How a mother, daughter from Puerto Rico ended up teaching in Fairfax Co. Spanish immersion program

When a friend told Lesliean Luna that Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia was recruiting native Spanish speakers in San Juan, she didn’t hesitate.

The circumstances for teachers in Puerto Rico are challenging, Luna said. In addition to working in the classroom, she worked as a babysitter and even as a clown at times, appearing at several birthday parties over a weekend to be able to financially support her two daughters.

Fairfax County Public Schools teacher Gabriela Muriente. (Courtesy Fairfax County Public Schools)

So when a good friend motivated Luna to attend a hiring event with her, Luna agreed. She was intrigued by the possibility of working with a mix of students who are fluent in Spanish and others who don’t speak any Spanish at home.

Two weeks after an initial interview, Luna was a Fairfax County Public Schools teacher.

Now years after Luna was hired in 2016, she and her daughter both work in Virginia’s largest school system.

While they teach at different schools, both work at elementary schools with language programs that use English and another language in the classroom. The county says the program helps students become bilingual and read in multiple languages.

“I love the diversity that Virginia has,” Luna said. “I love how the kids learn — they start in kindergarten, and by the time I have them in third grade, they’re fluent [and] bilingual. It’s amazing how they learn.”

Luna, who was a teacher for nearly 20 years in Puerto Rico, knew she wanted to be an educator since she was a child.

Luna said she didn’t have a fun experience while she went to school, struggling with things like multiplication. She vowed to make her classes fun when she became a teacher.

Singing is commonplace in her classroom at Laurel Ridge Elementary School. Luna said she’s not the type of teacher to stand in the front of the room and talk for a whole class period.

“For me, the most important thing is they need to have fun,” Luna said. “They need to enjoy. They need to want to be here.”

Luna’s daughter, Gabriela Muriente, aspired to be a speech therapist growing up, but always noticed how much fun her mom’s students had. Muriente initially moved to Virginia, went back to Puerto Rico to finish her bachelor’s degree, and then got hired as a third grade Spanish immersion program teacher at Bailey’s Upper Elementary School.

Inspired by her mom, Muriente also wanted to make sure students had a good experience in school.

“I saw that the students have a great connection with her,” Muriente said. “I started doing what she did.”

The two bond by spending time outside, particularly hiking, kayaking and paddle boarding. And every Sunday, they spend time planning for the week with the goal of keeping their students engaged.

“I don’t know if I’m going to be able to retire one day,” Luna said. “The day by day, it’s always something new, it’s always a new story, a new hobby, a new phase. And those moments when the students have their ‘aha,’ they actually get it, and it’s priceless.”

Scott Gelman

Scott Gelman is a digital editor and writer for WTOP. A South Florida native, Scott graduated from the University of Maryland in 2019. During his time in College Park, he worked for The Diamondback, the school’s student newspaper.

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