We spoke with Rafael Cruz, a 7th-grade teacher from Hollenbeck Middle School, who was named both 2021-22 LA Unified School District and LA County of Education Teacher of the Year. Rafael teaches a medicine and forensics-based course at Hollenbeck entitled, Medical Detectives. 

The LA Unified School District award honors teachers with a strong commitment to their students, school, and community. The program spotlights positive aspects of education and pays tribute to LA Unified’s richly diverse teaching force. Teachers who can be nominated must be credentialed and have at least five years of teaching experience. Any LA Unified employee, parent, or student can nominate. 

Read about what we learned from this recently appointed LA Unified and LA County Teacher of the Year below. You can learn more about LACOEs criteria and awardees here and also listen to Rafael’s remarks here.

What does this award mean to you? 

I’m very honored to have been nominated by one of my student’s parents. I know parents already have so much going on, so I feel particularly grateful for this award. Being selected as an LAUSD teacher of the year also reinforces my advocacy efforts at school. I feel like it elevates my ideas and gives me a platform to push for essential initiatives that can support our teaching and school culture. For example, social-emotional and culturally responsive teaching, and project-based learning (PBL), which provide an opportunity for students to showcase their talents. The focus is geared towards equity and relationship building rather than an academic rubric or culture of scoring high all the time. It is about how everything complements each other, especially in a world that is constantly shifting.  

What are some ways in which you adapted the way you teach? 

I love teaching because it’s fun for me. If I’m bored it will probably be boring for my students. So I’m constantly looking to create engaging lessons. During the pandemic, I was teaching two courses: 7th-grade Medical Detectives and 8th-grade Robotics. There was a need for non-traditional thinking and teaching. So I was able to adapt quickly and implement the use of technology to better communicate with parents and students, especially around PBL assignments. As a math-science-tech educator, I ensure that my students are able to fuse different topics and use different platforms to produce different outcomes, whether it is music engineering, video editing, or architectural work. This type of learning puts students’ curiosity first and takes culture into consideration because it allows us to work with their experiences. This approach was particularly important last year because families were going through so much. Before the pandemic and remote learning, we had tools that we didn’t necessarily use all the time; now we’re maximizing all types of tech tools. The use of multiple tech platforms gives access to students at all times of day, so the emphasis is always on student learning. Lately, I have introduced coding to my 7th-grade class to prepare them for 8th grade. It challenges them to think critically. And I pair my teaching with guest speakers and Flipgrid so that it’s a safe and engaging space for students to add their voices to our topics of discussion. 

What was the most memorable thing a student ever said to you?

It’s not one specific thing, but more general statements like, “Hey mister, I’m going to share this with you,” in reference to things they have created. I love when they share things that make them proud. It shows how much confidence they have gained in my class, and I’m always happy to review it with them. It validates my teaching methods, which leads to pride in my work as well as humble confidence. 

What or who inspired you to become a teacher?

After college, I wasn’t aware of all my options despite graduating with nearly a 4.0 in accounting. But I got a corporate job and quickly realized I didn’t fit their “typical” profile. I felt suffocated. Then I learned about a teaching program from my cousin and realized that I loved learning and being in education. So in 2005, I joined Hollenbeck Middle School and met Mauro Bautista (now principal at Mendez High School), Randy Romero (former principal at Hollenbeck and now vice president of school transformation at the Partnership), and Janet Rios (English language arts and Title 3 coach at Hollenbeck) who all played big roles in my becoming a successful educator. They instilled in me a sense of community. Hollenbeck wasn’t just a workplace, it was a community with heart. I’m grateful for their leadership, coaching, and mentorship. I learned that our community has talent that we need to tap. Unfortunately, I was displaced from Hollenbeck and from Stevenson Middle School (now Stevenson College and Career Preparatory), so I moved to Oakland to become a math coach, but there were a lot of implicit biases. So I came back to LA to work at a school in Mid-Wilshire. In 2015, I finally had the opportunity to return to Hollenbeck because our magnet was going to start linked learning and focus on project-based learning. I knew I wanted to return to either Hollenbeck or Stevenson because of the importance they put on the community. I’m happy to be here because I love East LA/Boyle Heights, and I get to support our students become college- and career-ready. 

Is there anything else you would like to add?

There’s a silver lining in everything, so be compassionate. I’ve struggled so I’ve learned to be compassionate. When I teach, I hope it’s always something my students will find useful in life.