Mueller keeps linguistic flame burning brightly

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Now in his 7th year as a high school Italian-language teacher, Cody Mueller can’t imagine a career better suited for him. At one point, however, he came close to giving up on his dream.

“It was a bumpy road there for a while,” the 30-year-old says. “Right out of college, I felt very enthusiastic about everything. I was working part-time but I had a hard time nailing down a full-time position, and I got a little bit exhausted. I started to lose faith in being able to find that stability and I even left teaching for two years.”

A lifelong suburban Chicago resident, Mueller is a first-year Italian teacher at Maine South High School in Park Ridge. Previously, he taught for six years at high schools in Wheeling and Oak Park.

Mueller’s maternal great-grandparents emigrated from Italy, while his father’s side of the family is German. Out of a desire to learn about his culture and history, he started studying Italian and German in junior high school and continued in high school. When he started pondering what to study in college, his Italian teacher pointed out he was a great student and suggested he pursue that further, which he hadn’t considered until then, he says.

Mueller enrolled at Dominican University in River Forest and earned a bachelor’s degree in Italian studies and a K-12 teaching certificate. “My high school teachers were also fantastic, but it was in college they were able to really teach the details,” he says, especially crediting Dominican professors Tonia Triggiano and Veena Carlson. “Everything just kept coming so naturally. They’re really fantastic.”

For a few years after graduation, he taught in Wheeling and Oak Park, driving 30 miles back and forth, and never having the chance to settle in or focus on professional development. He stopped teaching in 2021 when enrollment decreased due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and pivoted to working in construction for a couple of years. He’d decided to become a police officer when suddenly he got a call from his current employer, he says.

“I didn’t think I would be interested until the phone call came,” he recalls, “but it was a no brainer. It was what I always set out to do. I would have regretted it if I didn’t take that chance.”

Mueller has a wife, Kelli, and a baby daughter, Wren, who’s already begun learning Italian from her father. He has traveled to Italy more than 15 times thanks to friendships he developed with Italian exchange students in high school. In fact, he and his colleague at Maine South High School, Cristina Modica, are working on starting an exchange program with an Italian high school in Bari, Puglia.

Mueller says his goal in the classroom is to connect with his students and “be a teacher they will remember for a long time. “I am just trying to light the same fire in as many kids as I can that was lit in me, and trying to expose kids to new cultures and the beauty of being able to travel and speak another language in the country where that language is native.”

His future plans include signing up for a teaching-related online master’s degree in Italian. Outside of work, he’s into carpentry — he built his home’s bar, coffee table set and dining table — and likes to study other languages, like French, German and Spanish. He also enjoys making homemade wine and beer with his cousin, an old family tradition that the two of them revived.

About Elena Ferrarin

Elena Ferrarin is a native of Rome who has worked as a journalist in the United States since 2002. She has been a correspondent for Fra Noi for more than a decade. She previously worked as a reporter for The Daily Herald in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, The Regional News in Palos Heights and as a reporter/assistant editor for Reflejos, a Spanish-English newspaper in Arlington Heights. She has a bachelor’s degree from Brown University and a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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