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How One Teacher Uses Language to Build Relationships With Her Students

Spanish teacher Ali Della Volpe (Memphis '18) prioritizes relationship-building in her classroom, as well as encouraging students serve as leaders for one another.   

December 10, 2019

Ali Della Volpe

This interview with Ali Della Volpe (Memphis '18), a Spanish teacher at Hamilton High Schoolis part of a series called Corps Questions. Each story will shine the spotlight on a Memphis corps member and dig into the lessons they've learned, advice they have, and what keeps them fighting for educational equity.

What have you learned about yourself in your time being a teacher?

Ali: Through being a teacher, I have learned the importance of relationships. To me, building relationships is the backbone of teaching. As a teacher, my job is to teach the students, however there is a barrier if my students do not believe that I am invested in them. Therefore, it is so important to me that I put extra time and energy into developing relationships with each one of my students, and really listening to what they have to say. Through my time in the classroom, I have realized just how much I value getting to know the stories behind every person. It is important to me to hear everyone out, and to show empathy for them, even when they may not be able to show it themselves. 

How has your role as a teacher evolved over the time you’ve been in the classroom?

Ali: When I first began as a teacher, I viewed my job as someone who should only lead by example. I wanted to teach the students how to be responsible and self-disciplined, and I took this role on independently. Some students were motivated by this approach, while others were not. I needed a new solution, and that is why I now strive to have the students motivate one another. I now see my role in the classroom as not only to teach Spanish, but to also help students serve as leaders for one another. I want students to inspire positivity in their peers and to hold one another accountable. When I see that behavior in my class, I know that those students will be successful in life, and that I have done my job well.

What's your favorite lesson to teach?

Ali: I love teaching the students about how to talk about their family in Spanish. The students get so excited to share about their own families and to learn how to do that in another language. It is a unique way for me to get to know the students better, and for them to know me as well. I shared stories about my family in Spanish, and they shared about theirs as well.

What is something you wish everyone knew about education in Memphis?

Ali: I wish everyone knew just how determined, thoughtful, and passionate the students of Memphis are. My students know that education can be a tool in their journey, and crave every day to succeed in the classroom. When looking at statistics or standardized tests scores from the student population we serve, my hope is that people will consider the whole story behind the numbers. My students are way more than a test score. They are teenagers who battle poverty, and recent family deaths, and homelessness, and hunger. They are also teenagers who wake up every day determined to do their best and overcome challenges. They are mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, flute players, basketball stars, readers, student leaders, and cheerleaders. Most of all, they are people with a passionate heart and a strong mind, and deserve to be treated as such.

What is the biggest advice would you share with people who are interested in becoming teachers/joining Teach For America?

Ali: I advise all future teachers to serve from their hearts. The profession can get tough at times, but when you go at each challenge with a strong love for your students, it always seems worth it. Each student deserves an excellent education. I advise all new teachers to spend time learning the stories of their students, and finding ways to connect with each and every one. Love your students and make sure that they know that you do. Small actions like greeting them by name when they enter the room can go a long way in lifting them up. Teaching from the heart empowers your students, and makes your demanding job easier and more fulfilling.

What keeps you committed to this work?

Ali: This work can be hard and tiring, but every day the students remind me why I am here. The students always remain compassionate and hardworking, despite whatever obstacles they might be facing. They inspire me to work hard and show up as my best self for them each and every day. I had countless caring and dedicated teachers that taught and nurtured me, leading me to where I am today, and these children deserve the same thing.

What is your favorite spot in Memphis?

Ali: My favorite spot in Memphis is Global Cafe in Crosstown Concourse. The cafe boasts outstanding, authentic Venezuelan, Syrian, and Sudanese cuisine. The cafe is also home to three different chefs, one from Venezuela, one from Syria and the other from Sudan. The diversity in employees and food exemplifies the diversity in the surrounding community and welcomes all walks of life. To me, this little cafe is the epitome of what Memphis is striving to be: a kind and open place for all kinds of people.