Erick Vallarino is one of only 83 teachers and counselors nationally to be named a Yale Educator Award winner in 2016.
Erick Vallarino stands in front of his class at San Benito High School, scanning the faces of 20 attentive students in his college-level physics class.
“What do we know?’’ he said, pointing to the equation shining in the light of a power point presentation. “Where do we start?’’
For the next half hour, Vallarino skillfully works his class through the complexities of an atmospheric water pressure formula. There are layers of numbers and scenarios to go through. Villarino’s questions keep coming – one after another – challenging his students to find the right answers.
Even then, he keeps probing and pushing his students to discover more.
“We just don’t want to know the right number,’’ he tells his class. “We need to know how we got there and what it means.’’
This is the true meaning of physics to Vallarino. Biology, he likes to say, “tells you why things are the way they are, but physics tells you why at a deeper level.’’
It is this passion for physics and his connection to San Benito students that makes Vallarino one of only 83 teachers and counselors nationally to be named a Yale Educator Award winner in 2016. The award is given by Yale University to educators who “supported and inspired their students to achieve at high levels.’’
Vallarino was nominated for the award by Aaron Adame, a 2016 graduate of San Benito High School, and who now attends Yale. Adame’s road to an Ivy League school included a stay in a physics classroom where he searched for answers as questions spun his way from an inquisitive instructor.
“Physics has so many details and formulas that it can bog them [students] down,’’ Vallarino said. “I want to relate it to everyday life.’’
So in a recent class, Vallarino applied the theory of atmospheric water pressure to stepping into a swimming pool, with students immediately responding with a barrage of answers to the instructor’s questions.
Vallarino is precise with his questions. He considers it a critical teaching skill to bring the best out of his students.
“I have to polish the questions just right,’’ he said with emphasis. “Tweak it just a little, and then see and hear the answers [from students] come right out.’’
The Yale award is a testament to the precision and work that Vallarino puts into his teaching. He is thankful that his former student thought of him in making the nomination to Yale.
“We’re just a little stepping stone for them,’’ Vallarino said.
The steps may seem small, but in a physics classroom full of questions, it can all lead to something with deep meaning – and great accomplishment.
By Ricardo Cavazos