Longtime ATPE leader, champion of new teachers, and lifelong educator Rene Zúñiga, Ed.D., is retiring this December and spoke with ATPE about his career and the importance of supporting students and new teachers.
Zúñiga taught for 17 years in public schools, including in Mission CISD and McAllen ISD. In addition, he also served 20 years as an associate professor and adjunct instructor at University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and retires from South Texas College as an associate professor of education. Zúñiga has been an ATPE member since he started teaching in 1984.
What were some of your favorite moments as an educator and an ATPE member?
I have had many inspiring moments as an educator and as an ATPE member. One of the highlights of my teaching career was teaching several of my students at different stages of their educational careers. I have had the privilege of teaching some students in their middle school years, high school years, and college years. One of the highlights of being an ATPE member has been serving as an advisor for the ATPE college students. In 2005, our South Texas College ATPE local unit won the Local Unit of the Year Award in the university category.
What made you want to be an educator?
Being a teacher was not my career goal. I wanted to be filthy rich by becoming a successful businessperson. One of my high school counselors encouraged me to consider teaching as a profession. I decided to teach for one year and then pursue my business goal. However, my first year teaching changed my life. I fell in love with my students, the subject (math), and with the profession. I realized I had the tools to motivate my students. After all, I am the epitome of a person who came from a very poor home environment but who turned into a top academic performer. I chose this career because I knew I would be able to make a change in the lives of my students as many teachers did for me. My inspiration was all the teachers who taught me to believe in myself. These teachers who were part of my early schooling had given me material to deal with even the least motivated student. I wanted to do with my students what they did with me.
What will you miss most about working in Texas education?
Without hesitation, I will miss my students the most. I have had the privilege of working with thousands of students. I have learned much from each of them.
What advice would you give to new educators starting out today?
One thing that I would tell future educators is that teaching and learning must be fun. We cannot teach today’s students the way we were taught. Students enjoy activities that are engaging and challenging. In today’s classrooms, students must be engaged with activities that are relevant to their life and that allow them to think beyond the classroom. Students should want to come to our classroom because it’s energizing and inviting.
What is your biggest hope for the future of Texas public schools?
My biggest hope for our schools is that they become more inclusive. Students must feel comfortable in our schools regardless of their socioeconomic status, ethnicity, gender, religion, and sexual identity.
Share something fun about yourself.
I like to sing karaoke. Sometimes I call it “scary-oke.” I like to sing anything from Vicente Fernández to Garth Brooks and Elton John to Paquita la del Barrio and Patti LaBelle.
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