Spanish teacher Elizabeth Matchett receives Teacher of the Year Award


On March 1, Spanish teacher Elizabeth Matchett received the Teacher of the Year award from the American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese. The award recognizes high school teachers who dedicate themselves to teaching the Spanish and Portuguese languages and cultures. Matchett, who is in her 35th year of teaching and her 20th year at Gunn, will accept her award in-person on June 28 in Salamanca, Spain at the AATSP Awards Ceremony.

Matchett knew from a young age that she wanted to be a teacher, even if her dreams were not always supported by her parents. “Even when I was a kid, I used to play with my dolls and teach them,” she said. “But my father and my mother didn’t want me to be a teacher. My father always said: ‘Those who can’t do, teach.’” As a result, Matchett entered college without a sure career path in mind.

While she was studying abroad in Madrid, Matchett discovered her gift for teaching. “I was tutoring these two boys, and they were horrible,” Matchett said. “They were so badly behaved that I left going, ‘Oh my God. I’m the worst tutor in the whole world.’ So I thought a lot about what I could do to make it interesting for them, and I created all these little games. I came back the next week, and it was so good—they loved it. As I was walking home, I was so happy, I was floating on air. I had this realization that I wanted to do something with my life where I would be happy.”

In addition to influencing her decision to become a teacher, Matchett’s time in the Spanish-speaking world also inspired her to immerse herself in Spanish language and culture. “The food (in Argentina and Spain) is amazing and delicious,” she said. “Yesterday, I was cooking something with olive oil, and the smell brought me right back to the very first time I visited Spain. There are certain smells or certain sights that take you right to a place in the culture.”

Indeed, Matchett finds that one of the greatest benefits of learning a language is absorbing its culture. “When you really know a language, you have to know the culture as well,” she said. “You end up understanding more about yourself as a human being when you understand another culture, because when you understand another culture, you start to really think about your own culture, which makes you examine who you are and why you do things. So what I love about language is that it teaches you who you are as a human being, and it helps you be a better human being.”

Matchett’s favorite part of teaching is witnessing the moment when a student truly understands and engages with the material. “I remember looking at the face of this particular boy who had never really looked interested before,” she said. “He was looking at me, and there was this look in his eyes of, ‘I understand what you’ve taught me.’ I could see it on his face and in his eyes, and I just felt my whole body explode with happiness.”

To Matchett, the AATSP award represents the hard work she has dedicated to teaching over the years. “The award is tangible proof of what I’ve done with my life for 35 years, and the different people I’ve touched, and the difference that I’ve made for many people—not just in teaching Spanish, but in ideas they learned in my classroom that they took into their own life,” she said. “It represents an example of a person who has dedicated their life to education. It’s a way to say, ‘Yeah, it was worth it.’”

In addition to being a teacher, Matchett also considers herself a lifelong learner. She hopes to add a variety of languages to her existing repertoire of English, Spanish and Portuguese in the future. “French and Italian are easy, since I already can understand them,” she said. “I visited Germany a couple of years ago, and it was embarrassing that I couldn’t talk to people, so (I want to learn) German. I also want to learn an Asian language. I took a semester of Chinese about 26 years ago, and that was really fun. I still remember a couple things. I just made a really good friend from Taiwan who’s invited me to come stay with her, so I’d like to learn Taiwanese. I just want to go and study. There’s nothing I don’t want to learn.”