Menendez retires but will remain ‘teacher for life’


Photo by Addam Sapien

Getting students interested in Spanish by playing games or acting hilarious is what Juan Menendez does best. Audrey Shu said, “He’s not a judgmental person. He just wants to support his students and help them. He’s also very passionate about teaching students about Spanish.”

Spanish teacher Juan Menendez, who will retire from teaching this week, emigrated from Guatemala in 1974. He arrived in Los Angeles after finishing high school to visit his mother, but his planned vacation turned out to be a permanent relocation.

With minimal English skills, Menendez started his first job in Los Angeles at an auto body shop. Almost immediately he added evening English classes to his schedule.

“I left home early in the morning and went to work,” Menendez said. “Then instead of going home, I went straight to school for ESL class. My day didn’t end until, like, 10 p.m. So I only had a few minutes to have something to eat from the lunch truck. I did that for about four years.”

Menendez was motivated to learn English to earn a job promotion.

“[Learning English] helped me to transition from working in the body shop to working at a dealership,” he said. “The English that I learned helped me to climb the ladder. I was in charge of the parts department at the Cadillac dealership.”

Menendez worked several jobs before he started attending college, but he got one of his first teaching experiences at church. “I became a Sunday school teacher. I’ve been teaching basically all my life,” he said. “I taught the bilingual youth class and used the English I knew.”

A few years later he got married and started taking classes at Mount San Antonio College in Walnut. He had to work full time, so he could take only two classes each term.

“After I got home from taking my classes, everyone was sleeping, but I needed to do my homework,” said Menendez, who still needed extra time to translate some assignments from English to Spanish to fully understand the content. “I’d go into the closet and use the closet light to finish my work. I just had two classes each semester so it took me much longer to finish.”

Although he was not studying to become a teacher, Menendez was offered a job to teach US citizen classes. He had earned his own citizenship in the 1980s.

“I taught people from age 18 to around age 50,” he said. “Then they’d come back and they’d say, ‘I went to my citizenship exam. I took my test, and I passed thanks to you.’”

As his writing skills strengthened, Menendez also accepted a part-time ELD instructional aide position at Mt. SAC. Menendez knew he wanted to be a teacher, but he didn’t expect that he would be teaching high school.

“I actually wanted to become a college professor. But back then, I needed a job. I knew I could teach, I knew the language, I just needed the degree to do so,” said Menendez, who finished his degree in Spanish and earned his teaching credential at Cal State Fullerton.

While finishing his credential program, Menendez was hired as a long term substitute at Fullerton High School and then was hired full-time the following year.

“[FUHS] invited me to teach, but they only had two Spanish classes. So I taught two Spanish classes and three ELD classes,” said Menendez, who would also wind up teaching computer skills classes during his 20-year teaching career.

Because getting through school was a long journey for Menendez, he understands when his students seem tired with school. 

To make learning fun, Menendez strives for variety and student interaction in his classes. With games like “I have it” and “Blooket” (pronounced “blue-kit”), he keeps students engaged.

Junior Ruby Carachure-Ortiz has had Menendez for two years and couldn’t ask for a better teacher. “He’s one of my favorite Spanish teachers,” Carachure-Ortiz said. “I like how he always makes me laugh and there’s never a dull moment in there.”

Spanish teacher Helen Craft described Menendez’s character. “He spends hours preparing lessons so that students have an easier time accessing the curriculum,” Craft said. “He isn’t afraid to be silly in front of his students to make learning more fun. He is always positive and even receives unwelcome news with grace.”

Menendez has made students smile with his warm compassion, lovely music and spirited dancing. 

 “I love teaching and that’s something I will never let go of,” he said. “Being here at Fullerton, I’m an Indian for life, but, definitely, I’m always a teacher for life.”

Having to say goodbye to all his classes will be hard on Mr. Menendez, pictured here with his period 3 Spanish 2 class. (Photo by Osvaldo Muñoz)