Laura Houlette Named the New Rebecca Willard Chair in Languages

Rebecca Willard Chair in Languages is one of the ten endowed chairs at Winsor, and was established in 2012 through a wonderful gift by Winsor father Ralph Willard in honor of his daughter, Rebecca, Class of 2009, and the amazing education she got here. In establishing the chair, Ralph Willard wanted to acknowledge our faculty’s exceptional teaching and dedication to our students.

Since 2012, the languages chair has been held by three legendary Winsor teachers: French teacher Mimi Minkoff, Latin teacher Helen Schultz, and Spanish teacher Jim Jer-Don.

Laura Houlette was announced as the new Rebecca Willard Chair in Languages on November 9, 2023 at an all-school assembly where Head of School Sarah Pelmas shared a speech dedicated to Laura Houlette. 

Ms. Pelmas’ remarks are abbreviated below. 

Today’s recipient started here at Winsor 21 years ago, and she was quickly tapped to be the department head of the Modern Language Department. She jumped into this role for five-and-a-half years, and then helped unify the newly formed World Languages Department (a combination of the Classics and Modern Language Departments).

Her enthusiasm and energy also led her to notice that the Languages Department wasn’t offering trips in those early years, and she immediately built an exchange program in Paris. Eventually, she helped Mme Martin craft a new French exchange program, helped start trips in all our languages, and finally added a trip to Quebec, too (a trip she has chaperoned every year since!). Not only does this teacher love Winsor, but she also clearly loves leaving Winsor for global adventures of all sorts, and she certainly sees the tremendous value for students in being immersed in the culture they are studying. 

The advisor of the Upper School Community Service Club for many years, she has also served on the faculty compensation committee, the search committee for the most recent head of school (!), and the curriculum committee for our accreditation. And now, among other things, she is the advisor for Lower School and Upper School Ummah. 
Perhaps most significantly, she is a trained leader for Winsor’s SEED program, which stands for Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity. She leads a monthly three-hour seminar of a dozen or more faculty and staff members who read, study, and reflect on issues in equity and diversity. It is one of the most profound and important parts of the Winsor employee culture and the school overall.

The endowed chair is primarily for a master teacher and scholar in the department. As current Department Head Sra Paez says, “Under [this teacher’s] leadership as department head, we revised and created a new and more comprehensive scope and sequence for grammar, skills, and cultural competency; for the first time we wrote communicative benchmarks for each grade and each language. That was an amazing task that was accomplished because of her vision and tirelessness. [Her] dedication to fostering a culture of excellence in the department has not only elevated the quality of language education in the school, but has also inspired countless colleagues who have worked with her.”

Adds Ms. Qiu, “She often shares news articles, resources, and [professional development] opportunities with everyone in the department.... Whenever I have questions about teaching, I would turn to [her] to ask for her opinions and suggestions…. I [have] learned a lot from her in the years we have worked together.” Similarly, Sra Bravo says, “[She] is a dedicated professional who places students' experiences at the heart of her methodology. When you hear [her] talk with students about their process or strategies when facing a task or a challenge, you will see how she designs the conversation in such a way that the student feels
heard, respected, and empowered.” And Sra Paez adds, “In [daily lunch] meetings [we used to have], [this teacher] taught me a million strategies about teaching and learning.”

She is always looking for new ways to bring French to life for students, and is always working to deeply know each of her students and how they learn best.

Recently retired Spanish teacher Sr Jer-Don says, “She models all of the best skills of collaboration that we try to instill in our students!” And Sra Bravo calls her “highly sensitive, empathic, and possibly psychic”! 

Normally I conclude these presentations with quotes from current students, but in this case, I have a very special quote for you all. When I told Rebecca Willard (now Becca Willard Sherman) who the newest recipient is, she sent her congratulations along with a reflection, and I want to read it to you all:

“Bonjour [to] my wonderful professeure, advisor, and fearless guide through the labyrinth of French verb conjugations! You are an incredible teacher and mentor, and I am so happy that you are being celebrated today. Thanks to your inspiration, I pursued French all four years of college, delving deeper into the nuances of the language and culture you so passionately shared. I even studied abroad there my sophomore year. This past summer, I took another adventure to France, not on a study abroad program, but with my husband and little daughter Lily. She marveled at the joy of fresh-baked croissants in the patisserie, explored the winding streets of small French towns, and made me appreciate the depth of your teaching so much more. Your classes not only shaped my college years, but gave me precious moments with my daughter. I was also surprised at how the plus-que-parfait came flooding back after over 14 years! (I'm kidding, it was present tense and passé composé only.) Jokes aside, this chair is a tribute to the enduring legacy of your teaching. Your influence continues to ripple through generations…. Congratulations! It could not be more well deserved!”

Students like Becca have credited this amazing teacher with not only helping them master the language, but also instilling in them a lifelong love of French and Francophone culture, and there is no higher praise than that! Please join me in congratulating our newest holder of the Rebecca Willard Chair in Languages, Mme Laura Houlette!