advanced college degrees or serve in the military. Viera-Williams encourages each of them to value their culture and cherish their childhood memories.

“My father joined the army in Puerto Rico when I was 5,” Viera-Williams says. “I didn’t speak English, and my sister and I would listen to people talk and imitate their speech patterns and the way they moved their hands.” 

She noticed that English speakers sometimes spit when they spoke, and the differences she observed between English and her native Spanish led her to acquire a master’s degree in linguistics.

“Right from the beginning, I wanted to be a teacher,” she says. “In the third grade I wanted to help other children in my class learn Spanish and English.” 

Sometimes Viera-Williams’ family lived on Army bases where their dad was stationed, but often they lived in communities with immigrants from places like Greece, Italy, Russia, China, Japan and Cuba. She recalls parents coming to class to read legends from their countries, and she noticed every teacher who worked to make immigrant children feel welcome.

At LHHS, many international students credit Viera-Williams for inspiring them to maintain their native language and culture. She encourages them to wear native dress to school and to retain their early languages, which contain pathways to learning English. She also encourages students to fully integrate into campus life by participating in sports, clubs and extracurricular activities.

Viera-Williams serves on Richardson ISD’s Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Committee, and says that only about 30% of district students are white, while about 70% of faculty is white. At LHHS, about 500 of 3,000 students are English-language learners, hailing from 40 countries and speaking 73 languages.

Earlier this year, Viera-Williams was named International Educator of the Year by the National Junior World Affairs Council, and in April her LHHS chapter of JWAC earned the Most Active Chapter in DFW title for the third year in a row.As founder and senior co-sponsor, she’s brought dozens of speakers and programs to the students and helped them learn lessons about the big, wide world.

“The kids tell me coming to JWAC has made their minds become more plastic,” Viera-Williams says. “It stretches open to learn about other cultures and questions – questions they didn’t even know to ask. They’re painting with more colors than ever before.”