Learning through Teaching: An Interview with Maria Llambi

Maria Llambi has taught at Step One since 1992: she began as a substitute teacher and quickly fell in love with both Step One and teaching. Beginning as an occasional sub, she became resident substitute and then moved to work in the Late PM program. In our interview, Teacher Maria describes how the Step One substitute system (with a permanent, resident sub plus an additional network of on-call, experienced subs) works to mentor new teachers and provide continuity to the school. For Maria, it also helped her to find her favorite place: the Late PM program.

Maria Llambi:

The substitute system at Step One is special in so many ways. When you feel sick in the morning, knowing that the substitutes you trust are coming, you feel relieved that you can take care of yourself. The next day you can take better care of the children because you’ve been able to rest.

Also, the way you learn as a substitute at Step One is truly special. When I came to the United States, I didn’t know Step One — I was an interior designer in Barcelona. I had begun taking care of children and loved it, but when I started as a Room One sub, I was terrified.

But as soon as the teacher said “We’re going to read a book about two moms,” I knew this was my place. As a substitute, I learned the culture, values, and mission of Step One from teaching in all the classrooms, with different teachers. I learned anti-bias, inclusion, diversity.

As a substitute at Step One, you are treated like a teacher: you do the same work at the same level. It’s not hierarchical, and the teachers and subs learn from each other. Everyone does the same tasks and you have freedom to develop your own teaching style.

I learned how many different ways there are to teach, and that they can all be a valuable part of Step One. By the time I became a resident sub and then a teacher, I had found my own style, and I was prepared.

Now, when I meet a new substitute, I model. I explain; I slow down. I pass down who we are at Step One, in the same way I learned respectful language, listening, and new ways to think and be with kids and parents from the the teachers who were mentors for me. I try to do that with new subs: I also learn a lot from new substitutes and teachers and all the ideas they bring in!

The substitute system is also great for new teachers because it allows you to get to know the different programs. I immediately loved the PM program. Because there are less children, the kids try out socializing in different ways. It feels like a family. It’s a good fit for me as a teacher. It’s cozy, and gives me time and space to reflect. I have endless respect for the morning program (I always say that the morning program does the hard work!) but I found myself and my place in the afternoon.

What I’ve learned at Step One has helped me in my life. I have that lens of fairness and justice I learned here and I’m able to pass it on. And the substitute system, which is about fairness and learning from each other, is Step One living its values.