For Victoria O'Connor, that three-week summer trip to Spain between her junior and senior years in high school sealed her fate. She hailed from a small town in North Carolina, and the people she encountered in Spain and the places she visited fascinated her. She wanted to learn more.
So when she came back, she dove right in. Inspired by the trip and by the Spanish-speaking people who were moving into her area, she took Spanish I, while continuing her French class. At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she excelled in a placement test for Spanish and took higher-level courses as an underclassman. She majored in the language and got a master's degree in it from Middlebury College. She also studied abroad in Spain and took frequent short trips there as well.
"I wanted to learn Spanish. I wanted to learn what people were saying," O'Connor said.
O'Connor's zeal for Spanish led her not only to become a teacher but to become a teacher noted for spreading her dedication of her subject to her students. The Academic Boosters of James Madison High School's Parent Teacher Student Association (PTSA) recently recognized O'Connor as Madison's Teacher of the Year for 2003. The distinction came during a "Triple I" awards ceremony on April 30, during which O'Connor and 10 other teachers were recognized for their innovation, instruction and inspiration.
Since 1996, when she first started at Madison, O'Connor has shared her enthusiasm for the Spanish language with hundreds of students.
"She's the type of teacher who wants you to learn Spanish because she has such a deep passion for the subject," said Academic Boosters president Maria Coyle.
Madison's department chair for languages, Carter Vaden, agreed.
"She loves the Spanish language, has taken every opportunity to spend time in Spain, and now wants to get to visit Spanish-speaking countries of Central and South America," Vaden said in an e-mail. "That enthusiasm carries over to the students."
As for O'Connor, the love affair with Spanish will continue for all her life.
"My husband knows that it's going to be part of my life forever," O'Connor said.
O'Connor started teaching through Teach for America, a program that places college graduates in needy schools. At the time she applied, she was living in Spain and had just finished her master's degree. She wanted to work in an area within driving distance of her family in North Carolina. She got a position working in a junior high in the D.C. public school system.
Encouraged by the students but frustrated by the bureaucracy, O'Connor sought a teaching position in Fairfax County, where there was a shortage of Spanish teachers. Her first assignment was at Madison, where she has been ever since.
"I love being in the classroom. … If they're excited by what I'm doing, that's pure joy to me," O'Connor said.
At Madison, O'Connor stresses class participation, as well as listening to native speakers regularly. She also says she doesn't accept excuses from her students.
"One thing I hope the kids come out of here [with] is a good understanding of English" through learning Spanish grammar, O'Connor said.
Indeed, O'Connor's high standards often motivates students to perform, say those her know her.
"When I arrive at 6:30 in the morning, I always see Mrs. O'Connor's car already here. She puts in incredibly long hours in preparation for her classes," Vaden said. "She is extremely well-organized and prepared, so that her classes flow smoothly."
"She installs a work ethic, but she really makes it something for students to get into," agreed Coyle.
When O'Connor is not teaching, she likes to walk around Old Town Alexandria, where she lives, and spend time with her husband. She also enjoys reading and hopes to catch up on Argentine culture and history this summer.
Throughout the year, she watches Spanish television occasionally. While flipping through channels, she started watching "Betty la Fea," a soap opera series that recently ended its run. She encouraged her students to watch the show as well.
"I say the only way you're never going to understand what they're saying is if you never listen," O'Connor said.
As for her, O'Connor watched the series with her dictionary in hand.
"I tell my kids, I'm learning every day. It's part of my life," O'Connor said.
Although O'Connor received the honor of Madison's Teacher of the Year for 2003, 10 other teachers received recognition for their ability. Each teacher was honored for having the "Triple I's" of innovation, instruction and impact.
"When we could sense that the teacher had an impact on a student, that was an important factor," Coyle said. "The entire group that was nominated was outstanding. We really are blessed at Madison by such wonderful faculty."
Other teachers who received "Triple I" awards were as follows:
Christina Banker, special education;
Mary Ann Barton, business;
Larry Bennett, math;
Gil Fegley, social studies;
Dick Gongaware, geosystems;
Sherry Levitt, English, film study/speech communications;
Corinne Oliverio, English;
Colleen O'Neill, special education;
Susan Robeson, social studies;
Natalie Vandever, theater.