Vail Mountain School’s favorite ‘Señor’ retires after 39 years

Steve Gordon has taught Spanish and coached at VMS for nearly four decades, bringing laughter and lessons to generations of students

After 39 years teaching at Vail Mountain School, Steve Gordon — or Señor as he’s commonly known — is retiring.
Vail Mountain School/Courtesy Photo

For 39 years, Steve Gordon — or Señor as he’s commonly known — has been a fixture at Vail Mountain School, introducing generations of students and families to the Spanish language and culture. But this year will be his last at the East Vail campus as he steps into retirement.

“We are absolutely honored to have had him spend a career with generations of kids here. And our doors will always contain the imprint of his effects, and our community will always be here for him,” said Steve Bileca, Vail Mountain School’s head of school. “You can just tell he is loved by his students and gives so much of himself in every way to the lives of kids and to the vibrancy of our community.”

California to Colorado

Gordon grew up in Southern California — an upbringing that included frequent trips to Mexico to surf. The trips inspired a lifelong interest in both the Spanish language and culture.

When Gordon headed to San Diego State University after high school, he pursued a Spanish degree — including a trip abroad to Spain his junior year. Following graduation, Gordon spent two years living in Spain before returning to San Diego. His Spanish landed him a job teaching English as a second language and other bilingual classes.

“It just clicked. I found the ability to talk to different people really engaging. And I really, really enjoyed the culture of northern Spain and Baja, California. The people there were so kind and genuine and it opened a lot of doors being able to talk fluently at their level with these people,” Gordon said.

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In 1981, drawn by a desire to improve his skiing and enjoy the Colorado lifestyle, Gordon moved to Eagle þȾƷƵapp. He didn’t immediately start teaching, however.

Like many who move to the mountains, Gordon spent his first four years working numerous jobs. He was employed as a bellman, a resident at the firehouse, and an EMT. Eventually, he found work teaching Spanish night classes at Colorado Mountain College. It was this last job that ultimately led him to Vail Mountain School in 1985.

“And the rest is history,” Gordon said.

Vail Mountain School

Steve Gordon with his colleagues in 1985, his first year teaching at Vail Mountain School.
Steve Gordon/Courtesy Photo

Gordon’s nearly four decades at Vail Mountain School are defined by laughter, dedication to his students, adventure, coaching and more.

“He has high expectations and holds students accountable. He is a passionate and gregarious teacher who strives to provide opportunities for students to work on all aspects of language acquisition,” said Andrew Hustad, the school’s world language department chair and a Mandarin and Spanish teacher.

Few know this better than Ross Sappenfield who has worked alongside Gordon at VMS for 32 years. Today, Sappenfield is the school’s science department chair and an upper school teacher.  

“He has an incredible rapport with his students. He’s always in the hall laughing. He cares about what they do outside of school. He’s always asking them about their games, and how their sports have gone. He really connects with all of his students at a deep level. That will be greatly missed at our school,” Sappenfield said.

This spirit and energy has not waivered once in Gordon’s career, Sappenfield added.

“He’s been incredibly dedicated to the profession throughout his entire career. There’s never been a sign of lack of care for the process of education or for the students that he teaches,” Sappenfield said. “He has never been a teacher who punches the clock; he’s always there for the kids to support them in whatever they need.”

Hustad, who has worked at the school for the last 10 years, referred to Gordon as a “legend.”

“Over the last four decades, he has worked diligently to foster a love and passion in our student community for the Spanish language and the myriad cultures connected to it. He is a strong advocate for immersing oneself in other cultures and being open to what we can learn from those who move through life in a different way,” Hustad said.

Steve Gordon’s nearly four decades at Vail Mountain School are defined by laughter, dedication to his students, adventure, coaching and more.
Vail Mountain School/Courtesy Photo

For Gordon, teaching Spanish has always been about “trying to make the language relevant.”

Spanish is not just conjugating verbs or textbooks, which we don’t use anymore, but you know how do you say things to people in a market or on your vacation or on the mountain when you’re stuck on a chairlift? How can you create a simple conversation and get to know people in their language?” Gordon said.

One of the ways that Gordon demonstrated this was through the creation of an annual trip to allow students to practice Spanish outside of the classroom. It started in 2000 with a language immersion program in Oaxaca, Mexico. At the time it was one of the only trips of its kind at VMS. Now, the school offers numerous Intraterm trips to different parts of the world. For the past 15 years, the Spanish immersion program has taken place in Costa Rica.

“Over the course of many years, Señor has taken students to Costa Rica to spend time in local homestays with local families,” Hustad said. “Upon their return to the valley, students consistently describe the many ways it has not only improved their language proficiency but equally important, their belief in amplifying their familiarity with a culture distinct from their own.”

In the classroom, Gordon loves that every day is different.

“One day you’re maybe watching a movie, the next day you’re reading, and then you try to tie it into whatever grammar or vocabulary we’re studying,” he said.

One of his favorite things to do is connect the language through a popular artist, listing Bad Bunny among the recent inspirations: “You try to relate the language and try to pick out the grammar and see the connection between the two and how they’re using that in their songs,” Gordon said.

“He really gets kids to use the Spanish language,” Sappenfield said.

“I see him in the hall all the time asking the kids entrance questions in Spanish. They can’t enter the room until they say a phrase or answer a question in Spanish. So more than just teaching the language, he’s modeling how to use the language all the time,” he added.

Bileca, who joined VMS in 2022, said he’s seen the impact Gordon has had on students firsthand.

“When I walk past his classroom, he’ll almost always pull me in and incorporate me into the lesson, whatever’s going on during the day. I love his comfort in adapting and flexing,” Bileca said. “It’s the essence of great teaching; adapting and flexing in the moment to what the day brings and what the kids need. And he is a master at being able to meet kids where they are and take them further than they think they can go.”

Gordon’s advice to first-year educators is to not only be prepared and know your subject but to be flexible.

“Everything you plan doesn’t work. And sometimes a lesson plan I have in first period goes great, and then I do the same thing third or fourth period, and it’s kind of a dud. So just be flexible and know that it’s not always going to work, but if you’re prepared and plan, the chances are you’re going to be successful,” he said.

In addition to teaching Spanish at Vail Mountain School, Steve Gordon has coached basketball and soccer.
Steve Gordon/Courtesy Photo

While he’s been focused on Spanish, he hopes he’s taught students other things as well.

“It’s just as important for me to try to teach them some life skills: to be on time, be prepared and respectful. And if they take away those things, in addition to Spanish, then I know I’ve really done my job,” Gordon said.

In addition to creating the Spanish immersion program, one of Gordon’s proudest achievements is that he taught current Denver Mayor Mike Johnston during all four of his high school years at VMS.

“His Spanish is quite good, and I’d like to think I played a big role in that,” he added.

In addition to teaching Spanish at the school, Gordon has coached multiple sports including middle school soccer and basketball for both girls and boys for the last 20-plus years.

“In all these years of coaching, I think I’ve been able to pass on a genuine love of the game of basketball and soccer,” Gordon said.

For him, coaching is all about teaching important skills like teamwork, responsibility and commitment.

“But when we’re out there, the bottom line is to have fun and create, hopefully, a lifelong interest in that sport that they’re going to want to play,” Gordon said.

Time to retire

Through creating language immersion trips and bringing culture into the classroom, Steve Gordon has strived to make learning Spanish relevant to his students.
Steve Gordon/Courtesy Photo

“It was just time,” Gordon remarked on his decision to retire this year.

For him, retirement will include spending more time with his wife — traveling and going on adventures — as well as more time for pickleball.

“I’ve taken on pickleball and I’ve found a community in Mexico that has a very active expat and pickleball community, and we’ll be spending a couple of months down there next winter,” Gordon said.

As he prepares for this next chapter, Gordon said he’d miss the daily contact with his students the most.

“They make me laugh, and I try to make them laugh,” Gordon said.

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Sappenfield remarked that what he will miss most is “the joy and laughter he brought to this school every day.”

“VMS has really provided for myself and my family a great lifestyle here. We’ve been able to travel, to ski, and create a wonderful home for my two kids who went to VMS K-12,” Gordon said.

“It really has been a nice long, long ride,” he said.

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