Miami teacher caps a half century in elementary school classroom

Claudia Mae Lewis began her teaching career at Silver Bluff Elementary in 1965.
Claudia Mae Lewis began her teaching career at Silver Bluff Elementary in 1965. Miami-Dade Public Schools

When Claudia Lewis started with Miami-Dade schools in 1965, calculators were chalkboards and texts were school books.

The changes in classrooms since have been dizzying but through all of them, Lewis remained at the head of her classroom at Silver Bluff Elementary, where she has spent all but the first months of a teaching career spanning a half-century.

On Friday, she walked into a school courtyard hung with banners. Preschool students, wearing headbands with yellow paper flowers, led her to a plastic chair fashioned into a throne with blue construction paper and glitter — all part of a surprise party for her pending retirement. The celebration was an expression of enduring affection for someone who describes herself as “an old, old fashioned teacher.”

“I believe in discipline,” Lewis said. But her students know: “It’s all for love and their learning.”

Lewis’ no-nonsense style was on display as a handful of reporters streamed into her classroom shortly after the bell rang to begin the school day. As Lewis discussed her new electronic “smart board” with journalists, her class of about 20 second-graders was silent, hard at work on a math problem that Lewis said was designed to “get their juices flowing” first thing in the morning.

She still loves her job, and takes her student’s learning personally, she said.

“If we go over a lesson and they seem a little slow, ‘Oh, you hurt my heart because I want you to learn,’” she said.

Principal Zuyin Companioni noted that Lewis, who rarely missed a day, always sat with her kids during lunch, which might explain where her class was best-behaved when walking to and from class or eating.

“She’s very demanding and she’s a disciplinarian, and she’s very sweet with the kids,” Companioni said.

Lewis, a native of Buena Vista, Ga., came to Florida with her family. Her father worked for the railroad and her mother was a bus driver for Miami-Dade schools. Lewis is named after her grandmother, who was a slave. When she brought her own son to attend Silver Bluff, just outside Coral Gables, he was the first black student.

Three generations of her students were on hand: Denise Sampedro, a current student, her dad, Alex Sampedro; and Denise’s grandmother, Maria Carbajal Viera.

“She’s very kind and very loving and she cares about our learning,” Denise said. “Sometimes when I’m stuck, she helps me along. She gives me little clues.”

Lewis inspired her own son to follow in her footsteps and he now teaches in Broward County. Growing up, Tyree Lewis said his mother never wasted an opportunity to give lessons. Even on car rides, she would drill him on vowels and consonants or have him read to her.

“She’s always teaching me,” Lewis said.

Lewis wiped away a tear as her son and other family members joined the celebration, along with Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, who arrived with a bouquet of pink roses and lilies.

“Oh my goodness! You made it,” Lewis said as she hugged Carvalho.

“You deserve it,” Carvalho responded.

When reminiscing about changes she has seen over a half-century in the classroom, among the first things Lewis brought up was the shift to new, often controversial education standards and tests. Her son said Lewis worried about cutting out cursive writing instruction and felt teachers weren’t as encouraged to build personal relationships with their students like in the past.

“Some of those things, she felt they (students) would miss out on,” he said. “She wasn’t ready to go, but she felt her generation of teachers is over, like they’re teaching to the test now.”

Lewis, who devotes much of her time outside the classroom to her Baptist church in Brownsville, promised to come back often as a substitute and volunteer.

“This is her life,” Companioni said.