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Verde Magazine

Verde Magazine

Verde Magazine

Molding minds: New ceramics teacher inspires students

Kensie Pao
DYNAMIC CERAMICS — Tree Munoz, Paly’s new Fiery Arts teacher, holds one of many free-form clay sculptures made by her students. “People are unique,” Munoz said. “They all want something different, and in art, you get to do that.”

Tree Munoz shapes the clay with artful hands, smoothing the damp, beige-toned wedge as it spins on the pottery wheel in slow, even rotations. 

“Steady your hand,” she says, turning to show the precise angle at which she has positioned the slab.

In Room 105, no two days are the same. In every class there, students pursue their artistic interests at their own pace, following their own creative processes, with Munoz — Palo Alto High School’s new Fiery Arts teacher — guiding them through every challenge.

“I’d like to leave it a better place than when I got there,” said Munoz, who uses she/they pronouns and is in their second semester at Paly.

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Munoz teaches Art Spectrum, Advanced Placement 3-D Art and Design, Ceramics and Sculpture, and Advanced Sculpture at Paly under the Fiery Arts Booster Club — a Paly program that works extensively in glass and ceramics.

“I teach art because I love it,” Munoz said. “It’s the deepest kind of spiritual practice that I can imagine because I stand by and I sit by and I encourage when people are learning to make friends with their creative selves, trying things that they never imagined doing before.”

Munoz, who uses she/they pronouns, began their teaching career in 2011 as a substitute teacher. Since then, they have taught various art courses at other schools across California, such as Emeryville High School and Saratoga High School, working to elevate the minds and artistic pursuits of their students.

As an educator, Munoz hopes to support their students as best as they can and provide them with the necessary resources to become good artists. On a personal level, Munoz strives to create an environment where all their students feel comfortable and accepted, drawing wisdom from their own experiences as a queer person growing up in the 70s.

“I knew I was queer in high school, and I went to a place where that wasn’t very popular,” Munoz said. “I felt like an outcast and a bit of … a loner, so I want it [their classes] to be a place of healing.”

I teach art because I love it.

— Tree Munoz, Palo Alto High School's new ceramics teacher

Munoz said they see their role as an educator as more than just their career — they see it as their responsibility.

“Even though I was there [at Paly] to teach art, I was mostly … there to really care for my students,” Munoz said. “And I think that that’s my job.”

Many of their current students agree that so far, Munoz has been an exceptional teacher. Sophomore Orla Hedstrom, a student in Munoz’s third-period ceramics class, said she believes that Munoz’s support and encouragement of the craft allows students a chance to relax and unwind at a time when many are often worrying about their other classes.

“Everyone seems to be having a good time,” Hedstrom said. “I feel like it [the class] is a good break, like if you have a lot of challenging classes that day, it’s a great destresser.”

Since joining, Munoz has led events such as the Fiery Arts sale, helping students create pieces they can proudly display and sell outside the Performing Arts Center.

“We start preparation three to four weeks, almost a month before the sale,” Hedstrom said. “You’re required to make at least 10 things for the sale … and then if your things get sold, you get half the profit you make from your own pieces.”

However, due to low enrollment and a lack of funding, the Fiery Arts Booster Club has been struggling. Sales alone have not been enough to support all the courses fostered by the program, which includes glassblowing — an optional activity that Munoz presides over, but hires professionals to teach.

Instead, Munoz has had to resort to funding these from their own pocket, which has been both stressful and inconvenient for Munoz and her students.

“They [the classes] are amazing, but complicated, and I’d like things to be a little bit simpler,” Munoz said. “It would take a foundation grant or a donor to monetize an endowment so that the glass program is funded each year, and then it would be a question of hiring people to come in and teach and buy the materials instead of … how to fund [the class] as well as how to write it. So I love the program, but it adds a dimension of complication to my job.”

In addition to her contribution to the sale, Munoz’s care for their students is shown in the way they spend their time at lunch, opening doors to students regardless of whether they are in their class.

“My classroom is open at lunchtime, and you’re always invited to come in and sit there and play with clay,” Munoz said. “I do it beacuse … I want everybody to have a place where they can feel welcome, and when you’re feeling awkward, it’s much better if there’s something to do, and ceramics is the easiest thing in the world.”