History teacher to middle and high school students, Colorado native and Denver Public Schools (DPS) grad, “hip hop pedagogue” and co-host of Too Dope Teachers and a Mic, Gerardo Muñoz is the 2021 Colorado Teacher of the Year. Muñoz, who has worked in education for 21 years (14 at his current school, Denver Center for International Studies), teaches AP World History, Concurrent Enrollment Ethnic Studies, and 5280 Challenge/Student Board of Education through the DPS Student Voice and Leadership program. He models lifelong learning and encourages students to be bold in speaking up and working collaboratively.
CP: Tell us about growing up, and what your school experience was like as a student.
GM: I’ve been here (Denver) my whole life; grew up on the east side somewhere between Park Hill and Five Points in the Whittier neighborhood. The block I lived on was very collectively focused. I had to bring my report card to Mrs. Minton (a neighbor) and let her know how I was doing in school.
About half of the schools I attended got closed eventually, so that said a lot about what my educational experience was. The type of intelligence that was in this community when we were really young, the specific gifts the kids who were neglected could have offered, and then to see how badly things went for some of the fellas I grew up with, was really tough to watch. I wouldn’t say I came into teaching with any evangelical purpose, but I would say that’s what kept me engaged with the work. I was just trying to be the teacher that a lot of the kids I grew up with never had.
CP: What does teaching history mean to you?
GM: This professor, Dr. Robert Hohlfelder, taught us that history is stories and perspectives. It’s not a set of mutually agreed upon facts you just have to memorize. Some teachers teach it that way, and that’s why kids don’t like history—but they do like the stories. Thinking about the oral tradition that I grew up with, I think that’s why it resonated with me. My grandparents told all kinds of stories, my dad is a big-time storyteller.
I think that without an understanding of history, everything operates in a vacuum and we don’t have a way of connecting our behaviors, past, present, or across regions. I think we’ve seen a lot of that right now with the conflicts between people and disagreements. The last few months, we as a society are coming up with some incredible raw testimony about what we believe about human beings and how we understand this moment.
CP: Tell us about your experiences with professional development, for example, your work with EduColor and the National Education Association’s Racial and Social Justice Conference. What does your commitment to racial and social justice in school look like?
GM: EduColor has been terrific. It creates this community of engaged teachers of color and allies who are attempting to reimagine what school looks like for the kids who have historically not really benefited from systems we have in place. The National Education Association, and by extension Colorado Education Association, they’ve been super supportive of work that I and others have been doing in the name of equity and access and anti-oppressive focuses.
I’m kind of nerdy. I love to read. I read everything. Twitter is also an amazing educational tool and it’s great for development. In fact, a good number of the incredible people I’ve met from out of my building, out of my district, out of my state, I’ve met through social media. I’m on my Twitter 71 hours a day, so I’m always coming across cool things.
CP: What role does the community outside the school building play in your classroom?
GM: I find that in almost everything that I do, whether it’s in school or outside of school, I try to involve as many people as I can. In teaching, it has resulted in college professors coming and telling stories to my students about things that I just don’t know as much as they do. We’re going to have the women from the podcast Whatshername. They’re going to speak with my students in March to talk about the urgency of women’s history. I could either try to do it all myself, or I could expose my kids to really cool people doing this work. My wife would say it’s because I skew 96 percent extroverted. That’s probably a big part of it, but I view myself as a member of a community that wants to engage and wants to connect people.
CP: It seems this award comes with equal parts responsibility and reward: joining the Colorado Education Commissioner’s Teacher Cabinet, taking a yearlong sabbatical to be ambassador for the state’s teachers, a trip to the White House, and NASA Space Camp. What are you looking forward to, and what challenges do you see ahead?
GM: Now I get to actually practice what I’m preaching. I have to be a part of policy conversations and I have to learn to speak for somebody that’s beyond myself and my immediate friends and family.
I anticipate there are going to be some awkward conversations, because the idea is that I connect with other teachers across the state of Colorado, some of them who come from communities really different from mine. I’ve talked to some folks who teach out on the eastern plains—small rural schools, especially, in our state have been hit so hard with funding cuts. These are teachers that are teaching every kid, everything, with no materials, and everybody’s watching them more closely because they’re in close communities. I’m really excited to learn those stories, put those stories out there, and say, Colorado is not one thing.
The thing I’m least comfortable with is being away from my students. I’m going to miss them so much. There are relationships with students that give me breath. I’m not sure what working with adults looks like.
If we can travel, it’ll be interesting. The ability to meet the first Black woman Vice President in our country’s history is extremely exciting. President-elect Biden seems like a cool dude. Space Camp—super random—but I’m here for it. I’ve been teaching for so long and I’ve been immersed in the teaching world that I feel like I can extrapolate lessons for the classroom from every life experience that I have.
CP: What does being named Colorado Teacher of the Year mean to you?
GM: I didn’t think I was going to get this award, because when I think of the Colorado Teacher of the Year, I am not what I think of. I think of someone who is way more organized and way more on top of things. I kind of just came as I was, speaking to the things that have been important to me as a teacher throughout.
I don’t have the words for the gratitude I have for the communities around me and the people who have been kind and so generous with their knowledge and their experience. This isn’t something I view as a “me,” it’s something that I view as a “we.” We did this: all the parents who I’ve got great relationships with; the kids who just keep me laughing and smiling, thinking hard, and looking forward to my job every day; and my colleagues who push me, encourage me, challenge me.
Mr. Muñoz Believes in Youth
Although teaching wasn’t his plan growing up, Gerardo Muñoz watched his mother (a retired teacher), father (a dynamic soccer coach), and neighbors lead and mentor. Their example, plus the key guidance of colleagues during his first years in education, brought him to these principles about young peoples’ potential.
- One-hundred percent of the young people who walk through your door want to learn. They may not know what it looks like to learn, they may not know the accepted behaviors of good learners, but they want to learn. If they didn’t want to succeed, they would not show up.
- One-hundred percent of students are ready for leadership. They’re ready to set an example. You don’t need to be somebody with a middle-class income or a whole lot of privilege in order to understand how to lead. Leading is a matter of the heart and leading is a matter of recognizing some values like disrupting systemic oppression, or recognizing people for their humanity.
- If I had been afraid to mess things up, I would not have made it past the first month of teaching. My whole life is about how many wrong turns I can take. I try to teach that ethic to my students, that there are things you’re not going to feel really comfortable with in terms of your learning and the work that you’re taking on, and that’s okay. When you’re uncomfortable, a little frustrated, and a little nervous, it means you’re about to break through to something really cool.