“I always have a special bond with my students,”says Vally Perry, the current chair of the Upper School Foreign Languages Department, and she has had many chances to forge those bonds over the course of the 25 years she has taught at Randolph, a tenure that will come to an end with her retirement at the close of this school year. Though in recent years, she’s concentrated on the Upper School, she has had experience with every grade at the School except for the 8th grade. “That’s part of what’s made my 25 years here so fascinating. I’ve not only been able to write curriculum for all ages but also teach it,” she says.
For quite a few years, she was the K-6 teacher of both Spanish and French. She was it. “When I started teaching here, I didn’t have a room,” she remembers. “I had a cart that I traveled the halls with, but I was based in a corner of Nancy Hodges’ kindergarten classroom. That was a great learning experience for me because I got to watch her teach kindergartners, whom I knew nothing about at the time. And traveling what was then the 3rd/4th grade hall, I observed teachers like Cindy Shaw, Linda Berry, Barbara O’Reilly, Lea Hoppe and everyone else, all veterans of working with little ones. That helped me think about my program in a less vertical, more horizontal way, in greater concert, you might say, with what the kids were experiencing in their other subjects."
"I had considerable experience teaching on the high school and college level, but no experience with younger students.” Perry remembers sharing doubts with Rick Keyser, a Randolph administrator at the time, about her ability to relate to young students, or to even talk to them. “Rick was wonderful,” she says. “He told me I was fine and advised me to just go be a fly on the wall and watch these teachers do their thing. He also suggested I spend some recess time with students. Just disappear. Don’t talk to them, just watch them. Watch kids operate, and watch teachers function with them. It helped. I learned.”
So what brought Perry to Randolph to begin with? A native of Columbia, she spent ten years in Venezuela with her husband, where their three sons were born. The family relocated to Huntsville in 1989 when her husband accepted a position at Teledyne Brown. She could have continued to teach on the high school or college level, but decided to do something different.
"Obviously, technology has gotten into all of us."
“I did a voluntary Spanish language program at Chaffee Elementary, where my kids were going. It didn’t involve classroom teaching, but provided some exposure. I thought in this country, wouldn’t it be grand to contribute to the education of little kids because language exposure wasn’t very common then, especially in the public school systems. There was a parent at Chaffee who taught language at Randolph, and when she decided to become a stay at home mom, she recommended Randolph take a look at me. I subbed for her for a week, and the rest is history.”
Perry has seen many historic changes at the School. She was here when the then-Upper School building on Drake was built, and she was here when the laptop program was instituted. “Oh, that was huge,” she remembers. “It opened a much wider window than we realized at the beginning of it. Obviously, technology has gotten into all of us. I remember creating my first PowerPoint presentation for Spanish. I thought it was so cutting edge! And, in fact, for us, it was! It was a big deal.” These days, Perry thinks technology poses different questions. “If, for example, a student comes from another school having three years of Chinese and wanting to continue the subject, should we open that electronic door so that student can continue the pursuit? I think it’s certainly worth talking about.”
Occasionally during her years at Randolph, a backward step or two seems to have occurred. “One year, not very long ago,” she laughs, “they forgot to make a place for me on the Drake Campus, a classroom of my own, so I was to spend the year in a corner of Kim Simpson’s Lower School Library. I noticed and asked Kim about a little storage room just off the library. She said I’d never want to work there. No air-conditioning, etc. Everybody said I’d never be happy there, that it was too horrible, but I said look, I grew up in a third world country, and I can do this. It was pretty bad, but I started by painting the room. Then the maintenance crew came in and said the ceiling needed to be replaced and the cement floor needed to be carpeted. The winter came, and they gave me a space heater. So eventually, I had my own little palace there. It was great. And it was convenient, because at the time, I had classes in all three divisions, Upper, Middle, and Lower.”
"I want my students to have an open window to the world."
Some things, however, have remained constants, such as learning from her students. “Oh, if my students only knew!” she exclaims. “When I finish a year, I always think that if they learned half as much from me as I learned from them, we’re good. Even way back in my very early teaching days, when I taught cultural awareness, I remember there was a unit we wanted to do on Alexander the Great. I was excited. I’d done all of my preparation. I’m going to teach kindergartners about this great figure, a great figure to talk about. I was so proud. I was telling them the story, and they were big-eyed, so I knew I had them. And afterward, one of the little girls said to me, ‘That was great, Mrs. Perry, but you have yet to tell us whether he was good or bad.’ I learned that from then on, when I got passionate, I had to think from their angle, not only for culture, but also for language learning. Yes, I had knowledge I wanted to share with them, but I had to approach it from their angle, their perspective. That was a very important lesson for me, and it’s true for all age levels.”
And, in fact, teaching about culture has become more important to her in recent years. “Of course, I’m interested in teaching them language,” she says, “but the cultures that come with those languages have become, for me, at least as important to convey, maybe more so. How to understand culture? How to be open to it? I want my students to have an open window to the world, not just to learn where Peru is on a map and that the capital is Lima, but what it is to be Peruvian? Why do they do the things that they do? Look at their culture from their perspective. That has become a stronger point for me as I have grown as a teacher.”
How important is it to Perry that her students continue the study beyond her classroom? “Obviously, I’m flattered if they continue to study Spanish in college,” she says, “but I hope that they remain interested in languages and cultures in general. So if someone says to me, ‘I dropped Spanish, but I picked up Mandarin Chinese or Arabic or Japanese or French, for whatever reason, and I’m also interested in the peoples who speak those languages,’ that to me is huge. I always tell them that opening yourself to another culture gives you a greater perspective on your own culture, on your own language and how you view it and live it. And the respect for others is huge.”
"I can’t imagine another path I could have taken that would have been any more rewarding.”
A demonstration of the strong bonds Perry forges with her students occurred just last year. “I was going to retire at the end of the last school year,” she confides, “but I did notice that I wasn’t jumping up and down about it, so I knew something was going on with me. I wondered if I was really ready for this. Then I realized that my students who are now my AP students needed me. They had started with me when they were freshmen and at that time needed a little extra help. I told them we’d all be fine, we just needed to roll up our sleeves and do this. And they did it. They worked really hard to get to where they are now, as excellent students, and we became such a tight group in the process. I just had to see them through their last year. I couldn’t walk away from them.”
Reflecting on her teaching career, Perry has some thoughts about why she has spent so many years at Randolph. “My abilities and the needs of the world have to cross somewhere to feel like I have a mission,” she says. “And the community we have here at Randolph—parents, students, teachers—is wonderful and hard to equal anywhere else. The freedom is another thing that has kept me here. Often, I’ve gone to my administrators and told them that I’d like to do this, try this, that I wasn’t sure exactly where it would take us, but had a feeling that it would have a good ending. And they have always told me that if I thought it would be a good thing, I should go for it, that even if I flopped, then so what? If I flopped, I would just go back to the drawing board and try again. That’s always been supported here by administrators and colleagues."
"So although I didn’t expect to have the career that I’ve had here, I can’t imagine another path I could have taken that would have been any more rewarding.”
There will be a retirement reception for Vally Perry in the Upper School Library on Sunday, May 5, from 2:00 to 3:30 PM, with a special presentation at 2:30. All fans and admirers are welcome.