CASPER, Wyo. (AP) — Daisies stood in vases near the back of Mauro Diaz's science classroom one recent morning at Dean Morgan Junior High in Casper.
"You brought us flowers, how nice," one student said as she entered.
The daisies were for the day's lesson about reproductive organs. Students overcame their giggles about sex and dissected the flowers at Diaz's direction, looking for organs they learned about the week before.
Diaz, 43, moved slowly from table to table, meeting the gaze of each student with a question. One girl asked whether she could keep her flower after class. A boy wondered where on a worksheet he should draw ovaries.
Diaz asked as many questions as he answered, his soft voice barely rising above the level of a one-on-one conversation.
Ask Diaz what he wants changed in education, however, and he's hard to quiet.
The Juarez, Mexico native is a teaching ambassador for the U.S. Department of Education this year. He serves on the governing board of the country's only independent teacher certification program, the Arlington, Va.-based National Board of Professional Teaching Standards. His colleagues there say he provides a rural voice in a discussion otherwise dominated by concern for urban schools.
In a profession with growing focus on standardized tests and school accountability, teachers often feel reform is something that's done to them. Diaz wants that to change.
When appropriate, he suggests students should be grouped by ability, not age. Teachers, like doctors, should complete an apprenticeship. Diaz opposes using student test scores to help determine a teacher's evaluation, and he wants to build "passion time" into every student's schedule.
Most importantly, Diaz says, teachers need a voice in the discussion.
In a way, Diaz's childhood move from Mexico in the late 1970s led him to teaching.
His mother and her four children relocated to the U.S. on a work visa when Diaz was about 8. They settled in New Mexico, where she worked at the county hospital.
Diaz's father stayed in Juarez. He passed away in 1996.
"He drank a lot," Diaz said. "And the drink kind of went to his head. I think my mom didn't want us to grow up around that kind of violence. She wanted a future for us."
Every six months, the family would trek to El Paso, Texas, to renew their mother's work visa.
"We didn't know whether one of these times they would say, 'You're going to be deported. We can't renew this. You're going back to Mexico,'" Diaz said.
In the meantime, Diaz's three sisters volunteered at a local hospital. Diaz, the youngest, was a boy scout. They acted out of more than altruism. Their mother wanted to prove her children would be good citizens.
Diaz's teachers took a special interest in his family, signing letters vouching for the children's attendance and grades to show to immigration officials. They made sure he was a good student.
"It made us all grow up really quick," Diaz said.
He earned an English degree in Texas and worked as a ranch hand before taking a job translating instructional manuals for a Laramie manufacturing company. There he met his wife and earned a biology degree from the University of Wyoming.
He became a U.S. citizen around age 22.
"I feel a sense that I need to give back," Diaz said. "How do I give back to a country that kind of, basically, adopted me?"
For Diaz, teaching was the answer.
Diaz's calm demeanor sets him apart as a teacher, said his Dean Morgan colleague Brianna Farrell.
"He finds a way to work it out with (the students)," Farrell said. "And that's a quality that a lot of educators don't necessarily have."
Diaz was one of seven new additions to the board of directors at the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards this year, said the organization's CEO, Ron Thorpe. His group developed the nation's only peer-reviewed, performance-based certification process for teachers.
Board certification is the norm in many other professions, Thorpe said. But unlike the medical field, where roughly 90 percent of doctors are board certified, fewer than 4 percent of teachers are board certified.
"Mauro got bit by this bug that (says), 'I'm going to take responsibility for my profession,'" Thorpe said. "He understands that we can't sit around in education and complain about what everybody is doing to us, if we're not going to speak up and tell them what we think should happen."
That's what Diaz is all about, Thorpe said. Wyoming is better off for it.
Education reformers spend a lot of time talking about the urban poor, he said. But there are many students living in conditions more akin to Wyoming than New York City.
"We have to make sure our profession serves those children as well," Thorpe said.
— Student perspective
Diaz spoke over the mild chatter in his classroom as severed flower parts lay scattered on tables.
"OK, so let's move on," he said, walking to the front of the room. "I had a student several years ago. We'll call him Phillippe."
Phillippe told the class he inherited his distaste for broccoli from his grandfather, who also hated broccoli, Diaz said. Phillippe's classmates didn't think that was possible.
Diaz asked for his student's thoughts.
"Isn't it more like you pick up behaviors from others by watching them?" asked Kiara Sims, 13.
"So it's behavior?" Diaz said.
"Yeah," Sims replied.
"Would anyone agree with Phillippe?" Diaz asked.
One boy in the back raised his hand.
"It's too much of a coincidence for whole families not to like something," the boy said.
Diaz used Phillippe's story not only to illustrate genetic quirks like the ability to taste bitterness in broccoli, which is a trait controlled by a gene that only some people inherit. (Later in the class, Diaz asked students to place a special type of paper on their tongues. If a person inherited the gene for bitterness, the paper tastes like a mouthful of metal dentistry tools. If a person did not, the paper is tasteless.) He used Phillippe's story to spark students' thinking about their own experiences, to integrate the knowledge they bring to the classroom into their learning.
Homework that night was to record family members' traits. Can my parents roll their tongue into a taco? Does my mom or dad have attached earlobes? Do I?
"What drives me, I think, is that every child deserves a good teacher," Diaz said. "The idea that they deserve the best from me."
Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, http://www.trib.com