When Jorge Pulleiro was 16-years-old he brought home an old blackboard, and propped it up on his dining room wall. He bought some chalk, an eraser, and then papered shops around Buenos Aires, Argentina, with flyers for his English tutoring business.
It was the start of a lifelong calling for Pulleiro, and the teaching career that would carry him across the globe.
By 18 he’d landed his first professional post, teaching English to Argentinian high school students only a few years younger than himself. He brought his first paycheck home to Casilda Nasibe Dip Pulleiro, his widowed mother, who had worked 12-hour days as a seamstress and a maid to enroll Jorge in an extracurricular English academy, and pay for private school when she could.
“This is for you to do whatever you want,” Jorge told his mother. His second paycheck bought a new color TV, a luxury they’d never been able to afford.
Today, at 48, Pulleiro teaches Spanish in the dual immersion program at Wood River Middle School in Hailey. He’s an Army veteran, a father of four, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and last week he earned a new distinction: Idaho’s 2021 teacher of the year.
Pulleiro’s passion for teaching came from an “angelic” teacher who showed him kindness during a rough time; required a leap of faith that brought him to the United States; and was buoyed by the support of his mother, who left school in the third grade when her mother died, but pushed her son to take his education further.
“I am so grateful and extremely proud of this achievement,” Casilda Pulleiro, 87, said in an email. “…The sacrifice I made as a young widowed mother was so worth it.”
An unpredictable path
Jorge Pulleiro didn’t want to play soccer around the clock in elementary school — he wanted to study, to master his subjects and get good grades. His peers, even some teachers, bullied him for it.
His third grade teacher showed him a new way.
“This angelic teacher showed me so much love, and believed in me so much, that in third grade I decided I wanted to be like her,” Pulleiro said. “I was not going to bully anybody, and I wanted to be a teacher.”
A few years after he realized that dream in Argentina, Jorge won a scholarship to study at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. He didn’t want to leave his mother, his friends or his country, but at Casilda’s urging, Jorge took the scholarship and moved to America.
On the first day of school Jorge met Charlotte, a student from Ontario, Ore. They got married in 1996 and have four children: Ashlie, Gina, Emma and Lucas.
Pulleiro uses the experience as a teaching moment for his students: Sometimes to succeed you have to take risks.
“Sometimes you don’t know why you do the things that you do, but there is something strong that tells you: even if you don’t want to, do it,” he said. “Listen to those whisperings…because you never know what is going to happen.”
Pulleiro spent six years in the Army after BYU, became an officer, lived in Germany and worked as a rear detachment commander during the outset of the war in Iraq. He left the service in 2005 and through a program called Troops to Teachers started teaching Spanish at Grant Union High School in John Day, Ore. He moved to the Blaine County School District in 2012.
‘It’s all about relationships’
A Blue Ribbon panel selected Pulleiro as the top candidate for Teacher of the Year from of a pool of 170 nominees.
His supervisors and his students say Pulleiro’s encouragement and compassion distinguish him as a leader, a role model, and a trusted liaison for the district’s Latino families and English Language Learners.
Principal Fritz Peters says it’s not unusual for Pulleiro to call him and ask for help connecting a family to community resources. Spanish-speakers often reach out to Pulleiro about personal matters, high school graduates still call for advice, and Pulleiro’s daughter, Ashlie, told Eye on Sun Valley about a time her dad helped counsel a student who was contemplating suicide.
“They just trust him,” Peters said. “It’s an incredible position he’s created in a sense just through his kindness.”
Pulleiro also serves on a Latino Staff Advisory Committee and helped create the Conferencia Educativa Para Padres, a gathering for Spanish speaking parents typically held near the start of the school year.
Luis Armando Ruiz, a junior at Whitman College, says Pulleiro is the kind of teacher who will stop to catch up with Ruiz and his family if he sees them around town — even though Ruiz has been out of his class for almost a decade.
“He has great relationships with parents, which is kind of rare,” Ruiz said. “It’s kind of hard a lot of the time when parents don’t speak as much English.”
Pulleiro pushed Ruiz and his friends to realize their academic potential. The boys used to goof off in school, Ruiz remembers. When they got to Pulleiro’s class in middle school they thought he was being tough on them — but over time realized he just wanted them to succeed.
“He wasn’t just trying to make us be quiet, he wanted us to be quiet so we would be able to learn,” Ruiz said. “He would go out of his way to come ask us if we needed help or just be there whenever we did.”
Pulleiro represents a disproportionately small group of educators in Idaho. Statewide only 2.7 percent of teachers are Hispanic or Latino. In Blaine County, about 9 percent of all teachers are Hispanic or Latino, compared to 40 percent of the student body.
“To have a Latino in a leadership position at our school — or a Latina — is really critical to the development of our Latinx students,” Peters said. “Not only do they see that role model…they see the benefit of bilingualism, the belief that with two languages I am actually more valuable to this community.”
Pulleiro’s immigrant experience can offer another point of connection.
“I grew up in a third world country. I am the son of a maid. I am where I am because I know that we can succeed,” Pulleiro tells his students: “… You can do even better.”
Pulleiro’s message as teacher of the year is this: It’s all about relationships.
He’s not afraid to set aside class time to talk with students about his life experiences or theirs. He believes in sharing his emotions. And he’ll attend student’s games, concerts or family funerals to let them know he cares about their lives.
“After they know that I care for them individually, that I know them not just by name, then they will learn,” Pulleiro said.