Arizona Teacher of the Year Efrain Casillas
Efrain Casillas has traveled a circuitous route from his childhood in Puerto Rico, to his education and early career in Connecticut, to his current roles in the Tolleson, Arizona Elementary School District. What has stayed constant during his journey has been his love of music and his joy in sharing that love with the next generation of musicians and audiences.
Along the way, Casillas has been recognized repeatedly for his efforts, and has received a Music Teachers of Excellence Award from the Country Music Award Foundation, the Esperanza Latino Teacher Award from Chicanos Por La Causa and his recent selection as Arizona Teacher of the Year.
Casillas moved to Waterbury, Connecticut, from his native Puerto Rico at the age of 16. As a student at Wilby High School in Waterbury, Casillas, like many Connecticut residents, looked at the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system for his post-secondary education options. Initially enrolled at Central Connecticut State University, he transferred to Western Connecticut State University “because it had a better music program in my opinion,” he said.
“I heard that Dr. Fernando Jimenez was going to teach at WCSU, and that is when I made the decision to transfer,” Casillas said. “Dr. Jimenez is a Latino music professor and he plays the same instrument as me — trombone — so he was my main inspiration to move to WCSU.”
Casillas was active in WCSU’s symphony and two jazz performance ensembles. Looking back, what he remembers most were the private lessons, mentoring and support he received from Jimenez. “My favorite memory of Dr. Jimenez was when we played together for the tour of David and Habram. These are two famous singers from Puerto Rico, so it meant a lot to me,” he said.
Recognizing the importance of connecting with the music of your native culture would later play an important role in Casillas’ teaching career.
Upon graduating from WCSU in 1999 with a Bachelor of Arts in Music, Casillas was employed by the Hartford School District as a music teacher. An important milestone during his five years teaching in Hartford was an invitation for Casillas and his students to perform at the National Symposium for Multicultural Music at the University of Tennessee, he said.
Casillas’ journey ultimately brought him to Tolleson, Arizona, a small community west of Phoenix. For more than 17 years, he has coordinated the music programs in the district and taught general and instrumental music at two schools, Desert Oasis Elementary and Porfirio H. Gonzales Elementary. During his tenure there, Casillas created the district’s first Mariachi, Jazz, Marching, Concert and Latin jazz bands.
As a native of Puerto Rico, Mariachi was not part of his musical heritage, but Casillas made it a priority to learn it because it is part of the culture of many of his students who are native to Mexico. Casillas believes that Mariachi allows his students to feel connected to their parents or grandparents who, in many cases, still reside in Mexico.
A local newspaper story about Casillas in 2018 said, “When building the curriculum, Casillas made sure to keep his students’ ethnic backgrounds in mind. Although he is not from Mexico, he knows how important Mariachi music is to his students and worked to include a class on it. ‘I had to learn how to play Mariachi instruments to be able to teach those students,’ Casillas said. ‘It was a learning process, but it was just to keep the culture for the kids.’”
The Tolleson Elementary School Mariachi Band Casillas created, Los Tigres de Tolleson, has competed at the Tucson Mariachi International Conference and won First and Second place in the Choice Awards for three years in a row. The band has also been invited to perform at Disneyland and in the Disneyland parade. Casillas’ Marching Band has participated in the Fiesta Bowl Parade for three consecutive years, and the Latin Jazz Band opened for and accompanied percussionist Pete Escovedo,
As an educator, the awards and accolades Casillas has received have been abundant. He was named Tolleson Elementary School District’s Teacher of the Year in 2015 and was nominated for a Life Changer Award in 2017. In 2018, Casillas received the Esperanza Latino Teacher Award from Chicanos por la Causa.
Casillas also received the Music Teachers of Excellence Award from the Country Music Award Foundation during the 55th annual CMA Awards in 2020 and was featured in a CMA Foundation “Music Education Minute” video. Casillas learned of his CMA Foundation Award when he was a guest in a “Best in Class” segment on the Kelly Clarkson Show.
Casillas is an active member of the Arizona Music Education Association and a candidate for National Board Certification (NBCT). He received the Phoenix Arts Hero Award in 2022, and more recently, he was selected by the Arizona Educational Foundation as the 2024 Arizona Teacher of the Year. Casillas will now compete as Arizona’s candidate for National Teacher of the Year.
None of these accomplishments come as a surprise to his former professor and mentor, Dr. Fernando Jimenez. “Efrain is definitively one of the hardest working students I have ever had the pleasure of teaching,” Jimenez said. “His passion and love for the craft and his students is palpable always. In addition, he is an outstanding human being. I am so proud and happy that he is receiving this latest well-deserved prize.”
It’s been nearly a quarter century since he graduated from WCSU, and Casillas still carries the lessons he learned with him. “My time at WCSU taught me to be passionate about my music and continue my willingness to work hard to be successful,” he said. “Also, all of the skills that my professors gave me prepared me to do a good job as a teacher.”
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