Published: Feb. 17, 2021 By

This year’s teacher of the year credits CU Boulder professors and his parents for the honor

Gerardo Muñoz (Hist, LatAmerSt’99) says his favorite experience at the University of Colorado Boulder was simply discovering professors who “genuinely cared” about teaching. Muñoz himself now cares about teaching so much that he’s been named Colorado’s 2021 teacher of the year.

But as an English major in the 1990s, he recalls taking introduction to prose with Professor Bruce Bassoff but adds he “performed very poorly” on the weekly essays he’d written.

“Dr. Bassoff was honest about my need to improve, but he was also 110% available to support my growth and learn my story,” Muñoz said. “One day, he noticed that I had brought a copy of Downbeat magazine, a jazz publication, and we bonded over our mutual love of jazz music. We are still friends today.”

Gerardo Muñoz

At the top of the page, "Destruction" from The Course of an Empire by Thomas Cole visualizes the fall of Rome (Wikimedia Commons). Above, Gerardo Muñoz is this year's Colorado Teacher of the Year.

Two lessons stand out from his time with Bassoff, Muñoz says: “One, to be proud of my name. I had gone by Jerry to make things convenient. One day, Bassoff declared to me quietly, ‘With a name like Gerardo you should not be going by Jerry.’ And second, he told me how proud he was of me. He said, ‘You are so teachable and eager to learn, you are a really good learner, even if you don’t think you’re a good student. At some point in my class, you took off and have been flying high since.’ It’s a point of pride that I carry with me, despite my many shortcomings … that no matter what, I am teachable and coachable.”

He also calls history professor Martha Hanna an “amazing mentor” filled with passion. “I simply took her classes because of who she was, more than the material being taught.”

And Muñoz says another professor, Robert Hohlfelder, was so good at storytelling, he actually changed his major to history after taking his course, Rise and Fall of Ancient Rome.

“I didn’t think I’d be interested, but his ability to tell stories and humanize the people of ancient Rome was incredible.”

Those experiences stuck with him, he says, and now be hopes to do the same with his students. Muñoz, now a social studies teacher at Denver Center for International Studies, hopes to humanize history for his students by teaching through the lens of human experience and emotions.

“I encourage my students to think about how they would have felt in a historical moment, why they would have felt that way,” he said. “Then we examine the sources of that moment, reflect on the perspectives, and try to make sense of why. It’s a heavy lift that requires deep thinking and culturally relevant materials, but it’s absolutely worth it … because history doesn’t belong in an ivory tower. History belongs to the people.”

Muñoz said another influence on his decision to teach was his parents. “My dad, who only has a sixth-grade education, was an astonishingly successful youth soccer coach, and my mom taught high school. They valued mentoring, supporting and encouraging youth to find gifts within themselves and to work hard to achieve goals. I always had the example that we should give of ourselves to the communities around us.”

I want every student to believe that they are exactly who they are supposed to be, and to understand that they are not to find a way to fit in, but to stand out.”

That decision to teach ended up being the right one. Muñoz was just named Colorado’s 2021 teacher of the year. The Colorado Department of Education said he beat out 26 other teachers and that judges liked Muñoz’s dedication to teaching, his passion for social studies and social justice, and for “inspiring a love of learning in his students that empowers them and prepares them to thrive.”  

His favorite part of teaching? “Watching students step into their power, voices and identities. I want every student to believe that they are exactly who they are supposed to be, and to understand that they are not to find a way to fit in, but to stand out.”

Muñoz describes himself as “relentlessly positive” and that he believes every student is “unique, talented and special. And when they start believing that, and it’s obvious when they do, they just move differently in the world.”

He mentioned one student, a senior this year who has taken classes with him each year since ninth grade.

“She joked at my award ceremony that I’ve got her so confident that I might need to dial it back. She told me, ‘I’m like really confident right now!’”