Distinguished Alumnus Interview - Jose Martinez III
Training outstanding educators has been an essential part of UNC’s mission since its founding in 1889. Jose Martinez III (BA-07), an economics and social studies teacher at Bear Creek High School, has demonstrated that this 124-year-old tradition is still alive and thriving today. As the son of two UNC alumni, Jose Martinez Jr. (BA-81) and Annette Acevedo-Martinez (BA-81), Jose was taught the value of a good education from an early age. This year, he became one of 15 teachers from around the country to be presented with the prestigious Milken Educator Award, also known as “The Oscar of Education.” Mr. Martinez took some time to talk with us about his experience receiving the Milken and how his views on education have continued to evolve since graduation.
What has it meant to you to receive such a prestigious award so early on in your career?
It was definitely a validation. I mean I’ve only been working in this position for seven years now—I still have a lot of work to go—but having people recognize my efforts in such a big and prestigious way has definitely cemented in my mind that I am working in the career I was meant to be in.
It’s not uncommon for teachers to feel like a lot of their work is going unnoticed outside the classroom. But when the Milken representatives presented me with this award they told me, “We’ve been observing you for two months now and we’re very impressed by what we’ve seen.” I’m still not sure how they were evaluating me that whole time, but it’s nice to know that people were appreciative enough of my work that they wanted to have it acknowledged in this big way.
Your Milken Award-Winner profile mentioned that you are known for your creative use of technology in the classroom. How has this technology influenced the development of your teaching practices?
On a broad scale, I think that the technological culture we see today has drastically changed our ideas about what the “essential role” of the teacher is. With all of the informational resources available on the web and all of the cool new tools we have to access them, facts and “right answers” are remarkably easy to come by. A student could probably take out their smart phone in the middle of class and find information that’s more up-to-date than anything in your textbook. They don’t need us to spoon-feed them facts, they need us to push them to find out what they can accomplish with all the information they’re lucky enough to have access to. I want them to start grappling with the issues we don’t have easy answers for.
On the last day of school, I always tell my senior Econ students, “You need to work your butts off, but you also need to have fun.” Technology helps me strike that balance in the classroom. It’s a great way to find new and exciting methods for teaching the fundamental concepts we need to cover. I’m also fortunate enough to be working in an area like social studies where the content I’m teaching—human history and culture—is always changing and evolving, so that keeps me on my toes.
Thinking back to your college days, what initially drew you to UNC for your higher education experience?
Both of my parents are alumni of UNC so I grew up with an obvious bias toward the university. I truly respect their careers and what they’ve been able to accomplish with their education and since I was headed down a similar path it seemed like an obvious choice. I also knew that, as I was finding my way in the professional world after graduation, UNC would be a recognized and respected name in the teaching community.
During your time as an undergraduate, what were some of the major influences on your development as an educator?
As far as people who influenced my path in life and how I teach today, there are too many to count: Linda Carbajal, John Bromley, Drs. Priscilla Falcon, Elizabeth Franklin, and Kelfala Kallon. I could go on forever.
One particularly memorable learning experience occurred when I was taking Dr. David Aske’s course on the economic history of the United States. He was teaching us about how imbalances in information can influence business negotiations—like when you’re purchasing a car. I think we spent the entire class laughing along with his lesson! Reflecting on that experience later, I realized that that was the most fun I had ever had inside a classroom! At the same time, the fact that his style of teaching was so much fun just drew everybody in, got them to participate and really engage with the subject matter. I continue to think back on that experience to this day. Even in a world of standardized tests and a largely predetermined curriculum, you can still find ways to make education really, really fun. I swear, if I ever write a book one day I’m going to dedicate it to Dr. Aske. He changed the way I see the world.
Cumbres —which is a bilingual education program run through the university—was another eye-opening experience that had a major impact on my development as an teacher. Going into college I was aware that, in addition to the shifts we’ve experienced in our economy, our country’s changing cultural demographics are going to play a significant role in how we develop our educational practices. Combined with my involvement in Sigma Lambda Beta, which is a national, multi-cultural fraternity, I came out of UNC with a deep understanding of what is required to create a well-rounded, inclusive educational environment that addresses the needs of its students.
As you made your transition into the “real world” after graduation, were there any lessons you were able to pull from your UNC experience that helped you establish your professional identity?
One thing I really appreciated about all of my professors at UNC was their practical, straightforward approach to teaching. They always emphasized the fact that, at its core, education is about the students. Don’t get me wrong, the knowledge and skills we teach are important, but if you can’t help your students understand why that content will be relevant to their lives, it won’t really do anybody any good. If you’re able to make your students understand that you care about them and what they’ll be able to do with the things you’re teaching them, they will go above and beyond for you.
Can you offer any general advice for all the Bears out there who are interested in pursuing a career in education?
First of all, I would tell them that they have chosen what is probably the best career on the planet. Despite the fact that not every teacher—especially not every great teacher—gets recognized for their hard work, I think it’s still the most rewarding profession you could hope for. We get to change the future if we want to.
As far as the advice I would give them, I would say that if what you’re teaching isn’t interesting to you, it’s not going to be interesting to your students. If your lesson plan doesn’t excite you, change it. Obviously, that all has to happen within certain limits, we’re still bound by the curriculum, but you’d be amazed how much your students will learn when you start thinking about teaching through the lens of “making it fun for yourself.”
Thank you, Mr. Martinez, for taking the time to share your insights with us! If you’d like to a more detailed view of the festivities surrounding Jose’s Milken Award, be sure to check out this touching video and photo essay.
Did you know that UNC has its own annual award to recognize outstanding educators? It’s called the M. Lucile Harrison Award and you can find nomination information and a list of past winners here.
Would you like to help the next generation of UNC educators achieve their dreams? Bear Tuesday, an annual initiative to raise funds for student scholarships, is kicking off on 12/3. You can make an early (or late) gift by by visiting this website and clicking on the “Make a Gift Now” tab.