FRESNO, Calif. — Out of the blue, the student walked over to Abel Ruiz and nonchalantly handed him a note.
It was written on a torn piece of paper and only used six lines. It also had a title: “30 Ways to Describe Mr. Ruiz.”
Before even reading it, Ruiz felt himself getting emotional. He elected to read it later when he wasn’t surrounded by his students.
“I didn’t want to cry in front of them all,” Ruiz said.
Ruiz, a science teacher for Aspen Public Schools in Fresno, California, wears his heart on his sleeve each day he enters his classroom. He isn’t shy to tell his students how much he cares about every one of them, without expecting anything in return.
That’s why this particular note—featuring uplifting adjectives and phrases about Ruiz and his teaching style—caught him off-guard. The student who wrote it is in their first year at the school and Ruiz has enjoyed the process of creating a new connection. After discovering the two both shared a passion for all things Harry Potter, an initial bond was formed and it slowly strengthened as the school year progressed.
“Sometimes you have students who you think you’re not getting to, and then they’ll do something like write this note and you’re like, ‘Whoa, you do see me, you do listen, and you do know that I care about you,’” said Ruiz, while re-reading the words on the piece of paper. “This is just super cool.”
The note validated Ruiz’s decision to forgo his initial plan of being a scientist studying high-energy particle interactions to become an educator who makes a profound impact through teacher-student interactions.
‘Brave, patient, true to heart’
As one of seven children in a single-parent household, Ruiz’s calm demeanor helped him blend in with his more animated siblings.
“He’s very reserved and I’ve definitely always been more social than him,” said Viane Ruiz, Abel’s sister. “But as soon as he became a teacher, everything changed. When it comes to his kids, he’ll do anything for them. He’ll embarrass himself. He loves just being a big nerd to connect with his students, especially to the low-income students because that’s how we were raised.”
The Ruiz family grew up in Selma, a farming community located about 20 miles southeast of Fresno. The children were raised by their mother, who stressed the importance of education every chance she could.
“My mom grew up on a ranch so she was always working outside growing up,” Ruiz said. “She ingrained in us that education was going to be our ticket to a better life. We were taught to work hard and always use your heart. My mom is my hero. We talk every day.”
Ruiz remembers the conversation when he told his mother he was going to switch from studying physics at UC Berkeley to pursue teaching science to a majority Latino student population in his beloved Central Valley community.
“She encouraged me to go for it,” Ruiz said. “She’s always been my biggest fan.”
‘Understanding, strict but sweet, smiley’
Ruiz has one specific memory from his childhood that leads to his number one personal rule as a teacher.
“I will not yell at the kids,” Ruiz said.
As a third-grader, Ruiz was wrestling with a friend in class and accidentally spilled water onto the lesson plans of his teacher.
“I got yelled at and I deserved it, but that’s the only thing I remember now about that teacher,” Ruiz said. “That’s unfair because I know she was a good teacher, but being yelled at is what really stuck with me. I remember feeling so bad about it.”
Ruiz admits that some days are harder than others to “keep cool,” but he’s learned different strategies over the years. He’ll take five-minute breaks, or a quick walk, or simply remind himself that everyone is living their own story.
“You never know all that’s going on with someone,” Ruiz said. “There’s always something in their home life or personal life that leads to different behavior. I know what some of these students are up against and I know the potential that lies in them. I just want to unlock it so they can see how great they are.”
Ruiz’s unique mix of compassion and discipline for his students is evident as he walks around his eighth-grade science class.
When one student speaks too softly, Ruiz offers an encouraging, “Loud and proud!” When he’s waiting for a few students to return to their seats, he doesn’t use names but his message is clearly received: “I’m waiting on four people … now three … now two … still waiting on one. Thank you.”
“He’s my favorite teacher,” Akasha said.
“He really cares a lot,” Isaiah said.
‘Helper, there for others, just’
Ruiz opens each school year by trying to learn as much about his new students as possible.
“I basically spent the entire first week just being nosy and asking things like, ‘What do you like to do? Who’s your brother or sister?’” Ruiz said. “The first thing I always want to do is create that relationship with them. Once you build that relationship, they want to learn from you and they trust you.”
Ruiz sometimes wonders where he’d be if he stayed on the path of a scientist and spent his life researching quantum computing. But as he stares at the student note that describes him in 30 ways—including “fighter,” “brilliant,” and “confident”—it’s clear as ever that he’s in the right place.
“The best thing you can ever receive is a handwritten note from a student,” Ruiz said. “It doesn’t even matter what it says. That can drive a teacher for years. That’s all we need. That’s our fuel.”