For Massachusetts Educator, the profession is in her blood…

Dr. Debra Hanson Almeida is an educational change leader who has been engaged in educator professional development both nationally and abroad. In this week’s blog we learn a bit about her professional and personal journey, highlighting her wealth of global friendships and knowledge. 

I started my career as an elementary teacher in the small coastal town of Marion, MA. My first principal was an open-minded individual who encouraged his staff to create their own units and materials. Motivated by this independence, I sought programs that made my students become thoughtful learners and self discovers. From there I became the lead math and science teacher at my school, teaching Saturday courses on “Math as a Way of Thinking” and “Making Science a Verb.” During the summer months, I traveled across the U.S. providing training on these two programs. 

While engaging in this work, I learned the art of juggling, with my three children and husband often traveling with me. I believe my dedication to education encouraged two of my children to become teachers and my love of science to the third who is a pharmacist. Part of my learning process was balancing how to give quality time to my family as well as time to myself. By enrolling in satellite programs, I was able to achieve National Board Certification as a Middle Childhood Generalist, my Certificate for Advanced Graduate Study, and my doctorate all after 10pm when everyone was asleep! This process was not easy! My recommendation to women starting out in the field is to focus on what you love and what your strengths are as this will help with the process. For me, I knew my strengths are math and science–it was all about finding ways to pair my studies and work together so that I could share this passion with as many teachers as possible. 

After 34 years, I have retired from the classroom, devoting my time now to the Whitfield/Manjiro Friendship Society (WMFS) as their Education Coordinator. The organization began as a Sister City of Tosashimizu, Japan as Fairhaven, MA celebrated the 1841 rescue of a Japanese boy, Manjiro by a New Bedford Whaling Captain Whitfield. Manjiro learned English, whaling, navigation, farming, and American culture and eventually brought these ideas back to the closed country of Japan. Every two years we alternate visiting Tosashimizu and hosting students and adults for homestays in Fairhaven. While I have been involved with WMFS for 27 years in differing capacities, I currently co-teach two graduate courses with Ayako and Gerry Rooney: “Whaling, Japanese Culture, and the Whitfield/Manjiro Story, Part 1 and 2.” Throughout the course, participants engage in many historical and cultural visits as well as a wealth of activities they can bring back to the classroom such as learning Japanese, calligraphy, math, science, and literature studies, bonsai, and scrimshaw. We cook Japanese cuisine for lunch each day and participants receive a cookbook and four other books for each course. These courses and workshops have reached about 100 teachers across the region.

Japanese students visiting Fairhaven, MA

Throughout this work, I have formed invaluable friendships with families in Japan. One such family, who hosted me 20 years ago in their home, traveled all day across Japan to visit me in another town I was visiting. They brought me their grandmother’s obe (sash) which is an incredible gift which I will always treasure. I also got to teach for the day in an elementary school that I had visited may years prior. During the visit, the students performed songs about Manjiro to our group and we got to experience calligraphy class first hand, eating alongside the students with our own bento boxes. 

I believe it was my experiences working for the Center for Innovation in Education which gave me the confidence to travel and broaden my perspective of Japanese culture. The organization People to People also helped expand my global perspective on education as I was able to visit schools in China during their U.S./ Beijing, China Joint Early Childhood Conference. If anyone is interested in global education, I highly recommend these organizations’ innovative programs!

Whitfield/Manjiro Friendship Society Education Coordinator Dr. Debra Almeida

The opportunities I have had to engage in education efforts abroad as well as locally have greatly informed the way I approach my educator professional development work. I believe that educators should have more opportunities to visit other schools globally to learn what works well for them and how this might be applicable to their context. As I have shared, some of my best professional experiences have come from talking to teachers from other schools and observing school culture other than my own. While yes, traveling to foreign countries in and of itself can be an eye-opener, the opportunity to thoughtfully engage whenever it is safe and financially feasible with different education systems while abroad has the potential to deepen and enrich those experiences for educators. It is amazing to see how much we have in common world-wide as well as how our differences influence the educational experiences for students that move between systems. As educators, we can grow immensely from witnessing, listening, and engaging in meaningful learning opportunities both locally and abroad.

We thank Dr. Almeida for sharing with us how her international and local work have blended to inform her role as an education leader. We look forward to keeping up with her journey and to learning more about how education leaders build on and learn from global connections and communities. 

Contact Dr. Debra Almeida: