Karla Quinones, Teacher, Bill Reed Middle School
Life for Karla Quinones is nothing like she ever imagined it would be. Instead, it’s so much better.
Though she once dreamed of performing in the spotlight every night, she has found that being a theater teacher, mom and wife is exactly where she was meant to be.
Looking back on her childhood, Karla remembers spending countless hours dancing, singing and performing, and she always knew she would devote her life to the arts. She just didn’t know it would be as a drama teacher for an arts-focused middle school.
“I wanted to do Broadway, movies, TV … but people scared me about it. They told me to be realistic,” Karla says. While studying theater and communications in college, she began to look at other options. Her mother, a science teacher, encouraged her to explore the idea of being a teacher. Though initially reluctant, Karla soon found she had another passion: Sharing her joy of performing with young people.
After graduation, Karla began to dream of running a drama program of her own. She spent several years teaching English and theater, and directing and co-directing high school shows at Mountain View (where one of the productions she led was chosen to perform on the main stage at the annual ThesCon event in Denver) and then Karla, whose students call her ‘Q’, found her perfect fit at Bill Reed Middle School running the theater program.
“I can proudly say I have made theater a viable career for my life, and I am living my dream,” says Karla, who, in addition to teaching drama and acting full-time at Bill Reed, the designated Loveland Integrated School of the Arts (LISA) middle school in Thompson School District, also acts in local stage productions herself.
But running a thriving drama program at the only TSD middle school that has a full auditorium (where Karla’s students put on a musical production in addition to a straight play each year) is about more than just teaching her students to act, sing, and run a show from behind the scenes.
“Kids in middle school are so worried about where they belong. Here, they can just BE,” she explains. “The arts matter. We have kids who that’s their passion. They’re more sensitive and think outside the box.”
Using minimalist sets and accepting every student who wants to participate into the productions, Karla has led her students through shows such as James and the Giant Peach, which involved Bill Reed’s visual arts students creating shadow puppets to represent some of the unusual characters, to Frozen, which ended up having to be a virtual show due to the pandemic. Through it all, Karla said her students rose to every occasion. “Kids are so resilient. We don’t realize how strong they are. Most of the time, they are stronger than us.”
For Karla, giving her students a space where they feel safe is more personal than just a passion for teaching. Karla was born in Puerto Rico, and moved to the United States when she was five, just in time to start elementary school. She didn’t speak any English, and she recalls crying every day as she struggled to acclimate to her new world. She also remembers her mother sitting outside the school every day, just so Karla could see her from the window of her classroom.
“It was very scary, but I’m grateful, because I learned English in a year,” she says. “That’s why it’s so important for kids to belong, and what a difference it makes for someone to make you feel accepted – just one person.”
Those experiences shaped Karla’s philosophies on the importance of using the arts to create a safe haven for students and a place where they feel like they fit in. “What I do is not really teaching them theater. It’s teaching them to have empathy, to be kind and co-exist with others. That’s what I teach,” she explains. “I have kids who don’t feel like they belong anywhere else but here. That’s why I love what I do.”