Spanish teacher Pepa Novell instructs freshman Grace Eberhart on her workbook homework during the period 3 Spanish II class. (Photo by Miles Morrow)

Middle school teacher takes over high school Spanish II class

The high school Spanish II class changed teachers on Jan. 27, the beginning of the second semester. 

Middle school teacher Pepa Novell replaced Patricia Portillo, who had taught the class for 12 years.

Portillo, who previously taught all five high school Spanish classes, said it became too much work.

“Language classes are harder to teach than others because you have to build a strong foundation from early levels,” Portillo said. “It was hard to keep up with all of the grading and prepare lesson plans for all of my classes.”

According to head of high school Brooke Wells, it’s unusual for an academic class to switch teachers in the middle of the year other than for maternity, paternity or illness. He said this is the first time it’s happened for another reason in his six years as the head of high school.

Novell earned her M.A. and Ph.D. in Hispanic Studies from Brown University, her master’s in publishing from Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona and her Bachelor of Arts in Spanish Literature and Language from Universitat de Barcelona.

This is Novell’s first year at Country Day, but her three children have attended the school for the last three years. Novell, a part-time employee, also teaches seventh grade Spanish. 

Before coming to Country Day, Novell was an associate professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, where she received tenure. She left due to family circumstances.

“The high school class really resembles the students I taught in Canada,” Novell said. “They are so much more mature than my middle school class, and they’re not afraid to ask for help. They also have a strong understanding of the Spanish language, which I have to thank (Portillo) for.”

Novell added that taking over the class in the middle of the year wasn’t challenging because of her past Spanish-teaching experience.

Wells said the 11 students in Spanish II were informed about the switch on the first day of the second semester and their parents on the next day. Wells said the parents and students weren’t informed earlier because “it could cause too much stress before finals week.”

However, a student in the class, who requested anonymity, disagreed.

“I wish that the school had informed my parents or me sooner,” the student said. “Switching to a new teacher was unexpected and sprung onto us.”

According to Portillo, in her first year at Country Day, there were two high school Spanish teachers, including one for Spanish IV. That inspired her to approach Novell with the idea in November.

“I wasn’t too sure which class (Novell) was going to take over,” Portillo said. “I was just looking for something that worked with her schedule. All I knew was that I didn’t want to let go of my higher-level classes. Thankfully, it worked out well for both of us.”

Portillo said she then approached Wells, who supported the idea.

“We want more one-on-one time between teachers and students,” Wells said. “It’s also a unique experience for our students because they are exposed to different Spanish cultures around the world.”

Portillo is from El Salvador, and Novell is from Barcelona, Spain.

Novell said pronunciation and some grammar are different in Spain than Latin America, but she is not teaching the variations because the students are accustomed to Latin American Spanish.

Novell added that there are no curriculum changes.

“This class is based on a book (“Realidades II”) that provides appropriate grammar and vocabulary lessons,” she said. “I plan on sticking to that book. I like the order it introduces certain subjects.” 

Novell said she also shows videos about current Spanish music and culture to keep the students interested in what they’re learning. 

Another Spanish II student, who requested anonymity, said they like the videos.

“Using the videos, (Novell) relates (the class) to the real world and how we can use whatever we’re learning outside of the classroom,” the student said. “I also like her because she makes sure that everyone thoroughly understands whatever topic we’re learning before moving on.”

Portillo said she’s unsure whether the high school will continue to have two Spanish teachers. However, Portillo said she has no plans to leave the school soon. 

Originally published in the March 17 edition of the Octagon.