Mayra Pelayo, center, pictured in a photo taken in 2019 with a group of Ontario High graduates who were kindergarten students in her classroom. (Submitted photo)

ONTARIO – When Mayra Pelayo left her home in Mexico at age 13, she was a confident, bookish student. 

She was captain of the volleyball and basketball teams and she dreamed of becoming an architect. 

But Pelayo’s life changed overnight when her parents and five siblings moved to Ontario in 1990.

She didn’t speak a word of English. School was suddenly a challenge for the bright teenager. She started working alongside her parents in the fields after school and in the summers and she ached for home.

In high school, as she continued to struggle with the language, Pelayo felt some teachers gave up on her. Some didn’t think she’d graduate.

The experience turned Pelayo toward a different career than she had imagined. 

“I decided I wanted to be a teacher because I didn’t want kids to feel the way I did,” she said. “I wanted to be there when they get here and talk to them in their language and tell them ‘It’s going to be ok.’”

Pelayo has spent nearly 17 years as a kindergarten teacher at Aiken Elementary School. This week, she was named Teacher of the Year for the Malheur region. In all, 15 educators in the state were honored. 

The Ontario School District’s nominating letter noted Pelayo’s ability to reach every one of her students, particularly those who are struggling the most. 

“Part of Mayra's genius is that she holds herself to the same high expectations she has for her beloved students,” according to the letter. “She cares about her students as people and strives to care for and nurture them so they feel safe, loved, and respected, all while giving students structure and building routines so they can be successful learners.”

Her students think she’s pretty great, too. 

“She’s nice and pretty and she smells like flowers,” said one kindergartner. 

“She plays jump rope with us and she says things a lot of times,” said another.

Pelayo said she’s humbled by the award – and grateful for the family and teachers who helped her along the way. She was a little shocked, too. The award is the culmination of years of struggle, but most of all, of determination.

She got her bachelor’s degree in education from Eastern Oregon University, working to overcome her language barrier. She later obtained a master’s degree in reading from Boise State University. 

Throughout her studies, Pelayo never stopped working in the fields. Even though a scholarship paid for her undergraduate degree, she continued as a farmworker to help provide for her parents and younger siblings until she got her first teaching job. 

“It was difficult,” she said. “But I kept going little by little.”

She skipped her own college graduation ceremony, choosing to work that day instead. 

But her struggles didn’t stop when she got her diploma. Pelayo recalls a job interview she had fresh out of school. When it was over, the principal told her she had excellent answers to all the questions, but that he couldn't hire her because her accent was too strong. 

“In that moment I thought, ‘That’s it. I’m never going to get hired because of my accent.’ It brought me down,” Pelayo remembers. 

But she got her break at Aiken Elementary. The school administrators saw her strengths and hired her as a teacher in a dual-language program the school had at the time. 

These days, any time Pelayo has students who walk in on the first day wide-eyed and without knowing the language, she knows what to do. She sees the sense of relief in their little faces when she welcomes them in Spanish and walks over to them to explain a lesson they didn’t understand. 

She sometimes tweaks a lesson to include bilingual songs or words. It’s a teaching moment for all her students, she said. 

“It helps other students understand how the other feels,” she said. 

Pelayo is known by parents and colleagues as a teacher who raises the bar for everyone in the classroom.

“As 5- and 6-year-old students, they are using the correct terminology and academic vocabulary I teach my fourth-grade students,” according to a parent cited in the nominating letter. “My daughter is already writing three- and four-sentence paragraphs as extensions to her assignments and can tell me which is her topic, body, and conclusion sentence.”

Kids are like sponges, said Pelayo, the more you teach them the more they learn.

“I have really high expectations for my kids,” she said. 

Have a news tip? Reporter Yadira Lopez: [email protected] or 541-473-3377

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