Connections: Linking Talented Educators
Connections: Linking Talented Educators

Spotlight: Christopher Nunez (NM '22)

January 26, 2023

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Fourth grade teacher Christopher Nunez (NM ’22) believes that his Milken Educator Award surprise will be a “forever memory” for the students who witnessed it: “They’ll always understand that being a teacher can truly be an honor.” Christopher received New Mexico’s Milken Award at Sonoma Elementary in Las Cruces on October 21, 2022.

Milken Family Foundation: What do you like about working with elementary students?

Christopher Nunez (NM ’22): They’re always eager to learn. Elementary school is the foundation for students’ future educational goals — building a strong foundation can keep their educational structure from “toppling” over. My students are excited to come to class, and seeing this excitement makes my job enjoyable. There is never a dull moment. I have been teaching for over a decade now and still laugh or become amazed by what elementary students can do. Elementary students are like sponges — they soak it all in.

MFF: You ask your students to assess their own understanding each day through exit tickets. Why?

Christopher: It helps them understand the importance of taking responsibility for their own learning. They see that it’s okay to make mistakes. Exit tickets help them understand their weaknesses and show them where to focus. Hearing and seeing things from other students’ points of view and perspectives is a meaningful way for students to gain the confidence they need to understand a particular task.

MFF: How did you end up in education?

Christopher: For me, education is a family business. I am a third-generation teacher. My father has been an educator and coach for over three decades, and my grandfather was an educator and administrator for over four decades. Seeing all my father’s and grandfather’s past and current students come up to them around town helped me understand why they were in education.

In high school I participated in a program called Youth Tutoring Youth. High school seniors worked at a local school, helping teachers fill students’ educational gaps or weaknesses. This experience solidified my love for teaching. It also gave me confidence in my teaching ability, which I didn’t realize I had until that program.

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MFF: How did your first year of teaching go?

Christopher: It was enlightening but, at the same time, extremely frustrating and difficult. You come into the classroom and are now in charge of so many little minds — it’s hard to grasp at first. I remember going home and thinking “what in the world have I gotten myself into?!” My grandfather and father made teaching look so easy and natural that it took me some time to realize that I was seeing their years of experience.

My first year could probably be summed up as organized chaos. To be perfectly honest, if it hadn’t been for a teacher named Mrs. Garcia, who is unfortunately no longer with us, I would probably not be here today. I will never forget having a mentor I could turn to for advice during those difficult first-year experiences. I always have her in my mind and heart when I’m in my classroom.

MFF: Who are your role models?

Christopher: My father is my biggest role model. He has won many prestigious awards and has had countless past students share the impact he’s had in their lives. I hope to be able to live up to his legendary status. Also, my high school physical education teacher, who mentored me and helped me gain the confidence I needed to continue my educational journey. This teacher was always there when I needed to talk and or needed advice about life and in the classroom. I am truly grateful for his advice.

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MFF: You recorded your math lessons for an entire year as part of Harvard University’s Partnership for Enhancing Mathematics. What prompted you to participate?

Christopher: Well, I heard “Harvard” and thought “Wow, it would be neat to be part of that.” I felt like at that point in my career I had a pretty good grasp of the mathematical concepts I was teaching. Man, was I wrong! Having to record your math lessons for Harvard professors to watch and analyze was intimidating, to say the least.

This experience really changed my perspective on teaching mathematics. The study made me truly understand that the way we teach math in elementary grades can have a lasting impact on a student’s math understanding. To this day I take my math vocabulary extremely seriously and make sure I look for any misunderstandings that might have long-term effects for my students. All educators need to take the time to truly analyze the content standard they are trying to get across and reflect on the math behind it. It was a wonderful study to be a part of, and I am glad I had the opportunity to strengthen the way I teach mathematics in my classroom.

MFF: How did you feel at your Milken Award notification?

Christopher: It was crazy. I had all sorts of emotions running through my mind and body. As the assembly unfolded, I remember thinking “Wow, what a prestigious and honorable award to receive as an educator.” Then, when they had the students hold up the cards showing how much money the this teacher would receive, I was astonished. The utter shock of my name being called didn’t resonate with me right away. I didn’t even believe they’d said my name. It wasn’t until all my students looked up at me and said, “It’s you, Mr. Nunez!” that I realized that it was indeed me.

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MFF: How did students respond to your Milken Award?

Christopher: I believe my students were genuinely excited to hear their teacher’s name called. Even before the Award was presented I had a student turn to me and say, “Mr. Nunez, I think you should win an award like that.” It thrilled me that my student saw me this way.

Many students at Sonoma Elementary have come up to me and congratulated me. We are a school of over 800 students. It’s amazing to have kids I don’t even know tell me how proud they are to have a teacher at their elementary school win.

I really feel this will have a lasting impact for all my past, current and future students. Seeing a teacher at their school get a Milken Award will be a “forever memory” in their minds. They’ll always understand that being a teacher can truly be an honor and that people recognize educators in a prestigious and positive way. I hope that as a Milken Educator Award recipient, I can inspire young students to be future educators.

MFF: Any plans for your $25,000 Award?

Christopher: The money is going to make a huge difference for my family. I’ll probably pay down some debt. I would like to take my family on a small vacation to enjoy some time together. We are currently planning a trip to Disneyland and Los Angeles. I also hope to have a staff luncheon for the teachers here at my school, as well as spoiling my current and past students a bit.

MFF: How do you define “success” for yourself, and for your students?

Christopher: For myself, it’s the lasting positive impact for students. Years from now, if past students see me in a store or somewhere around town and tell me how they remember the fun we had in our classroom and how much they learned, that would be the true definition of success for me. As for my students, success is the enjoyment and excitement I see when they learn something new or accomplish an educational goal for the first time in my classroom.

MFF: What do you hope students remember from their time with you?

Christopher: I would love my students to remember the positive thinking they should have throughout their lives. Anything is possible if they put their mind and confidence into it.

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