This Colorado bilingual educator left school in fifth grade. Now she is passionate about helping students learn.

First graders at Paris Elementary in Aurora use toys and light pointers to help focus while reading individually.
The Colorado Association for Bilingual Education recognized a para-educator this year after more than 20 years working with young students in Aurora schools. (Yesenia Robles / Chalkbeat)

Leer en español.

Guillermina McLean loves working with her kindergarten students who don’t speak English, because, she said, she can relate to them.

McLean came to the United States from Mexico not speaking English and had to jump back into her education years after trading school for work as a child.

“In the beginning I have to explain to them like ‘how do you say go to the bathroom’ and all the basic stuff,” McLean said. “They feel very comfortable because when they say something and then they turn around and look at me like, ‘please help me,’ I just say ‘yes, I was there too.’ I understand them.”

McLean, who turns 75 in a few months, was recognized as para educator of the year by the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education. She’s worked in Aurora schools for more than 20 years.

The recognition was a surprise she first thought she could keep secret. But when her school colleagues found out and other teachers started congratulating her, she just kept saying to them, “I’m just doing my job.”

She doesn’t want people to think she’s more important than others. She’s part of a team, she said.

Bilingual Paraeducator of the Year Guillermina McLean (Courtesy of Aurora Public Schools)

McLean is passionate about education because when she was a child she didn’t get one herself. 

Growing up in Mexico as the oldest of 15 children, her parents pulled her out of school in fifth grade to go to work. But, when she turned 18, she decided to return to learning.

“My mother used to tell me, ‘aren’t you embarrassed to go?’ I would say, ‘no, I’m not embarrassed.’ I just really wanted to go.”

So she went to school during the day and worked at night. By the time she graduated, at about 28, she was married and living in El Paso, Texas, commuting to Juarez, Mexico, for her studies.

“I didn’t have a childhood like I want the kids to have,” McLean said. “I think that motivates me to get the kids in school and everything. I said if I have kids, they’re going to school no matter what.”

She had two children, and both went to college. Now, one is an engineer, and the other is a scientist, she said.

And, she, too, has kept learning. 

Her husband didn’t speak Spanish, so after finishing school and moving with him to Virginia, she enrolled in classes to learn English.

“I took classes everywhere I went,” she said.

That included an American Literature class at a Virginia high school to meet new people. When her family moved back to Denver, she signed up to take classes at Emily Griffith Technical College.

In her 50s, after working for years at a restaurant, she took a chance and applied for a school position.

The Aurora district trained her to become an educational assistant. She worked for 11 years at Kenton Elementary, and then became a paraprofessional at Fulton, where she’s been for another 11 years. 

She is considering retirement at the end of the school year. Every year, running behind the young kids gets harder. She also believes that each year, more kindergarten students come in needing extra help.

But, still, the extra help she does in teaching kids in small groups is her favorite part of the job, and one she thinks parents don’t always realize she does.

“We help the kids to learn,” she said.

Now, she said, she’s impressed when one of the children she works with starts the year knowing how to spell their name.

“It’s really hard and now it’s harder,” McLean said. “That’s why I wanted to do more groups. I help them to get that feeling of wanting to learn. Some of them come to me with nothing.” Sometimes they just stare at the teacher and now they’re starting to speak English — very broken, just like mine.”

As the children she works with are coming from more diverse locations, including more from Central America than Mexico, and some from African countries, she said she learns from the kids, too. She learns about their food and culture.

If she does retire, she suspects she’ll return to the schools, as a volunteer. She can’t imagine just sitting at home. “It doesn’t make sense,” she said.

“I’m still learning. I’m always going to be learning.”

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