In Richard Alvarez’s room, a huge elk head juts from the wall. He shot the elk two years ago and had the head mounted by a former student, Matt Johnston — who turned his classroom skills into a career.
One day, the elk head crashed to the floor and needed repairs. Instead of simply sending it out to get fixed, Alvarez brought Johnston into the classroom to demonstrate taxidermy in action.
This story demonstrates Alvarez’s hands-on approach to teaching, which includes deep connections to the community.
That ability to inspire students also earned him a statewide award from Chicanos Por La Causa, Inc. (CPLC). In partnership with Cox Communications they will honor him with the Esperanza Latino Teacher Award for excellence in teaching at an awards dinner Thursday, Oct. 20 at the Phoenix Sheraton.
“It’s amazing how much power one individual can have in a community,” said Maria Jesus Cervantes, director of media and communications for CPLC.
For the past 13 years, CPLC has recognized outstanding educators in Maricopa County. This year, the organization expanded its award area to include the state of Arizona. Alvarez is the first northern Arizona teacher to receive the Esperanza Latino Teacher Award.
“Any time a teacher is recognized for exemplary teaching, it speaks highly of our school,” said Kathe Ketchem, principal of Payson High School.
Alvarez teaches the building trades at Payson High School, but through his approach to learning and his many community projects, he teaches his students to recognize that what they do matters.
“I’m trying to instill in the kids the awareness to think outside themselves,” said Alvarez.
Over the years, Alvarez’s student have:
• Built new benches for the Payson United Methodist Church
• Created drip stations for the Rocky Mountain elk
• Volunteered to build Habitat for Humanity homes
• Constructed the “jail on wheels” for the Payson Rodeo Committee
• Made all of the furniture for the Child Protective Services office
• Produced 27 display cases for the Northern Gila County Fair
• Assembled targets for the Payson Police Department
• Set up the railings on the sidewalks by the high school’s Wilson Dome
Moreover, every year his woodworking class designs and builds a cedar chest for the Northern Gila County Fair. The chest is then raffled off at the annual Pioneers Dinner and Dance. This year, the chest won the Zane Grey award for the entry that best represents the fair.
Alvarez has taught for 27 years in Arizona schools.
He grew up on a ranch, often doing repair work and building things. His football coach at Williams High School got him interested in teaching wood working because the coach also taught the wood shop class.
Alvarez started his teaching career in Stanfield. He then moved to Casa Grande to teach a wood working class.
Alvarez received his Bachelor of Science in Industrial Arts. He has more than 60 post-baccalaureate credits in studies from Decoding of Reading to Assessment, from At Risk Strategies to Cooperative Learning.
Recently, Alvarez turned his attention to green technology and received a grant for $40,000 to study renewable energy technologies as applied to hot water heaters. He partnered with a physics teacher to teach both the academic (math and science) concepts and construction skills to students to apply to green hot water construction.
Many of Payson’s builders, contractors and small-business owners went through the building trades classes with Alvarez, who stays in touch with many former students.
“One of my former students, Garrett Hunt, runs the Caterpillar program at Central Arizona College (CAC). I always take my kids on a visit to CAC,” said Alvarez as he pulled out Hunt’s card from his wallet.
Alvarez had no idea colleagues, friends and family nominated him for the Esperanza Latino Teacher Award.
“I didn’t know this (the application) was written up — part of it by my wife!” said Alvarez.
He looks forward to attending the awards dinner on Oct. 20 with his wife of 44 years, Darlene, his son and his mother who just turned 100 in May of this year.