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Wood River Valley Teacher Named Idaho’s Teacher of the Year
Wednesday, September 30, 2020


Jorge Pulleiro has one thought every morning as he walks into Wood River Middle School.

“My goal is to be able to touch the children and inspire them to be better people,” he said. “My goal every day is to think: How can I inspire them, believe in them and make sure they know I do?”

Pulleiro’s quest has led to advanced and high intermediate test scores among his students and gotten his fellow teachers to turn out for Latin dance classes and other cultural programs. And on Tuesday it prompted Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra to travel to Hailey from Boise to notify Pulleiro that he had been chosen Idaho’s 2021 Teacher of the Year.

Pulleiro reacted with tears in a choir room sporting socially distanced and masked school administrators, school board members and 11 of his students.

“I tell the kids we continue to walk. We fall. But we get up. And, if someone else falls, we help them up. We don’t have to walk alone. We walk together,” he said.

Pulleiro was selected by a blue-ribbon panel from 10 finalists who were culled from more than 170 nominees throughout the state. He will serve as a spokesman and representative for Idaho educators this coming year.

Ybarra called Pulleiro’s passion for learning contagious.

“For Jorge and his students, learning a language goes far beyond classroom conversations and learning how to conjugate verbs,” she said. “His work and philosophy exemplify the concept of Dual Immersion: English speakers absorb Spanish language and culture, and English language learners help and learn from their peers.”

Pulleiro grew up in Argentina where, he said, he learned the value of a caring teacher at an early age.

“When I was a kid, I was bullied so much. You have no idea how bullied I was—even by teachers,” he recounted. “But one teacher—my third-grade teacher--I needed her so much. She recognized that I was important and she believed in me.”

At 19 Pulleiro began teaching English, his passion for education honed in part by his mother. He came to Brigham Young University to get a degree in Spanish and Italian and ended up teaching both at the LDS Missionary Training Center there.

He spent six years in the U.S. Army before teaching in the Troops to Teachers program. Six years ago, the White House and Department of Defense honored him for his role in that program.

He was teaching Spanish and student leadership at Grant Union High School in John Day, Ore., when a school district in Madrid asked if they could send exchange students.

When he joined Wood River Middle School’s Dual Immersion Spanish Language Arts program in 2012, Pulleiro immediately began creating a similar exchange program in which local eighth-graders spend three weeks in Madrid each March, living with Spanish families while they are immersed in language and culture.

School officials pulled the plug last year on the eve of the trip because of the worldwide coronavirus pandemic. And they will not stage a trip this year out of caution.

But past trips have acquainted students with the beautiful architecture of Toledo, Spain’s fashion and Spanish slang. In return, they’ve taught their Spanish cohorts such things as Zumba.

Students even got an hour-long audience with King Felipe VI at Zarzuela Palace in 2018.

“I was lucky enough to accompany Jorge to Spain when he set up the trip in 2013,” said Rob Ditch, the school’s vice-principal. “It’s such a rich experience across the board. Some of the kids come back talking about the food; some, the beaches they visited. Others have even talked about how their host family took care of them when they got sick. They have an amazing tapestry of experiences.”

Students who don’t speak Spanish at home, usually take a huge step forward in their comprehension of the language through the experience, Ditch added: “They come back with a fresh willingness to speak out. They have a command of the language they didn’t before.”

“A miracle. I call it a miracle when the kids converse so easily,” added Pulleiro, who noted that cross-cultural competence has become an essential skill in today’s globalized world and  can open up a world of personal and professional opportunities.

Britani Vargas Aguilar, one of Pulleiro’s students, praised him for making class fun: “He’s funny. He keeps it from getting boring.”

His eldest daughter Ashlie, a graduate of Wood River High School who is now in her first year as Spanish teacher at WRMS, credited her father for his concern for his students. She recounted how he ministered to a student who had been kicked out of school and was considering suicide.

“He said he loved him,” she said, tears streaming down her face. “Dad has always said, ‘I want my students to know I’m there for them. He’s a great example of what a true educator should be.”

Parents are also drawn to Jorge, noted Pulleiro’s wife Charlotte.

“We can’t go to the store without parents asking advice. And his lines are the longest at parent-teacher conferences,” she said. “Parents want advice on such things as how to communicate with their children. And, usually the first thing Jorge says is: Take their phones away. Parents here want to be involved. And, because he speaks fluently and he’s approachable, they seek him out.”

Jorge Pullerio said he strives to be authentic with the kids, to make sure they know that he is human with problems and feelings.

“I want them to believe that I’m real--that I, too, have challenges. They look at me and think that my life is perfect, that I have the perfect car, the perfect family…Yes, I have that but I’m human, too. I let them know that obstacles will come but we can figure out how to meet those obstacles.

“I want them to understand that I grew up in a Third World country and, if I can do it, they can too.”

WRMS Principal Fritz Peters said Pulleiro immediately stabilized and added credibility to the school’s K-12 Dual Immersion Program. His students have an “incredibly high rate of passage” on the Spanish Advanced Placement Exam. And his Latino students consistently score higher than those not participating in the program.

“He always pushes me, as principal, to expand the experiences of our language learners,” he added. “His creativity, engaging lessons and overall teaching abilities are spectacular.”

Pulleiro takes over the Idaho Teacher of the Year title from 2020 honoree Stacie Lawler, a Spirit Lake health and physical education teacher.

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