Soehl Middle School Spanish teacher Eliana Peñaranda has been included among “Teachers Who Make Magic” by radio station Magic 98.3 and the New Jersey Education Association for efforts as promoting unity among staff and students. 

teacher in class with students

Eliana Peñaranda teaching Spanish to students at Soehl Middle School.

By Gary Miller

As a Spanish teacher at Soehl Middle School, Eliana Peñaranda takes her role far beyond classroom lessons on language. She is an ambassador for English Language Learners and their families, making sure they know they have a voice in their education. She is also a vocal proponent of embracing the cultural diversity of the school and the district.

And at times, she is a mother figure to her students.

“What I focus on is how to be good citizens, how to be good people. It’s about teaching them tolerance,” she said of her role as adviser to the Diversity Club. “We’re all different, and we need to appreciate that. Once you understand why people do what they do in their culture, or why they behave certain ways, you appreciate it.”

It was because of these and other efforts that Peñaranda was named as one of the “Teachers Who Make Magic” by the radio station Magic 98.3 and the New Jersey Education Association. She was surprised that she was chosen for the honor, after being nominated by colleague Michael D’Amato, a social studies teacher at Soehl.

“I don’t see what I do as extraordinary,” she said. “I just think, ‘That’s my job, to treat the kids like they’re my own kids.’ ”

The honor was not a surprise to those who see her work with the students each day.

“Ms. Peñaranda is an amazing teacher who is truly deserving of this award,” said Principal Richard Molinaro. “She continues to make magic each and every day at Soehl Middle School.”

Peñaranda moved to the United States from Colombia in 2001 and started at Soehl in 2005. She has master’s degrees in Spanish language and culture, as well as instructional technology, and is certified as an Apple Teacher.

She pushes students in the Diversity Club to excel by making it clear that she has high expectations of them, and that they have to be leaders in the school.

“I tell them, ‘You are role models,’” she said. “I am very strict with them. I tell them, ‘This is my house, and in my house you’re going to behave.’ If you get detention, you’re going to be suspended from the club. You’re not going to make me look bad!

“The kids say, ‘You’re like my mother!’ And I say, ‘Yeah! That’s what I’m here for. Not just to teach you Spanish, to help you be a better person.’”

two photos of teacher working with students individually

Eliana Peñaranda working with Emily Amaya and Tyler Nguyen during class.

A big project for the group is an annual diversity conference at Kean University with other middle and high schools that are part of the university’s diversity council. It’s a day of workshops about bullying, stereotyping, standing up for others.

“It’s something that empowers the kids,” Peñaranda said. “The kids look forward to going there. Some of the kids have never been to a college campus. They get mixed with other kids, so I tell them, ‘You’re not just representing yourself, you are representing Soehl Middle School.’”

One drawback is that conference is limited to 20 students per school, which limits the size of the Diversity Club at Soehl, because Peñaranda  doesn’t “have the heart” to leave anyone behind. But the good news is that the Soehl students take what they learned at the Kean conference in November, and will use it for a schoolwide diversity conference of their own in April.

“I tell them, ‘This is your training. You’re going to come back and do the conference here at Soehl,’” she said. “They are the leaders. They run the conference, and we invite students from every class. We tell the teachers to send down two students who are leaders or potential leaders in their classroom to this conference. Then the Diversity Club runs the conference: They pick a video, the pick their topics, they do small-group activities.”

Superintendent Danny A. Robertozzi praised Peñaranda for being honored among the “Teachers Who Make Magic” and for all she does to promote an atmosphere of inclusiveness.

“Diversity is an incredible strength for our district, and it’s vital for our teachers to promote and embrace that ideal,” he said. “Ms. Peñaranda has done a wonderful job at creating a family atmosphere at Soehl and throughout the district among students and staff from all backgrounds. Congratulations to her on this well-deserved honor!”

Peñaranda, along with fellow Spanish teacher Barbara Cepeda, also started a Spanish Club, which is in its second year. Everyone is welcome and there is no requirement that members speak or study Spanish.

“Whoever loves Spanish culture or wants to learn about Spanish culture is welcome,” she said.

teacher working at laptop on desk

Eliana Peñaranda is certified as an Apple Teacher and holds a master's degree in instructional technology.

Also in their second year are the district’s classes to teach staff members how to speak Spanish. The classes came about because of a change in how world language classes are being taught. The adult classes were meant as a way of giving the Spanish teachers some practice at the new methods, while also giving any staff member who is interested the chance to learn conversational Spanish.

Peñaranda is one of those teaching her colleagues.

“They love it and they’re learning,” she said. “It’s a lot of preparation, but it’s good to see them using it. I bring those success stories to my students at Soehl. I tell them, ‘Guys, if my adults are learning, you can do it!’

“I love my adult class. And I love my kids, too!”

One of the added benefits is that staff members who can speak Spanish can help families who speak Spanish, which Peñaranda sees as critical to bringing the district together as one family. She relayed a story of one staff member who, after taking the Spanish classes, was able to help Spanish-speaking families register their children for school.

“I am an immigrant and I have family members who don’t speak English very well,” she said. “And I feel bad when I see the parents and they don’t know English. So I tell them, ‘You have a voice!’ And I tell the kids all the time, ‘You’re the voice of your parents. You’re the voice of your culture.’

“Unfortunately we live by stereotypes, and I tell them, ‘People don’t just see you as you, they see you as that Spanish kid.’ But if ‘that Spanish kid’ is shining, then we are all shining! Then we see how the diversity of Linden makes the school a better place.”