Molly Valdez is the World Languages Department Head and Spanish teacher at Willows Academy. After graduating from Willows Academy herself, she went on to study Humanities at the University de Navarre in Spain.
WILLOWS TO NAVARRE
When she was a Willows student, she would not have imagined that she would be back as a Spanish teacher.
“I actually really did not like Spanish at all as a high school student,” she recounts. She struggled with the language and did not believe that mastery was a real possibility for her as she had not grown up with the language. It wasn’t until her senior year that this mindset shifted. Weeks into the semester, Valdez learned that her Spanish teacher was not a native speaker. The teacher was from Chicago, like Valdez herself, but had traveled to various countries and learned several different languages. Something about this personal connection sparked a greater motivation to pursue Spanish language acquisition for herself.
Around that time, Valdez had also just returned from a trip from Rome as part of the Willows chamber choir. The combination of her newfound fascination with European culture and Spanish language solidified her decision to study abroad.
At the University of Navarre, Valdez had a busy schedule. She had a full course load and also worked several jobs, ranging from nannying to tutoring, to pay for schooling.
One of her positions was teaching private English classes at an architecture firm for architects who were relocating abroad. After receiving multiple positive reviews about Valdez’s classes, the firm also tasked her with doing technical translations. Valdez cites this experience as one that increased her appreciation for language and the complexities of translation.
Valdez felt drawn to Spain even after graduating from university. She decided to stay in Spain and found a teaching job at an English academy working with younger students. While the school enrolled students of all ages, Valdez mostly worked with students ranging from ages 2-6. In addition to teaching for the school, she ran camps over breaks, performed interactive musicals, and led parent-child classes to promote the academy.
During this time, she also met her future husband, who was from Peru. Valdez decided to move there after the two became engaged. She taught English as a second language and world literature at a high school in Lima.
Valdez got married and returned to the US with her husband where she began looking for another teaching job.
“I always thought I would love to teach at Willows,” she says, adding that her experience as an alum gave her a feeling that Willows was always a home for her. Providentially, there was an opportunity to teach Spanish and, with the breadth of teaching experiences she had accumulated in Spain and Peru, she rejoined the Willows community as a Spanish teacher.
RETURN TO THE WILLOWS
Teaching at her alma mater allows Valdez to connect with her students in a unique way. Her experience, particularly as a Spanish student who couldn’t connect to the subject, shapes her own philosophy of language learning. Valdez seeks to emphasize the connection between language and culture, moving beyond viewing language as a list of vocabulary or grammar rules. She encourages her students to take advantage of the opportunity they have to develop a more global perspective.
“Anytime I meet someone and it comes up that I teach Spanish, I would say nine of ten times they say ‘I wish I had taken Spanish’ or ‘I wish I’d taken it more seriously.’ Language is something you can leave high school with,” she points out.
In addition to her Spanish learning experience, she also draws inspiration from her strong relationships with her own teachers during her time as a student. She recalls fondly how accessible her teachers felt to her and how she could approach them with both her academic and personal concerns.
The relationships with the students is what she treasures most about her job. Last year, Valdez took on new administrative roles as international student coordinator and world language department head. But she stepped down from the former as it took away from her time in the classroom.
Now, she is now able to focus more on her role as department head and teacher. She is able to devote more time to working with students and creating a better learning environment for them. She also enjoys facilitating conversations among the language department faculty and promoting a more immersive and applicable language learning experience. She is even venturing into co-directing the musical this year, an ode to her past involvement with Willows musicals as a student.
While Valdez finds it incredibly rewarding to see students applying their learning and conversing in Spanish, her ultimate goal is for her students to be the best versions of themselves. She hopes that the work she does with them inside and outside of the classroom pushes them to develop their independence, perseverance, and determination.
“That is what gets me here everyday,” she says. “I don’t think I can imagine myself working anywhere else.”