Everyone at Monaco Middle School knows where to find teacher Ramiro Benavides.
That’s because during each school day — plus two hours after school, as well as during school holidays and summer vacations — Benavides does the same thing: He helps the several hundred students in his mariachi program practice, rehearse and hone their skills.
Benavides doesn’t blink at the fact that he receives no compensation for his many hours supporting the program outside of class, including after school and during the summer.
“The compensation doesn't mean anything,” says Benavides, who has taught for 15 years at the same school. “Seeing the students believe in themselves and rejoicing when they reach that high level of musicianship is what it is all about.”
Under the guidance of Benavides and his colleagues in the mariachi program, student participation has swelled from 99 to over 600.
These students not only learn complex instruments and participate in a rich musical tradition, but also develop discipline that benefits their whole lives.
“Our rigorous, high expectations make them incredible musicians, and even better academic students,” Benavides says.
For all of these reasons, Benavides was among 20 teachers out of 700 finalists to be named a winner at The Smith Center’s fourth-annual Heart of Education Awards, honoring outstanding Clark County School District (CCSD) teachers.
Powered by the Rogers Foundation, this event honors finalists with a night of celebration and entertainment. The top 20 teachers each receive a $5,000 cash gift and a $1,000 donation to their school.
Benavides shared his cash gift with his fellow mariachi program teachers. His school donation will go toward a grill for mariachi program fundraisers.
“I was happy just to be nominated alongside the other amazing teachers in CCSD,” Benavides says. “Teachers change lives.”
A classically trained violinist, Benavides never imagined playing mariachi until a community ensemble invited him to join.
The joyful and vibrant sounds captivated him so much, he became determined to build his life around it.
“I love mariachi music, and wanted to pass on the love of music to the next generations,” he says.
He took over Monaco Middle School’s mariachi program in 2005, three years after the program’s initial instruments were purchased with grant funding.
Building on this, Benavides developed a polished program where students work with separate violin, trumpet and guitar teachers to master their instruments before playing together.
Fewer than 1 percent of participating students have any prior musical experience, he says.
Yet they learn rapidly. Students progress through the beginner, intermediate and advanced mariachi classes, he says, with “rigorous” vocal and instrumental auditions each year to determine placement.
“Students love high expectations and love to be challenged,” says Benavides, noting that his students have performed in mariachi competitions across California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.
This is likely why participation has expanded significantly, he adds.
“When students see other students excel at such a high level in music, naturally they want to be a part of that,” he says.
Benavides felt “completely in shock” when he heard his name announced at the fourth-annual Heart of Education Awards.
He lauds how the annual event celebrates teachers with a red carpet and live performances. The fourth-annual event even featured surprise keynote speaker Laura Bush, former First Lady of the United States.
“It lets us know that someone cares about teachers,” Benavides says of the event. “Everyone in that room feels like a rock star for a night.”
Know a hardworking and inspiring teacher like Benavides? The nomination period for the fifth-annual Heart of Education Awards runs from October 1 to January 17, 2020.
Anyone can nominate an outstanding CCSD teacher at www.TheHeartofEducation.org.
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