David Quiroz was a chef and musician when his niece began falling behind in reading. He offered to tutor her and soon they were acting out Aesop’s Fables together. That’s when he knew he was meant to teach.
Today, Quiroz works with students who’ve fallen behind at Ignacio Middle School, part of the Ignacio School District in southwest Colorado. Things are different this year — with some students attending in person and some online, but he still starts the day with four questions: “How was your evening? What time did you sleep? What time did you wake up? Did you eat breakfast?”
“Imagine coming to school tired and hungry. Would you be able to stay focused and well mannered?” said Quiroz, one of three Fort Lewis College alumni who won a Southwest Rural Make A Difference Teacher Award from the college’s school of education in January.
He talked to Chalkbeat about the difficulty of teaching remotely last spring, what he did when a student talked about punching him, and his realization that taking care of himself was as important as taking care of students.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.
Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?
My niece was having a hard time in school and she was falling through the cracks. I began to tutor her in reading comprehension. We acted out Aesop’s Fables. She was able to make up some ground and even get ahead.
I knew then I should become a teacher. I thought maybe I could help other kids going through the same problems who needed a different way of looking at things. A few years after that, I signed up for community college and began the journey.
What was the biggest challenge you faced while teaching remotely last spring?
The biggest challenge was not being able to see the kids on a regular basis. I think I need them as much as they need me. I like my students’ humor and unique perspectives. It did not translate online at the end of the year because it was such a stressful time and many checked out to deal with the enormous dark cloud that loomed over us.
How is school going this year?
It is definitely a whole different world in education. It is challenging because we are in a hybrid model, which means we have both in-person and online students simultaneously. Navigating between both worlds causes starts and stops for a variety of reasons: internet connections, attending to chat box questions in a timely manner, and online etiquette, among others. The bright spot is that my family, my fellow teachers, school staff, and my friends have remained healthy, so far.
How do you get to know your students?
I check in with them every morning and ask four questions: How was your evening? What time did you sleep? What time did you wake up? Did you eat breakfast? It helps me gauge their day and address their needs. I have some dry cereal to address hunger and I refer them to our counselor if needed. If they are sleepy, I allow them to take short naps or to use a jump rope to get them going. I can’t address academics unless their basic needs are met.
You work with students who’ve fallen behind. How do you motivate them and help them re-engage in school?
I break up their assignments into manageable daily goals or chunks. Once they reach their goals, we can do some fun activities like chess, basketball, and walks. Overall, I take a genuine interest in their success.
Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
A seventh grade boy and I were working on some math problems. He stopped me in mid-sentence and asked, “Mr. Q?” He looked down to his hand as he slowly made a tight, white knuckled fist, “What would you do if I punched you right in your big fat nose?” His eyes were daring me to get angry and justify his mental exhaustion.
In a flash, I weighed my options. “Well,” I replied deliberately, “I would probably cry because you are pretty strong.” He looked back at his fist and released his grip. “Don’t worry Mr. Q,” he smiled tenderly, “I wouldn’t hurt you.” I realized what he was saying; we took a break and talked about his cool boots, which he had cut into slip-ons.
Tell us about a favorite lesson you teach.
We read “To Kill A Mockingbird.” Kids need and want to explore the empathetic components of their being and express their opinions about social injustice. I did the lesson when Ferguson [protests over Michael Brown’s killing by police were] happening. The relevance was off the charts and the kids got it.
What’s something happening in the community that affects what goes on inside your class?
Unfortunately, we had lots of grief in this community last winter and spring [before the coronavirus pandemic.] After the death of a few community members, I felt a need to bring it up in class. I welcomed the students and introduced the situation: “There have been some recent deaths in town, does anyone know of anyone who has recently died?”
A third of the classroom knew of someone. I asked questions like, “How are you? How did it make you feel? How are you dealing with it? Do you need to talk more about it in private with our counselor?”
I let them know that they are important to the community as much as that person was to them. We ended with a gratitude exercise to list three things they are thankful for. Studies have shown that gratitude activates the hypothalamus which regulates sleep — something they lose as they think and process these tough events in life.
What was your biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?
Early in my career, I missed out on some events that were super important, like a funeral, birth, wedding, reunion. I thought I should not or could not leave my students. There are not many jobs that have this type of commitment. However, we still need to be able to take care of those personal events in order to be at our best, so then, in turn, we can be well for our students.
What are you reading for enjoyment?