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This Denver teacher believes in classrooms that are ‘open to the world’

A high school teacher holds a baby while she talks to a student in a crowded gym.

Reina Cruz, a social studies teacher at Denver’s Northfield High School, after winning the prestigious Milken Educator Award.

Courtesy of Reina Cruz

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs.

Teacher Reina Cruz thought she was going to an assembly to celebrate winter and spring sports when she arrived in the packed gym at Denver’s Northfield High School one day in March. Then she saw Gov. Jared Polis and knew it was something bigger. 

She noticed the father of one of her students in the crowd and wondered if his daughter had won a big scholarship. When the presenters began talking about a teaching award, she thought maybe the friend and fellow teacher sitting next to her would get it.  

But the name Polis announced was her own. 

Cruz, a social studies and psychology teacher, was the winner of the Milken Educator Award, often referred to as the “Oscars of Teaching.” The award, which is for early and mid-career teachers, comes with a $25,000 cash prize.  

At the moment, Cruz was shocked, but she’s proud of what the honor represents. 

“I am proof that if you work hard, have a good heart, and always try to do better, people notice,” she said. 

Cruz talked to Chalkbeat about how her interactions with students’ parents have evolved during her career, the importance of bringing guest speakers to her classroom, and why she gives out pennies to graduating seniors.  

“Being a teacher has been a dream,” she said. “Sure, there are bad days, but whenever there is a rainstorm, the students fill my heart with rainbows seconds after the storm clears.” 

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

How did you feel when you received the Milken Educator Award?

When my name was called, my initial thought was, “Is it April 1 already? This is an extravagant April fools joke.” Then I realized it wasn’t and that I am not a fan of surprises, even incredible ones.  

After the initial shock, I felt very proud of the recognition and what it meant not just for me but also my students and school. Specifically, students who were like me and didn’t always do well in school or feel included. Students who are first-generation Americans and feel they have to prove to the world that they can set their ambitions to any height. Students that are queer and feel the world is not built for them. 

Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?

I originally wanted to be a math teacher but was convinced to take a different route by my own high school math teacher. I believe she felt I should explore other options.

I started at University of Nevada-Las Vegas as an accounting major. I didn’t have a passion for what I was learning and didn’t enjoy my courses. What I did enjoy was the work I was doing with the university’s LGBTQ+ organization, Spectrum. Being on the leadership team gave me opportunities to work with other organizations, organize events, and ultimately lobby in the State Capital. 

I made the decision in my second year of college to change my major back to education — initially math education, but that was only for a semester. My activism work drew me toward becoming a social science teacher. I wanted students to learn they had a voice, and they could have a direct impact on policies that impact them. 

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?

The one that brings tears to my eyes every time is my final lesson for seniors on their last

A high school teacher poises outside with a group of students who won third place in a competition.

Reina Cruz poses with students after a third place win in a student leadership competition.

Courtesy of Reina Cruz

day of class. It is essentially a government lesson about lobbying, but the deeper connection is that the right answer in life isn’t always easy to find, and sometimes things don’t feel like they add up. 

I got the idea from watching the “Pennies” episode of John Oliver’s television show. In the episode, Oliver argues that we should stop making the penny and discusses the lobbying groups that argue for and against.

I tie that idea to life by saying, “It is okay to stop doing something if it doesn’t make (CENTS) sense. We like to hold onto things because of tradition, but sometimes it COSTS us more than what it is really worth. But there are times that the penny adds up, and in the end it is all worth it. So when you get in a tough spot, look at the penny I have gifted you and think about this lesson: Is it worth it, or is it time to stop?”

You’ve brought in experts to talk with your psychology students, including Philip Zimbardo, who led the Stanford Prison Experiment. What was that conversation like?

I have always felt that the classroom should be open to the world and not just an isolated experience. In every subject, I try to bring in an expert in the field or someone that has lived the history.

When it came to Dr. Zimbardo, who joined us in a Zoom call, organizing that was a matter of luck. Our school’s Career Connect teacher worked with him previously on the Heroic Imagination Project. During the Zoom call, students asked questions about Dr. Zimbardo’s decision to become a psychologist, his thinking process in creating the Stanford Prison Experiment, and the shift to his current work. He shared that the Stanford Prison Experiment was a long time ago, but the essential question of the experiment was important to understanding human behavior. In shifting to his new work, he discussed wanting to look at what brings out the good in people.

He ended the conversation by inviting students to explore careers as clinical psychologists because the world will need more in future years. I am happy to say that many of my students this past year are going to major in psychology. I can’t wait to see what they end up doing! 

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

Through my career, my view on family inclusion has evolved. In the beginning, I was fearful to call parents with negative news because I didn’t want to hurt the relationship with my students. It took time and confidence to realize that families are key in building a robust learning community and deepening my relationship with students. 

A memorable time occurred when a parent came up to me to have me sign a book — ”Oh, the Places You’ll Go” by Dr. Seuss — for their child’s graduation gift. The student had a rough junior and senior year, especially because of mental health issues. I was a person the student felt safe with, and as the parent said, I had an impact on their student succeeding and seeing a future. 

What’s something happening in the community that affects what goes on in your classroom?

One struggle I have seen everywhere is mental health. It impacts all students in some capacity, even if they are not the ones suffering personally. They are connected to peers, family members, and sometimes teachers that are struggling. As a nation, we need to find ways to focus on taking mental health seriously and putting our value back in people rather than production alone. 

What was your biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?

One misconception that frustrates me is those who think that teachers get two to three months off. I have never had more than a couple of weeks off in the summer. From teaching summer school, professional development, conferences, and preparing for the following year, I am never mentally off that long. 

What are you reading for enjoyment?

I’m reading “Radical Candor: Be a kickass boss without losing your humanity,” by Kim Scott. I have enjoyed reading it because, as a leader in my classroom and school, it really emphasizes the importance of being honest with the people you are working with. Sharing the truth is the only way for us to grow.  

Editor’s Note: The 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment assigned participating college students to be either prisoners or guards. Participants’ behavior was said to speak to how assigned social roles can bring out the worst in people. More recently, audio tapes have raised questions about the researchers’ role in coaching “guards” to engage in cruelty and otherwise manipulating the outcome. Zimbardo has defended the experiment.

Ann Schimke is a senior reporter at Chalkbeat, covering early childhood issues and early literacy. Contact Ann at aschimke@chalkbeat.org.

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