Honoring Rene Muñoz

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Rene Muñoz

Junior High Language Arts Teacher

El Cajon, CA

I would not be here without first acknowledging the support of my mom, abuelita and nina. Although my family and I lived in Tijuana, Mexico, I was born a U.S. citizen and my mom wanted me to go to school in the United States. As a young child, I only spoke Spanish, and no private school would give me a chance. My mom searched high and low for a school willing to give me an opportunity. It was not easy, but she did it! For the next 12 years, we (my mom, abuelita, nina, younger brother and I) woke up every morning at 3AM to cross the border. We would make line for hours at times, but we were never late for school. School mattered!

For better or for worse, I’m going to share with you what has proven to be the secret of my success in the classroom… my degrees are in English and History; I do not have a degree in Education. As a matter of fact, I have never taken an education class… ever. I do feel that a degree in Education has tremendous value, but for over 15 years, I have been a private school teacher, and I have had the freedom to be completely unconventional. Completely! For me, not knowing how I was “supposed to teach” proved to be a big motivation to observe and learn from anyone and everyone, but most importantly, it motivated me to experiment in the classroom.

I had to stop and think about what had actually made me successful in high school, college and now, hopefully, as a teacher. I asked myself: Did knowing the end of “To Kill a Mockingbird” make me successful? Nope! However, what I learned from the conversations that it inspired, did. The work ethic I learned through those assignments, did. I was beginning to figure out what I wanted to teach but how to teach it would be a whole new challenge!

This list of unconventional things to teach combined with a lack of formal training in Education, forced me to try many unconventional approaches. This led me to create a program that has been helping my students get into the top high schools in San Diego County for around 15 years, which is helping to lead them to the top universities in the nation and is now helping make them successful in the “real world.”

The secret to my success is that I do not teach literature and grammar to middle school students. Instead, literature and grammar are the tools I use to teach them what will make them successful in life. I expect them to be creative and imaginative. I expect them to be hard-working, passionate and full of pride. I expect them to do their best in every situation. I expect it every day. Most importantly, I do not teach them these things with fancy projects or the newest technological craze or the newest teaching technique. Actually, I use very few educational materials that are pre-made by a major company. At the end of the day, my class is a bunch of people sitting around, reading some of the greatest authors, discussing their ideas and how they relate to those ideas.

Why do you teach?

There are a million reasons why, but it boils down to the fact that I feel teaching, and helping students, is what I am meant to do.

What do you love about teaching?

Again, a million different things but a big one is seeing the long lasting positive outcome of my work as a teacher. Throughout my career, I’ve worked with 90% Latino students. Latinos that are hard-working, accomplished, positive members of society. I’ve even had 2 former students invited to The White House by the Obama Administration! It’s awesome to see them accomplish great things!!

When you were young, was there a great teacher that inspired you?

A teacher, no. Several teachers, absolutely!

Mr. Ned Wilson– Science teacher, St. Augustine High School: I stole so much from his approach to teaching! He had this way of being this grumpy and cranky yet kooky and lovable teacher that made you work harder to be a better student and person without you realizing it. This person who brought out the absolute best in you through such an unorthodox way;  someone so willing to accept his own faults and eccentricities made it so much easier for his students suffering through the craziness of high school to accept their own. His willingness to just go crazy at football games and basketball games…His willingness to cram 10 of us in a van and take us to a Tony Gwynn Padres game… Supposedly, “just because…”  It took me years to understand the sheer brilliance of it all, because it had all been a brilliantly orchestrated scam to make us better….

Dr. Louis Warren– History professor, University of San Diego: College can be hard. I struggled a lot my first year… A LOT!! Going into my 2nd year, I didn’t think I could do it. Then, I walked into Dr. Warren’s American Civilization II. It was challenging… It was interesting… I could do it. All I needed was confidence. He gave that to me through his class. I took every class he ever taught. They were all brilliant… But, his General Custer lecture is probably the best lecture I ever had the privilege to hear. I would not be the teacher I am without their influence.

Honorable Mention:

~~Mr. John Vignol. Philosophy teacher, St. Augustine High School

~~Dr. Bart Thurber. English professor, University of San Diego