CGUniverse: Meet the Doctoral Candidate Who Is California’s Teacher of the Year
Jason Torres-Rangel had a big year in 2022: He was named both Los Angeles and California Teacher of the Year and is now in the running to be National Teacher of the Year in 2023. He’s also juggling his time pursuing his PhD in Urban Leadership at CGU and teaching in Los Angeles’ Boyle Heights. We asked Jason about teaching, keeping his students interested, and what brought him to CGU for his doctorate.
What does it mean to you to be named California Teacher of the Year?
At times it’s hard to wrap my head around it because there are so many educators in California, but what is exciting about this opportunity is the chance to shine a light on the profession, to shine a light on my students’ voices, to uplift who they are and their stories, and really uplift and celebrate the work of my colleagues, not just teachers but the whole ecosystem that makes a school work: counselors, librarians, nurses, groundskeepers, principals.
What are the qualities to you that make a great teacher?
Great teachers lead with this idea that teaching is an incredibly human endeavor. We live in an assessment-driven educational policy climate right now, but coming back from Covid everyone is recognizing the importance of focusing on who the people are in the room and building relationships—relationships that are authentic. If that doesn’t happen first, the learning isn’t going to be deep and authentic.
How do you show up authentically in the classroom to build those relationships?
I lead with humor, with ease, with a kind of joy that’s celebratory. I believe in revolutionary informality. Sometimes we get wrapped up in the idea of what we’re supposed to be: as a teacher, as a student, as an administrator, but if you just show up as you are, a lot of things happen with a deeper richness. So, I’m very honest with my students about what’s going on with me in my life, and then I pivot to have them share with me. Allowing yourself to be who you are opens that door with students.
You’ve been teaching for 19 years. Do you see a difference in students today from when you started teaching?
When I started teaching, smartphones weren’t omnipresent. Everything was paper, even attendance. Now that’s unthinkable. But the needs and the interests and the passions are all the same. Students still have the same wonderings about why things are the way they are and how they fit in. There’s this universal beauty in adolescents that doesn’t really change, but there’s new things that adolescents are responding to, and those things are changing. People think that students enter the classroom with this lack of knowledge of the world, and I think the opposite is true: They’re incredibly plugged in.
What lessons have you learned from your students that you wish you’d known at their age?
I wish I had given myself permission to delve deeper. I think sometimes in the rush to be a competitive high school student for college you think you have to tick off certain boxes, but I think increasingly we’re seeing it’s about developing this original, organic self and just really jumping into that headfirst.
What kind of methods do you use to keep your students engaged? What have you found helpful for keeping students interested?
I had these consciousness-raising moments in high school and early undergrad that inspired me to create these moments in my curriculum. There are certain concepts that I saw during my undergraduate classes that were like a tent-pole concept, that really blew my mind and really helped me survive. One example is from my interdisciplinary classes—this idea of a social construct. I’d never heard of that in high school but I heard it throughout undergrad, so I introduce that term to my students, and they love exploring the idea that these things that we see as fixed are actually pliable and moldable.
What brought you back to CGU for your doctorate?
One of the pieces that has been inspiring to me is my work with the UCLA writing project. It started in the Bay Area in the late ’70s and was about university professors of writing wanting to talk more to high school teachers and vice versa so we can understand how to better prepare students to write. They had this philosophy that a researcher can’t tell a teacher what to do, that both folks need to work together to figure this out, and what works in one place won’t necessarily work in another. I discovered the UCLA writing project in my second year of teaching. It blew open my understanding of what an English teacher can be and rejuvenated my career. It made me feel like I joined a professional learning community outside of my school that felt very sustaining. So, one possibility down the road is that I might become a director of that project; another possibility is that I might enter a leadership position at an organization that teaches writing. But there’s always this question of if you have your doctorate.
Frances Gipson runs the urban leadership program at CGU, and I know Frances from my work in the Los Angeles United School District from when I was a baby teacher. I was like, let me see if she remembers me, so I emailed her. She immediately responded and took me out to lunch. We had a professional coaching conversation about my dreams for the next 10-20 years of my career. Talking with her, there were a lot of things that reminded me of how much I loved my undergraduate experience at Pomona, and it reminded me of that same ethos: intellectual flexibility, student-centered programming, lots of resources to draw from, and education without limits to the extent you can say that. That really sold me, and the program has a social justice mission, which is really aligned with my “why.” It all just made sense, so I took that leap and here I am. I had a similar experience deciding to start my master’s in education with a teaching credential at Harvard, where I wasn’t sure that it was right for me but I decided to take that leap, and on day one when I met my cohort, I knew I was in the right place. And I had that same feeling again on day one when I met my cohort at CGU.
How does it feel to be a student again?
Honestly, it’s great. I’m a nerd at heart. I love reading, writing, learning, and going down those intellectual rabbit holes when you’re researching and getting lost in the library. Now, the library is in your bedroom but it’s that same experience, and I really appreciate that we have professors who are all about being coaches, so that feels very supportive.
I love being a student now because it makes me a better teacher, especially during the pandemic. I have more sympathy for my students regarding workloads and deadlines, clarity and delivery of expectations, and assignments.
How would you describe your cohort and what do you think is the commonality?
There’s this great sense of leading with love and wonder about the world; we are all fierce equity warriors, social justice activists who believe in the power of the collective. This is not a leadership program that is about developing the lone wolf leader, it’s a program that is very much about spreading leadership out. My cohort keeps me in the program, they’re so inspiring.
Sometimes it’s a long drive to Claremont after a long workweek, but we all talk about how we’re exhausted when we get there but rejuvenated after just an hour of class. If educators are going to stay sustained in the work, they’re going to have to find groups and outside organizations that provide powerful professional development. This program has really been a community with which I find really powerful professional development. As hard as it is it’s been, it’s very, very sustaining.