Tricia Ruiz, a special education teacher at Coarsegold Elementary School, has been named the Madera County Teacher of the Year and was also presented with a Hands-On Hero award from First 5 Madera County.
Ruiz, a 1995 graduate of Yosemite High School where she played volleyball and basketball, has been a special day class teacher serving students with moderate to severe disabilities for 15 years - two years at John Adams Elementary School in Madera and 13 in Coarsegold.
The majority of her students, age 3 to 5, have autism but also Downs Syndrome and Cerebral Palsy.
In addition, Ruiz was a finalist for the Central Valley Carolyn Dobbs Special Education Teacher of the Year award, presented by the Kremen School of Education and Human Development Department at Californian State University, Fresno.
In a nomination letter for the Dobbs award, Madera County Office of Education Special Education Program Director Teresa Jorgensen said she is always amazed when she visits Ruiz’s classroom.
“Most people would run, not walk, out of her classroom as Tricia’s classroom is not your typical preschool classroom,” Jorgensen wrote. “It takes a truly special teacher with a very big heart to come to work each day to possible kicking, screaming, crying, and scratching, but Tricia does and she loves it. Tricia and her very capable staff are truly the ‘children whisperers.’ To have the ability to help these little people with such diverse needs transform over the months is very heartwarming.”
Jorgensen said Ruiz has celebrated many firsts with her students, such as the first word of an autistic student or the first steps of a child with Cerebral Palsy.
“Tricia looks at each student, not at his or her disability, but at their uniqueness and abilities,” Jorgensen said. “She focuses on what her student can do instead of what they can’t and helps them to their fullest potential.”
Kellie Geyer, who had a son in Ruiz’s Coarsegold class, says it is hard to put into words the impact Ruiz has had on her family and the love they have for her.
“When my son entered her class at age 3, I had only left him maybe a handful of times, besides all the hospital stays,” Geyer said. “I had a lot of apprehension. I didn’t think I could let my boy, who didn’t communicate, leave my side. I told the school I was planning on going to class with him for the first few weeks. Well, on the first day, after a few hours, I felt so comfortable that I left. I knew right away Tricia and her team would take excellent care of my baby.”
Geyer recalls running into Ruiz one day after school with her son Mitchell, who can be challenging at times.
“He had been screaming for the past two hours and I was at a loss on how to help him,” Geyer said. “Tricia was just leaving work, and I knew she had had a long day, and she didn’t hesitate for a moment to help me for the next two hours. She loved my children and didn’t care that she was no longer ‘on the clock.’ I was pregnant and sick, and honestly at the end of my rope. Her kindness to me will never be forgotten.”
In a congratulatory letter, Madera County Superintendent of Schools Cecilia Massetti told Ruiz that her selection continues the tradition of dedicated and exceptional service demonstrated by the many employees throughout Madera County schools.
First 5 honor
In addition to the county Teacher of the Year award, Ruiz is also the recipient of a Hands-On Hero award from First 5 Madera County in the category of Early Care and Education.
This is the sixth year that First 5 Madera County has recognized exceptional individuals who positively impact children’s lives in Madera County.
“Hands-On Heroes work tirelessly, overcome adversity and everyday challenges, and are seldom acknowledged for their work,” said Erika Wright, First 5 Resource Center Manager. “They could be aides in the classroom, janitors, teachers, family advocates, health workers, or volunteers in programs that benefit our youngest residents in Madera. They are those that make a difference every day in their work and in their lives.”
Ruiz was inspired to be a special education teacher by her cousin, and after assisting in Lori Blate’s special ed class at Yosemite High School.
“I have a cousin with a traumatic brain injury and in high school I was a teacher’s assistant for her in Lori Blate’s classroom,” Ruiz said. “It was during that time that I got to know a lot of her students, and I learned about helping them, and then I decided that I wanted to be a special ed teacher.”
Ruiz said the most challenging part of her job is teaching the students to communicate their needs.
“Most students have learned to get their needs met through behaviors, but I have to teach them to use words and ignore the behaviors,” Ruiz said. “I continue to keep upbeat at my job by truly loving the children and enjoying seeing them grow. I get to experience the excitement of all the little accomplishments they make day after day.”
Ruiz has been helped in the classroom the past 10 years by instructional assistants Sarah Sidoti and Aimee Orcutt.
“I would not be receiving these awards if it was not for my team of staff members. It takes the entire team to teach these children and my team is the best,” Ruiz said.
Ruiz earned her Liberal Arts degree from Fresno State, her multiple subject and moderate to severe credential from National University and her Early Childhood Specialist Credential from Brandman University.
In addition to her work in the classroom, Ruiz designed and helped obtain a grant for a handicap accessible playground at Coarsegold Elementary, the first such playground in the Mountain Area.
Ruiz also serves as coach of the Yosemite High School JV volleyball team. The team went 10-0 in North Sequoia League play last season.
Ruiz, of Coarsegold, is married to Cal Fire employee Anthony Ruiz, and the couple have two children, Alli, 15, and AJ, 9.
She will receive her Excellence in Education Teacher of the Year award on Oct. 13, during a banquet at the Madera County Office of Education Conference Center.