Felix Quiñónez Named 2020 LAUSD Teacher of the Year

PLI alumnus among 22 of the district’s top educators.

Felix Quiñónez, an alumnus of the UCLA Principal Leadership Institute (‘06, M. Ed., Cohort 6) has been chosen as a Teacher of the Year by the Los Angeles Unified School District

“I thank my professors at PLI – Dr. Robert Cooper, Joann Isken, Dr. Bruce Newlin and so many others for their guidance and leadership. I am also grateful for Nataly Birch, Dr. Nancy Parachini, Frankie Gelbwachs, Dr. Luis Valentino, Dr. Theresa Montaño, Dr. Raissa White, for their professionalism and their caring disposition throughout my career. If I list all of the wonderful people who positively impacted me this will be a very long interview.”

Quiñónez is a physical education itinerant elementary teacher for LAUSD teaching K – 6th grade students general physical education at multiple elementary schools. He simultaneously mentors elementary teachers on how to teach standards-based physical education instruction to develop students’ physical literacy. He was honored with 21 other Los Angeles teachers with a virtual recognition ceremony on Oct. 8. In addition, Quiñónez finished as a semi-finalist in the L.A. County Teacher of the Year competition. 

Quiñónez worked with LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner as a member of the Superintendent’s Teacher Advisory Council between November 2018 – May 2020. He is a National Board Certified teacher in English Language Development, which combined with his fluency in Spanish, helps him to not only deliver instruction to foster English literacy for English language learners, but to connect more effectively with their families outside of class time.

During his 17 years as an elementary classroom teacher, Quiñónez was featured in the Nike West Unlimited L.A. campaign, while concurrently promoting community running/walking clubs (RWCs) with the help of the Marathon Kids organization. RWCs foster a culture of movement and a tenable social-emotional support system that is inclusive and welcoming of diverse abilities. Quiñónez was awarded The Wildlands Conservancy grant and used it to make sure every 5th-grade student on his school campus attended the Los Angeles County Outdoor Science School in Big Bear for a week. The experience provided parents a special opportunity to engage with their children socially and academically in a learning environment that encouraged physical activity.

After transitioning to his new role as a physical education itinerant elementary teacher, he continued to bring additional partnerships such as the Kaiser Permanente Educational Theatre Program. This program educated the students and families about the value of eating nutritious foods and remaining physically active for life. Another school-community partnership he introduced to his schools is the Ready, Set, Gold! community health and fitness mentoring program. This program matches an Olympian or Paralympian to an elementary school and introduces students to authentic kinesthetic learning approaches using a growth mindset approach. The Olympian or Paralympian and the teacher co-teach lessons aimed to support students’ achievement of fitness goals in a safe, inclusive, and enjoyable learning environment. 

“There is an abundance of research showing that when you exercise, it improves the brain,” says Quiñónez. “I reference Dr. John J. Ratey, the associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. If you’re seeking online resources to exercise, you can find it on The Cooper Institute website or on “Beachbody on Demand,” if you choose to subscribe to their annual fee.

“My beliefs about teaching are to inspire every generation to build a strong foundation in brain health, physical health, and social-emotional health. Exercise helps students not only improve their mood, cognition, and physical well-being, but it also builds habits of mind that will lead to a better quality of life.” 

While teaching school in the pandemic has its own challenges, teaching physical education online seems especially daunting. Quiñónez says that it has been made possible by combining standards-based lessons with web-based resources, and with the help of his connections with sport and health nonprofits – many of whom have moved their resources online. He says that it is largely due to the commitment of his colleagues and the incredible leadership of his supervisor Adriana Valenzuela.

“Hats off to all teachers – no matter the challenge, we make it happen,” says Quiñónez. “It’s about the ‘we’ rather than the ‘I’ in our profession. Our partnership with all our stakeholders is essential. No one is unaffected by the pandemic.

“My colleagues and I put our heads together and pull from different sources. Ready, Set, Gold! asked, ‘What is it that we can do to support the kids?’ ‘It’s important that the students learn how the Olympians and Paralympians apply resiliency in their lives during the pandemic.  Students need to hear real stories, they need to hear the real stuff.’” 

Through LAUSD’s Physical Education Teacher Itinerant Program, Quiñónez is assigned to five schools every two years, to train six to eight classroom elementary teachers, who volunteer to be physical education content leaders at their school.

“One standards-based lesson at a time, either virtually or in-person,” he says. Initially, I am the lead teacher working with the students while the classroom teacher is watching the lesson unfold. That’s where the mentoring comes in, and the teacher might interject, ask a question, and/or help me when I have the students work in small groups. Then, over a period of time, the classroom teacher gradually assumes ownership of the lesson until they can independently provide it to their students, while I play a supportive role. The process repeats. I aim to keep it straightforward, because the goal is for the teacher to succeed, in order for the students to thrive.”

California mandates that physical education at the elementary level, grades 1-6, be at least 200 minutes every ten days – at least 3 hours, 20 minutes. Quiñónez says that while teachers usually have the ability to budget that time in their class schedules as needed, the minimum instructional minutes have been waived by Governor Newsom due to the coronavirus and the shift to distance learning. Nevertheless, physical education is still required to be taught during distance learning because it is an integral part of the overall education program for every student.

“My goal as an educator is to stay current with cognitive neuroscience research,” says Quiñónez. “I think brain health certification should be part of the teaching credentialing process. It’s important that the teaching profession remain aligned to current cognitive neuroscience research to improve teaching and learning.”

Quiñónez says that in the COVID-19 reality, educators need to be versed in brain health, physical health, and social-emotional health; not as a positive side effect, but as an embedded approach to support the whole person (i.e., student). Compromised mental health is a major public education issue and this cannot be taken lightly. 

Quiñónez adapts the work of Dr. Daniel Amen, founder of Amen Clinics and BrainMD, Dr. Mark Hyman, founder and medical director of the Ultra Wellness Center, and the LAUSD’s Student Health and Human Services, he states that educators should be mindful of what can potentially compromise students’ mental health.

“When our students do not move, it can lead to low blood flow, which is associated with anxiety,” says Quiñónez. When our students take in two to three times the recommended amount of sugar, it can lead to sugar addiction, which contributes to obesity. When our students accept negative thoughts as true, it could lead to self-harm, which could contribute to suicidal ideation. When our students are isolated for extended periods of time, it could lead to loneliness, which is associated with a weakened immune system. When our students lose a sense of meaning and purpose in life, it could lead to depression, which is associated with insomnia or excessive sleep. When our students experience environmental stress, such as when they transitioned to distance learning, it can lead to a change in mood, which is associated with having difficulty concentrating.

“We need to promote brain health unapologetically,” says Quiñónez. “Promoting positive biological, psychological, social, spiritual, and/or environmental outcomes for our students is a good start. During distance learning and when we return to in-person instruction, we as educators can integrate mind-body exercises like yoga, or interactive dance routines, or other types of web-based physical activities throughout our lessons at no cost using GoNoodle.com. We can promote eating nutritious foods throughout the day, drawing from the USDA Nutrition website’s “Kid’s Corner,” or by considering a functional medicine doctor’s perspective such as Dr. Mark Hyman, to address the biological needs. 

“We can model healthy coping skills, like showing the students how to question their negative thoughts using cognitive behavioral therapy techniques such as replacing negative thoughts with thoughts of appreciation, to take care of psychological needs,” says Quiñónez. “We can encourage our students to prioritize the importance of spending time with their family and friends regularly, even if it is on Zoom to maintain social connections. We can impress upon our students the importance of serving others in need and being an advocate for those less fortunate by participating in the UNICEF Kid Power program for spiritual growth. When students are physically active in this program, they earn points that get converted to funds that are used to purchase therapeutic food to malnourished children around the world. Finally, we can improve our students’ ability to concentrate and to successfully adapt in a distance learning environment through meaningful engagement that invites them to do, move, and express themselves verbally and non-verbally.” 

Quiñónez stays attentive to his students’ social-emotional needs through daily check-ins using a Google slide that offers a range of emojis with an associated number that the students can select to communicate how they are currently feeling in the moment.

“There’s even a question mark, the number six,” Quiñónez says. “Having the students understand that not knowing how they feel is okay; the goal is to accurately acknowledge their own emotions; this process helps my students develop the social-emotional skill of self-awareness.

“I share with [my classroom teachers] that before you get into content-focused instruction, it’s crucial, especially now, to first give the students connection-focused experiences; and to thread this throughout the learning experience. It’s not a novelty, it’s part of best practices when fostering a trauma-sensitive classroom. I finish by sharing that you want to intentionally build relationships with students. As long as they know that you care, and that they are safe, you’re promoting trauma-sensitive practices.’”

Quiñónez notes that in his own education, the teachers that made the most impact were those who taught with compassion and creativity.

“From kinder to college, I’ve had maybe 95 teachers, and I only remember a few of them,” he says. These teachers were passionate, competent in their subject area, great listeners, articulate orators, dynamic speakers, civic leaders, advocates, goal-orientated, promoters of self-care, lifelong learners, quirky, and humble. That’s the well that I draw from.”

“The strengths that I draw from them [are] resiliency and a growth mindset. What I mean by resiliency is deciding ahead of time that I will adapt to whatever difficulties the instructional day may bring and to listen and support my students, even when it is tough. Many of my students know what grit means, the challenges of life have taught them this. They need a teacher that’s going to stand by them and say, ‘I’m going to listen to you, I’m going to support you. I’m going to help you in whatever way I can … so you can thrive in life.’ 

“Applying a growth mindset professionally has helped me look at adversity as an ally, as opposed to something that is setting me back. It is hard to do,” says Quiñónez. “I am still a work in progress. I compare it to muscle loading, the greater the load on the muscle, the stronger the muscle becomes over time.

Quiñónez says that he dedicates the LAUSD Teacher of the Year Award to his family, in particular, to his maternal grandmother, Maria Luisa Rodriguez, who was a “mother hen” to her community of Las Salinas, Nicaragua.

“It is because of my maternal grandmother’s serving spirit that I am a teacher today,” says Quiñónez.  “As a community leader in her small beach town in Central America, she served people from all walks of life. My mother frequently shared with me stories of how my maternal grandmother helped the disenfranchised when I was a little boy. My grandmother also had strong opinions about the importance of an excellent education. She would say to my mother, ‘Cuando me muera, no les voy a dejar nada menos una educación.’” In other words, “When I die, I will not leave you anything except an education.’ 

“Sadly, I never met my maternal grandmother. She was fatally shot trying to resolve a family quarrel. Despite this tragedy, her serving spirit still impacts many generations. I honor her memory as a public servant who is committed to serving all students from all walks of life and supporting their ongoing achievements. I am grateful that I can serve in varying capacities, and I thank my maternal grandmother’s legacy for giving me the emotional fortitude to serve diverse needs.”

Quiñónez shared his LAUSD virtual recognition ceremony with his immediate family and his extended family in California and Virginia, as well as his family in Australia, Nicaragua and Peru. 

“I’m a product of a lot of patience, guidance, and love – boy, I needed all of it, and still do,” Quiñónez says. “The recognition is really a celebration of every person that has impacted my life.  I am grateful to be in this place today.

“It’s about relationships. It’s about those permanent impressions that students remember which then causes them to come back to say, ‘I didn’t have the words at the time to say it, but I felt it, you cared. Thank you.’”