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Teaching with trees.

"A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops."

Ask school teachers why they put in unimaginably long hours for so little money, and often you'll get a blank stare. "Sometimes we forget why," says Pedro "Pete" Alaniz, now teaching his 20th year of science courses at South San Antonio (Texas) High School. "There isn't enough time to think about it."

Educators don't get rich. Few achieve any recognition beyond the classroom, and few expect it. But after two decades of working in classrooms sometimes too small to decorate, Alaniz is getting his due.

In the summer of 1991, the American Federation of Teachers selected Alaniz to prepare a lesson plan about the importance of trees as a food source. He taught his plan on a telecast that aired in more than 30 states the following October, in conjunction with World Food Day. When Alaniz had to come to Washington to work out details, he joined AMERICAN FORESTS National Teachers Working Group. The group gave him the support to take "Trees for Life," a project that promotes agricultural self-sufficiency in villages around the world, back home to Texas.

Since South San, as it's called, has only limited funds for student field trips, Alaniz must be inventive in order to teach about the environment. Four years ago, he persuaded the school to give his students and him a free rein, if not a blank check, to landscape South San's campus. Now students and teachers walk beside cedar elms and drought-resistant crepemyrtles between classes.

And now, thanks to Trees for Life, Alaniz's Science Club is stepping beyond school grounds to plant trees in the community. "About 12 to 15 students are in the Science Club, and all are involved in Trees for Life," he explains.

"In the fall of 1991, we planted 40 to 50 fruit and nut trees at the homes of needy families so that eventually they can supplement their diets. The referrals for places to plant these trees came from area churches. The families have responded real well, and they know the trees won't bear fruit right away; that'll take three or four years. Meanwhile, the students come back to check on the trees frequently, mulching and fertilizing them two or three times a year."

Live and red oaks, mesquites, and pecans are among the trees that dot the alternating hills and desert plains of San Antonio, once the cattle hub of texas and now one of the nation's largest cities. Alaniz sees to it that those native species will continue to bloom, even where urban development has already encroached. He deflects credit, though.

"I've been blessed with some terrific students. Just to name two, Patricia Arambula and Iris Ybarra were recognized by Earthworks, Inc., as 'Kid Heroes of the Environment,' then by Washington State's Giraffe Project for 'sticking their necks out.'"

Like most teachers, Alaniz is busy. He and wife Tracey, who teaches social studies at South San, leave for work at 7 a.m., drop their two children at pre-and elementary school, and don't see them again until 6 p.m. Throw in several hours of weekend school activities, and the Alanizes' working week totals too many hours to count. "If I'm awake, I'm probably working," says Pete.

Recognition doesn't simplify his life. In April of this year, Governor Ann Richards appointed Alaniz to serve on Texas' Teachers' Professional Practices Commission. The panel evaluates alleged ethical violations--anything from the misuse of funds to improper classroom conduct. It requires Alaniz to make four or five trips a year to Austin, the state capital.

Then, in May, Alaniz's Science Club won the $1,000 second-place prize in Texas' Statewide Environmental Challenge Contest for its recycling program. The club has spent the money a bit at a time, using some of it to place recycling bins around the South San campus and apportioning the rest for shovels, mulch, and fertilizer to further Trees for Life.

So why do teachers put in those crazy hours? "In a single school year you can see the impact you make on people's lives," says Alaniz. "And there's a tremendous satisfaction in watching students begin to sense their own responsibilities."
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Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Hopps, Michael W.
Publication:American Forests
Date:Nov 1, 1992
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