Elizabeth Pereira is York Region Teacher of the Year
June 14, 2019
Elizabeth Pereira couldn’t understand what the fuss was all about when she was honoured with the York Region District School Board (YRDSB) 2018-19 Teacher of the Year Award for high school educators.
After all, she believes that being paid to educate children is a job that doesn’t need to be rewarded.
That perspective changed a bit 24 hours later at the annual Alliance of Educators for Black Students (AEBS) event that recognizes elementary and high school pupils for excellence in their schools and the community.
In her presentation to students about the impact of teachers, Milliken Mills High school graduate Jonelle Sills said one teacher stood out.
“This teacher saw me, saw my passion and potential to learn and took that potential and invested in me,” she pointed out. “This teacher took the risk to believe in me. She supported me in my Spanish learning and encouraged me to take advantage of the opportunity to live in Ecuador and probably pressured every teacher in the school board to attend our fundraiser that year.”
At that point, Pereira realized she was that teacher and burst into tears.
“It was only then that it hit me that we do make this impact without knowing how significant it is,” said Pereira who was twice nominated for the Premier’s Award for Excellence in Teaching and the 2014 Educator of Character Award. “I was brought back to last Christmas when I was in Trinidad and saw my Spanish teacher for the first time in 44 years. When I told her about the effect she had on me, she cried.”
One of the things Ms. Walker taught Pereira was the art of penmanship. In an era flooded with computer typing and texting, she uses a fountain pen and her handwriting is very proficient.
In some instances, the third time isn’t a charm.
It took a fourth nomination for the veteran educator to win her school board Teacher of the Year award.
Pereira has been on the Milliken Mills High School staff since September 1989.
Dedicating her life to student success impresses school Principal Alex Corry who nominated her for the award.
“Miss ‘P’ personifies what it means to provide students with a truly holistic education that exemplifies student success and well-being,” he noted. “Her ultimate goal is to ensure that all her students achieve success and reach their full potential. Elizabeth is the true embodiment of an educator who fosters well-being and mental health, champions equity and inclusivity, builds collaborative relationships while empowering ethical leadership. She’s not only a worthy candidate for this year’s Teacher of the Year Award, but Teacher of a Lifetime for many students at Milliken Mills High.”
Vice-Principal Dawn Imada-Chan said Pereira is a phenomenal educator and strong leader who is highly respected by her colleagues and staff.
“In her 30-year career, she has committed herself to her love of teaching and, more particularly, to her students,” added Imada-Chan. “To say that Ms. Pereira is committed does not seem to capture the magnitude of her impact on her students…She creates an atmosphere that supports pupil learning and achievement, from the physical structure of her class to how she structures daily lessons and the strategies she choose to integrate…Her class respect and adore her because they know they are cared for, treated equitably and with respect.”
Clayton La Touche, the YRDSB Associate Director of Education with responsibility for Schools & Operations, thanked Pereira for her daily investment to support student achievement and well-being.
“Through your dedication, passion and kindness, you shine a light on the wonderful things happening in public education and in our communities,” he said. “Your efforts are leading us to greater success in promoting our mission to advance student achievement and well-being through public education which motivates learners, fosters inclusion, inspires innovation and builds community.”
The high esteem in which Pereira is held by the hundreds of students she has taught is evident in the many letters, gifts and weddings invitations she receives.
Since 2004, Public Relations specialist Abbas Somji takes time out of his busy schedule to drop off flowers at the school on Pereira’s birthday. When he’s out of the country, his mother makes the delivery.
“I was in awe by your teaching skills, your confidence and most of all the pain and care you sacrificed for all of us,” he wrote in a letter. “You guided us. More than the language, you opened our eyes to different issues in our lives and you give us the power to take action.”
Krystene Robinson, who graduated in 2011 and is in the Juris Doctor and Master of Arts (International Affairs) program at the University of Ottawa, is extremely complimentary about her high school teacher.
“I have come this far in life because of the love, support and kindness you showed me as a student,” she said. “You have been a rock and a mother who supported not only my academic ambitions, but my hopes and dreams.”
Of all the letters Pereira keeps in a tidy scrapbook, Mohini Bhavsar’s missive sent in 2005 brings tears to her eyes every time she reads it.
“Your strong faith in me has led to the heights I am at,” said the Information & Communications Technologies for Development and Mobile Health specialist based in Senegal. “Words can’t explain how I respect, admire and aspire to live my life with the principles you live by. Continue to love your students the way you did for me. I get emotional whenever I talk about you.”
School Superintendent Dr. Camille Logan isn’t surprised many students have attributed their success to Pereira.
“Ms. ‘P’ personifies an exemplary educator who ensures that her students learn with high expectations to succeed while at the same time providing care and concern so that they are able to reach their full potential,” she said.
Since age three, Pereira knew she wanted to be a teacher.
She recalled lining up her dolls and spanking them if she thought they didn’t do their homework.
After completing high school at St. Joseph’s Convent in Port-of-Spain in 1973, Pereira went to Spain to pursue Spanish Studies.
Her affinity for Spanish was fuelled by boarders from neighbouring Venezuela that lived in the family home.
“One of them stayed in our guest room for almost two years,” Pereira recounted. “When his friends came over, they communicated in Spanish and I didn’t understand a word they were saying. I vowed that was going to change, so when dad bought me a transistor, I tuned in to Radio Venezuela on a regular basis. At around age 12, I told my dad I was going to go to Spain to advance my studies.”
While in Spain, she reconnected with a high schoolmate who was visiting from Canada.
“She was at McGill and she mentioned there were some good universities in Canada,” said Pereira. “When she got back, she sent some information. At that point, all I knew about Canada was the Canadian Shield and the St. Lawrence Seaway which I learnt about in Geography classes.”
With a list of Canadian universities in front of her, Pereira – with closed eyes – picked York University where she enrolled in in 1975. She completed her undergraduate degree in three years with honours, a Master of Arts in Spanish at the University of Toronto and a Master’s degree in Second Language Teaching & Learning at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE).
In 1987, she started her teaching career at Bradford District High School in Simcoe County. While commuting to work in her first car during the winter, the school’s only Black teacher was involved in a serious collision with a tractor trailer on Hwy 400.
Lucky to be alive and scared to drive on the highway during bad weather, she left the job after a year. Pereira beat 16 candidates for a teaching position at Thornlea Secondary School and, after 12 months, joined the Milliken Mills staff nine months after the school opened in January 1989.
She’s one of three teachers at the school for the last three decades.
“The diversity at the school is one of the main reasons that I have remained here for so long,” said the 64-year-old educator. “The other thing is that many of the students I have taught are in the teaching profession, some as administrators.”
As the head of Modern Languages since 2003, Pereira has brought a significant amount of expertise to the role while successfully leading and collaborating with her colleagues. During the summers, she spent countless hours at the school in order to create an exemplary International Baccalaureate French curriculum for the school that received IB certification a year ago.
The mother of two grown daughters has also worked diligently to provide leadership to underserved and underperforming students. Twelve years ago, she co-founded the Nubian Club which uses literacy as a tool for enhancing leadership and social skills, community engagement, respectful peer relationships and overall student success.
Pereira also provides free tutoring in reading and writing both in English and French for junior kindergarten to Grade 12 students, invaluable support to AEBS and the Markham African Caribbean Association and is a co-ordinator for the sponsorship of foster children.