WEST WHITTIER – For the second time in a decade, a Whittier-area teacher has been chosen to represent the state of California in a national competition aimed at finding the best educator in the country. Denis Cruz, a language-arts reading coach at Edwards Middle School in the Whittier City School District, was named Thursday as one of five co-winners of this year’s California Teacher of the Year contest. But only one state winner could be chosen by State Superintendent Jack O’Connell to represent the Golden State in the national competition – and this year’s nominee was Cruz, 49, a resident of Fullerton. “I’m feeling humbled and honored,” Cruz said Thursday after the announcement was made, although he had known for about two weeks that he’d been selected. AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MOREWalnut’s Malik Khouzam voted Southern California Boys Athlete of the Week “I just want to do a good job for all my students, for all the teachers,” Cruz said. “I really feel like this is the greatest profession.” Cruz is the second local teacher in a decade to reach the national level in the annual Teacher of the Year contest. The program aims to pay tribute to teachers and the growing complexity of challenges at California schools, as well as the need to promote collaboration among teachers to meet those challenges. In 1996, Pioneer High School math teacher Javier Gonzalez – who is now also a Whittier City School District board member – was named the state’s nominee for the national teaching award. And that kind of honor comes with responsibilities, Gonzalez said. “It’s a great honor for Denis, and for the city and the school district,” Gonzalez said. “I became Teacher of the Year in 1996. Here we are a decade later, and I’m still involved with education on a state and national level. “He needs to understand that with recognition comes responsibility. He’s going to become a spokesperson for public education and he needs to go out and tell people what wonderful things are happening in the classroom – and what not-so-wonderful things – so politicians and policymakers will listen,” Gonzalez said. Cruz has been teaching for 26 years, 19 of which have been in the Whittier City School District and five of which have been spent at Edwards, he said. For the past two years, he has served as a literacy coach, said Edwards Principal Monica Sena. He works with teachers to customize their language-arts curricula and improve instruction. “We’re in the `shocked’ stage right now. We’ll probably get to the other stages in a couple of days,” Sena said about Cruz’s nomination. “I think he carries very important messages in what he does that address the glaring needs of students today,” Sena said. “Specifically, there’s the importance of literacy and physical fitness, because he was the district’s physical fitness mentor for years. “Then there’s the power of coaching, and I don’t mean football – I mean teacher coaching,” Sena said. “And he’s a big advocate of the character education program.” O’Connell said Cruz was chosen to represent California because of his broad experience in elementary and middle schools, which includes implementing a social-skills program at Edwards Middle in response to incidents of students bringing guns to school and fellow students refusing to report them. “Denis Cruz’s passion for teaching was quite evident in his application,” O’Connell said in a statement. “He said teaching is the `greatest profession on the planet.’ When he taught his first lesson, he described it as `magical.’ “His motto is `never, ever, give up,’ on a student,” O’Connell added. “He believes his students are his rewards for teaching.” When Cruz learned he’d been named California Teacher of the Year, it was the end of a pretty bad – or pretty good – week, depending on how you look at it. That Monday, his son had an MRI to determine whether he had a brain tumor. His wife was also having tests for cancer. And that Friday, after flying back from his interview with O’Connell in Sacramento, he found out his son was fine, his wife was fine, and that O’Connell had called to say he was a California Teacher of the Year. And how did they celebrate? “We screamed, we made brownies,” Cruz said, smiling. [email protected] (562) 698-0955, Ext. 3051160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!