Why I Teach: Heather Riley

Kathy Smith
Heather Riley teaches Spanish I and III in the Upper School. Shorter than most of her students, she has a penetrating stare and is quick to smile. “My life?” she asks, flushing. She waves her hand dismissively. “Boring.” Then she launches.
“I’m from Allentown,” she explains. “I grew up in a Polish-German household in a Latino neighborhood. Nobody in my family had gone to college. And my whole extended family lived there. My grandparents. My cousins. When my sister moved ten minutes away, you’d think she had moved to Germany. And to come to my house in Malvern now?” She laughs. “Pack a cooler.”

Spanish Comes To Life

The early exposure to the Latino culture sparked her interest in Spanish. “I always had Spanish all around me. I’d go to friends’ houses where they spoke it. I heard the language all the time.” Only in high school, when she began studying Spanish formally, did she begin to put the pieces together. “It was suddenly very exciting to understand what I had been hearing all along.”
Heather continued her studies at the University of Pennsylvania. “I actually did not want to go there. I wanted to go to Georgetown more than anything but I did not get in. This story has a happy ending though,” she promises, the smile spreading across her face.

The Letter J

“Just before my senior year,” she continues, “I went with a friend from Penn to a fortune teller in Atlantic City.” She pauses to let this sink in. “The fortune teller said, ‘In the month of September you will meet someone whose name starts with the letter J who will change your life forever.” Summer came and went. September came and almost went until, on the last night she and her friend went out. “I did meet someone whose name started with a J,” she says. “His name was Jim. And he was such a jerk.”

Moving On

Heather graduated and went to work for a Japanese bank on the 84th floor of the World Trade Center. One day, she was walking down the street and she saw Jim-with-the-J walking with a friend. “That guy? That friend of Jim’s?” Incredulous to this day, “He became my future husband.” That was twenty-two years ago. “We always joke about the fortune teller.” She laughs, looking back bemused on her dramatically un-boring life.
The following year, Heather was working in the World Trade Center when it was bombed. “I had to be evacuated,” she says soberly. “I thought about it. I didn’t want to go back into that building. I applied to graduate school.”

Spanish Literature

The notion was to get a Ph.D. in Spanish Literature. “I had a fellowship so I was in the classroom a lot to pay Penn back for my education. I taught classes.” Her love of teaching trumped her joy of research. “I got my master’s rather than my Ph.D. so I could teach. I’ve been teaching Spanish for 20 years, nine of them here at Shipley.”


Heather has two children with her husband, Bill: Liam ’19 and Carolina ’20. Each year, the family participates in the Fresh Air Fund, a non-profit organization that provides free summer experiences to New York City children from low-income communities. For the past seven years, R’kel has come to live with the Rileys for two weeks. “He’s the same age as Liam and he’s become like one of my own children,” says Heather. “We taught him to swim, ride a scooter, and ride a bike. We also took him to the beach for the first time.” Heather feels passionately about the Fresh Air Fund, especially after seeing the difference it’s made for her family and for R’kel. “The Main Line chapter needs more families,” she prompts, hopeful that more people will become involved. “It’s been such an eye-opening experience for us.”

A Passport to the National Parks

In 2010, Heather was awarded Shipley’s Agnes and Sophie Dallas Irwin professional development grant to visit some of the more well known national parks such as the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Zion, and the Arches in Arizona and Utah. That trip began a love affair with the park system that continues to this day. Since then, she and her family have visited over one-hundred parks, getting their National Park Passport stamped each time. “It is our passion,” she says. “Two summers ago we went back out west and visited Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons, and Glacier National Park. My husband and I are kind of obsessed with visiting as many national parks as possible. I think there are over 300, so we have a ways to go!”

Future Plans

Heather would love to plan a trip to California to see Yosemite, Death Valley, and Kings Canyon. That’s a goal. In the meantime, she’s content to keep things simple. She loves teaching at Shipley, and at home, her life is focused on family, including her beloved dog Teddy. “If there’s a day when I can take the dog to the preserve and go for a hike, I’m excited. It’s the best day,” she says. “I feel extremely lucky,” she says. “Extremely lucky to be where I am right now.”

Other News from Shipley

The Shipley School is a private, coeducational day school for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students, located in Bryn Mawr, PA. Through our commitment to educational excellence, we develop within each student a love of learning and a desire for compassionate participation in the world.