As Marlene Aguilar-Nahas stood at the front of Our Lady of Victory Church in Washington, handing out awards to her students during the honor roll assembly, she did not know that she was about to receive one of her own.

At the end of the ceremony, the school’s principal, Sheila Martinez, announced in Spanish that “Señora Nahas” is the recipient of a Golden Apple Award. Confetti cannons sprayed confetti upon the students, and Aguilar-Nahas’s son, Rafael, presented her with flowers. Each class gave her a card that they had made and the students yelled “Te amo” which means, “I love you” in Spanish.

Aguilar-Nahas is one of 10 teachers in the Archdiocese of Washington to receive the annual award, which recognizes a teacher’s professional excellence, leadership, commitment to Catholic values, and devotion to teaching.

Originally from El Salvador, Aguilar-Nahas teaches Spanish to the whole school, but she does more than just help students learn how to speak the language. She incorporates Hispanic culture into her lesson plans, and in particular teaches about different Hispanic religious traditions.

The main objective of her teaching is “not only to teach kids to speak another language,” Aguilar-Nahas said, but to allow them to form an intercultural connection with the people whom they will be able to speak the language to. She considers this “a way to teach language with a Catholic message.”

“We learn to love other people and seek God in their faces,” she added.

Aguilar-Nahas knows the importance of being able to listen to other people’s stories after growing up during the civil war in El Salvador, frequently having to change houses. Her brother was kidnapped and taken to a guerrilla encampment, and her mother searched day and night, visiting different encampments, until she found him and took him home.

Inspired by her mother’s heroic actions, Aguilar-Nahas wrote her master’s thesis about the influence of strong women making social change in El Salvador. In the process of her research, she interviewed several women about their experiences during the war.

“I know that my students, thank God, do not live in a place where the turmoil is happening, but they need to know that many people who come here have suffered a lot,” Aguilar-Nahas said. “Every person is like a book. You open it, and the stories you hear are like a book.”

Aguilar-Nahas has been teaching at Our Lady of Victory for 10 years, and says it “feels like home” because it reminds her of Externado de San Jose, the Jesuit high school that she attended in San Salvador, which taught her to have faith in a practical way by praying and being empathetic to people who are suffering.

The way she incorporates her faith into her classroom is one of the reasons why she was chosen out of the more than 2,000 teachers in the Archdiocese of Washington to receive a Golden Apple Award this year. Each Golden Apple teacher receives $5,000 and will be honored at a dinner hosted by Cardinal Wuerl on May 4.

“She has a genuine, deep faith,” said Martinez. “She loves the Church. She loves the faith.”

Martinez also said Aguilar-Nahas “loves every student here at Our Lady of Victory” and is always the one to make sure every child has a lunch.

Rafael Nahas, who is in eighth grade at Our Lady of Victory, said his mom is “very passionate about her students” and “wants to make sure all her students do the best they can, even if it means spending extra time with them.”

Aguilar-Nahas uses songs to teach her students Spanish, and her son said even though it may sound silly “it actually works a lot.” Martinez noted that Aguilar-Nahas is able to “meet each student where they are and help them improve” by having native speakers read Spanish novels and teaching basic Spanish skills to students who are just beginning to learn the language. Many of her students end up testing above 9th graders on the National Spanish Exam.

“She is the one who children know genuinely cares and loves them,” Martinez said.