MNPS Voices: Maria Heerdt

MNPS Voices: Maria Heerdt, Family Engagement Specialist
Posted on 09/28/2022
Maria Heerdt

Born and raised in Mexico, Maria Heerdt is an educator known for her relentless dedication as one of the district’s family engagement specialists in the Family and Community Partnerships Department.

Despite a series of obstacles she experienced as she grew up, Heerdt’s lifeline was to focus on her education. As a life-long learner and achiever, she wants to make sure children have the necessary academic and social-emotional tools to succeed regardless of whatever adverse situation they may be facing. Maria Heerdt

In her home country, Heerdt, who is descended from German ancestors, attended public schools from first grade until her graduation as a social psychologist from the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana, after she had already spent four years of study in electrical engineering at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.

“Growing up, I experienced good and bad times, not different from any other people. I experienced my parents’ divorce, losing our home, a couple of accidents that landed me in the emergency room,” Heerdt says. “In spite of that, I mostly remember being a very happy, active girl surrounded by our family, who always support each other, especially in bad times, and when I say family, I think of all my aunts, uncles and cousins; we are a large family!

“When I was in college I lived at home with my mom and siblings most of the time, as it is typical in Latin American families. There is no shame in living with your parents, even if you are an adult going to college. I would say that it was very helpful and formative for us, the children in the family, learning and practicing life skills from our parents and taking on more responsibilities as we were growing up, so that as adults we were all contributing to our family life, both paying the bills and running our household.”

Heerdt arrived in Nashville as an immigrant in 2001. After a while, she was able to use her educational background and linguistic skills through various community organizations, including the Tennessee Foreign Language Institute (now Tennessee Language Center). Through a grant she obtained from that organization and the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee, she started a workshop for families at Whitsitt Elementary that focused on teaching caregivers about the school system and the type of English vocabulary and expressions they needed to better interact with educators and support their children’s learning.

“However, I started looking for a more formal type of employment once my children were in middle school,” Heerdt says. “I wanted a job that allowed me to be at home when they were back from school and that would also let me be home during the summer.”

That’s when an opportunity to work for MNPS became available, and in 2014 Heerdt accepted a position as Spanish Parent Outreach Translator.

“I loved working with the amazing group of interpreters and translators for our schools, but I also had the chance to complete a master’s degree in education, which brought me to where I am now, supporting our educators and families as a Family Engagement Specialist for the district.

“I am very thankful to be part of the Family Engagement Team! I have learned so much from my teammates both professionally and personally – and everyone in our new Family and Community Partnerships alongside Community Achieves. I hope that we can bring the power of the innovative ways in which family engagement is being transformed through multidisciplinary collaboration and research to all our families and educators at MNPS.”

New Strategies for Family Engagement

Heerdt said that through the pandemic, the family engagement team worked hard to develop new strategies for family engagement, and what they learned through this intensive training is that there are basically two main forms of family engagement:

Traditional family engagement approach: the first things that come to mind are events at school like family volunteering, being there helping teachers or attending the annual parent-teacher conference. Events are very important, because they help parents learn about the school system.

“The new path” of family engagement, which is not that new, she says, because those concepts have been around for a long time. “What research tells us is that family engagement happens at all different levels, and it happens especially at home when parents are providing a safe and stable environment at home, food, clothing, values; when they’re teaching their kids to be organized, to be responsible, to be respectful. Those are the things that provide the most support for their children to learn; because when kids are in this environment, and when they know their parents are doing everything for them, providing these opportunities and keeping them safe, then the kids have the mental and emotional state to go to school and be prepared for learning,” she says.

Heerdt’s philosophy for an enjoyable, successful career is to keep a robust and active growth mindset and enjoy the little things in life. But most of all, it’s important to have a healthy balance between work and family – and never lose sight of your priorities.

Student and Family Support Information

The family engagement staff has a playlist of videos that range from responsible decision-making to tips for supporting children with anxiety. The videos are in three languages: English, Spanish and Arabic.

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