Chemistry is hard. But Julianna Matz, a science teacher at Taos High School and University of New Mexico-Taos, won’t let that stop a student from finding out just how capable and powerful they …
Chemistry is hard. But Julianna Matz, a science teacher at Taos High School and University of New Mexico-Taos, won’t let that stop a student from finding out just how capable and powerful they are.
She won’t let the difficulty of all the elements and ions, solutions and formulas overpower her students’ possibilities. She won’t let the challenge, and then the mistakes, drown the drive to reach that ah-ha moment. And she won’t allow a young person's limited view of their own ability get in the way of taking a chance on themselves.
Before getting into Matz’s intro chemistry class, Adbul Khweis thought about the subject — all the math, all the eraser marks, all of it — with more than a little dread.
“I was like, ‘Man, chemistry seems hard,’ ” he said.
But he showed up for class and tried his best. When he messed up a question, Matz’s door was open, and she was always ready to explain it another way and work with him until it clicked.
Then, another student would come in and Matz, who teaches about 180 students each year, would do it again.
For her unending dedication to show up for her students over a 20-year career at Taos’ largest high school, Matz is a Taos News Unsung Hero for 2019.
Came to play, then decided to stay
Matz has long called Taos home, but she had to find her way here first.
The thing that brought her here wasn’t so much of a wagon wheel falling off as it was a putting on a pair of skis.
Matz was born and raised in Nebraska. She made her way to Vermillion, South Dakota, to attend college, where she was an ambitious double major in chemistry and German.
She was eager to go to grad school, but when she and her adviser sat down to look over her transcript, they realized that with a full load of chemistry classes the following year, she was not on track to graduate on time.
Her adviser had an idea. He taught at Die Deutsche Sommerschule von New Mexico, the University of New Mexico’s intensive German session hosted each summer in Taos Ski Valley, where students read, write and speak exclusively in German. He suggested she go there and finish up her degree.
It was 1994 when she stepped foot in the now-demolished Thunderbird Lodge. Matz got her dual-major degree the next spring.
Though she went off to Arizona for a graduate program in chemistry, Matz wasn’t done with German. Or Taos. So she came back to the summer school to begin a second graduate degree in the language she always loved.
She came back the summer after that, too.
Matz was 22 at the time and just a couple years away from finishing her PhD, but was faced with a crossroad. She was offered a job as a manager at the Thunderbird Lodge.
“I’d never just taken off and … like … played,” Matz said. “So I disappointed my parents and quit grad school in chemistry and stayed and skied for two years.”
In those years, she met her future husband, Manuel “Mano” Esquibel, and got to know the Ernie Blake family (then-owners of Taos Ski Valley). Matz took a Fulbright scholarship to go to Austria for a year and while there, was offered a teaching gig in Taos.
“I didn’t have money, so I was like, ‘Sure, I’ll take the job,’ ” she said.
Matz came back to the Unites States, finished up her master’s work — including exams, all in German, at the Thunderbird — and started teaching at Taos High School.
‘Nose to the grindstone’
Teachers are notoriously stretched thin on time, resources and the energy to do that one thing they’re being asked to do.
Matz is no different.
“There are days that it’s draining, but most of the time, to walk in and … just what the kids … the different things they’ll do,” she said. “You can be in the worst mood and some kid will do something and you just burst out laughing and it’s like, ‘Okay, that’s why we’re here.’
“And to see their faces light up when they learn something, when they’re challenged and excited …” she tailed off.
Though demands are tough, her students can readily se the effort she makes to be present and really mean it.
“She’s a really dedicated teacher who does all these programs for the betterment of Taos High: chem club, honor society,” said Khweis. “She has all these priorities and she knows how to maintain them.”
But just the list of activities “doesn’t fully capture the way she shows up,” said CJ Grace, principal at Taos High School.
Grace cited her ‘thoughtfulness and intention” to plan and prepare not just for those hours the students are in the classroom, but also for the untold hours it takes to coordinate the dual-credit program, where Taos High students earn college credit at UNM-Taos.
“The partnership is amazing to see,” said Matz.
Taking college-level classes, she said, saves students time and money. But more than the economic benefit, she want her students to know they can do yet another thing they didn’t think was possible.
“You got to put your nose to the grindstone,” she said. “They can do it, so … go do it.”
‘Our students want that somebody’
If chemistry is a hard subject, Matz is a hard teacher.
When some kids ganged up on one struggling student who said he couldn’t understand the lesson that day, Matz decided to make a point and proceed to teach the rest of the class in German.
“Math and science in any language is math and science,” she said.
Still. students said that she can find that magic spot between pushing them and making sure they know she has faith in them.
“She knows you can do it, but won’t do it for you,” said Kineo Memmer, who just graduated in May and is attending UNM.
Memmer recalls one of the first chemistry tests — it was about ions, and it was her second stab at it — and bringing Matz what she thought was a finished exam.
Matz looked it over. “There’s a mistake. You need to find it,” Matz told her. So she did.
Even though chemistry is “a terrifying subject” for Memmer, she went on to take another chemistry class and then was a student aide in yet another chemistry class.
“Actually seeing the processes behind the scenes made it make more sense for me,” she said. “It was the opportunity to continuously learn.”
But there’s a lot more to teaching than knowing the content.
You’ve got to have the human elements, Matz maintained.
“They are searching for that person they can connect with,” she said. “Our students want that somebody to talk to, to confide in, laugh with, cry with and learn something from them, too.”
“After I moved here from California, she was a good person to have right away,” Memmer said. “She could tell I didn’t have very many friends … so she would always talk to me in class. She was the one who encouraged me to do a full honors schedule. That relationship stuck for the three years I was there.”
“I’m just very proud of her as a person,” Memmer said, noting the stresses Matz was under with nonstop demands in the school and the death of her father-in-law last year.
“She managed to be there for her students when they needed it,” she added.
“I think the students at Taos High like to see that teachers are humans, too,” Matz said. “The kids know I’m just … who I am.”
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