A Q&A With Latin America's 'Best Educator'

Dubai attracts an increasing number of world renown educationalists, who arrive here to share their knowledge and learn from our own local educators. We spoke to one such visitor, Elisa Guerra, UNESCO International Commission member for the Futures of Education initiative and the 'Best Educator in Latin American'.
A Q&A With Latin America's 'Best Educator'
By Jenny Mollon
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WhichSchoolAdvisor.com recently had the pleasure of interviewing Ms Elisa Guerra, an award winning, Mexican Early Childhood Educator and UNESCO International Commission member for the Futures of Education initiative. 

Ms Guerra is much lauded in her homelands in Latin America, having been awarded the Brazilian Gold Medal of Honor for her services to children in Latin America and the title of Latin America's Best Educator from the Intra American Development Bank. Curious as to how Elisa had collected these honours, we jumped at the chance to ask her how she had achieved them.

We began more gently, however, asking how she had become an educator in the first place?

Firstly, I’m a very proud Mexican!

My initial interest in education came about through my experiences as a mother. From the moment I became a parent, I began to educate myself about education, especially in the early years. I began to create educational experiences for my children at home, making the learning of things like maths and languages playful and fun.

Teaching my kids at home helped me to understand that trust and strong relationships were key to learning.

When it came to choosing a nursery for my children, I honestly had a hard time finding the right place. I wanted somewhere which had a natural fit for the ethos that I had begun to develop. The schools were nice, but I thought their programmes were boring and dull! It was all very traditional, not as stimulating and challenging as I wanted it to be. I chose the best school I could…then another…then another! Eventually, I realised that if I wanted my children to have a really special education, I would have to do it myself.

Back then, I thought it would be easy opening a school [Elisa laughs!]. I rented a little house, hired someone to help and went ahead and opened the doors. We had 17 children to begin with…and by the end of the first week I just wanted to close those doors and never open again! All 17 children spent the whole first week crying, and I just had no idea how hard it would be, not at all! I spent that weekend turning it over in my brain and, somehow, I found the courage to keep going.

All these years later and I have schools in five cities across Mexico, a degree in Preschool Education and a Masters in Teaching and Learning.  I’ve been lucky enough to win the “Best Early Childhood Educator in Latin America” award  and I’m now honoured to be working with UNESCO on their “Futures of Education” initiative.

To be working alongside former presidents and world renown educators is just something I could not have imagined back in the beginning. I guess you could say I have definitely found my passion!

Elisa with the team from Masterminds Nursery, Shamail Siddiqui and Tania Siddiqui

You are now here in Dubai, working with Masterminds Nursery. How did this connection come about?

Both Masterminds and my own school group are affiliated with a foundation in the US which advocates for quality Early Childhood Education. Through this connection, we found that there were many things that we could share. There was a natural synergy between our philosophies…I feel like both our organisations recognise the limitless potential of every child.  I was invited to come as an advisor and to spend some time in the Masterminds classrooms, with children, teachers and parents.

What insights will you be sharing with the teachers and parents?

I want everyone I meet to develop a better understanding of neuroscience. Neuroscience is the science of the brain and the brain is the organ of learning. Lately, there has been a boom in research on how young children learn...it’s just fascinating. Children are born with such incredible potential and as educators and parents we need learn how to nurture it. We now know how our earliest experiences quite literally shape the growing brain.

What are the key things that a preschool or nursery should be doing to nurture brain development?

First of all, it is vital that we don’t try and turn our preschools into mini elementary schools. That goes against everything I believe. Again, I see relationships at the core of learning, especially for young children. Preschools should be a place where children feel safe, loved and have the ability to experiment with cognitive and non-cognitive skills. I also think early years curricula should focus on art, music and movement.

Preschool is a time when we should begin to build the foundations of our children being responsible global citizens. Kids can learn so much if it’s just presented in a way that is both factual and joyous. The curriculum at Masterminds Nursery and in my own schools encourages all these things.

Elisa, what is your advice for parents? What can we be doing at home to support our child’s brain development?

First of all, I think it’s important that we as parents see ourselves as learners too. Learning is the lifelong process of becoming your best self. So, I say to parents to be open to learning about Early Childhood and perhaps challenge your own long held beliefs.

Next…talk to your children. Really talk! From the very, very early days, just talk. The more we talk to our children, the more we positively engage them. It’s easy to forget to chatter away to a child who can’t talk back yet, but remember – they are listening! In the same way, read to your child, even very young babies. Children can begin to learn to read without even realising it from a very young age. Reading to your children is the best, most gentle way to begin their own journey in reading.

Lastly, and something that really bothers me, is that children lead quite restricted lives, physically, these days. I see so many children sat in car seats, high chairs, play pens and strollers for such long periods of time. There is such a strong connection between brain and physical development that again, even very young babies should be encouraged to move as much as they can. Place babies in a safe place on the floor and allow them to move and to creep around and encourage as much physical activity as possible for children of all ages. Allow their muscles and their brains to develop together, as they should.

What is next for you?

I am so excited to be working with UNESCO on their Futures of Education project. We are a group of people from all walks of life, backgrounds and life experiences, who are getting together to re-imagine how education should be in 2050. We will be producing a report which will presented to the UN General Assembly in 2021 and we hope to set a new world agenda for priorities in education.

I have loved being here in the UAE, what an amazing place! I would love to come back and share my experiences with other schools and to learn from educators here, too.

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