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Meet an LAUSD Roosevelt High School teacher who is a 2023 California Teacher of the Year

LeeAnna Villarreal | April 25, 2023

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Los Angeles Unified School District

As LAUSD high school English teacher Jason Torres-Rangel finishes his second year at Theodore Roosevelt High School he looks back on a time filled with accomplishments.  

In October, he was named one of five 2023 California Teachers of the Year, and nominated as California’s representative for the National Teacher of the Year competition. 

Torres-Rangel, who has been teaching for nearly 20 years in LAUSD, was nominated for the award by a Roosevelt student and her mother after the teen felt especially supported and accepted in his class. This award comes after he was named the LAUSD and LA County Teacher of the Year in 2022.

The 74 spoke with Torres-Rangel about the journey that led to him becoming a teacher, enriching his students, and the significance of social justice history at Roosevelt.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What does the California Teacher of the Year award mean to you?

Torres- Rangel: It is incredibly exciting. I come from a family of educators. And sharing this moment with my parents and my brother is really special, but it’s also really special to share this with my educators’ family. You know, I’ve been teaching for 19 years now, and so my… school worker family gets bigger every year. It’s a chance to really uplift that work, their work, and also the voices of my students, the voices of Roosevelt and Boyle Heights. So that’s been really special.

Being the son of two retired LAUSD teachers, how have they influenced you?

Well, it’s funny, I always knew that teaching was a great profession, but I never thought it was for me. You’re kind of like born to forge your own path and do something different, but it was a mentor in college who really kind of saw something in me. It’s always mentors who see something in you that you don’t yet see in yourself, perhaps. It was at that moment where I kind of reflected on these wonderful role models that I had in my parents. They taught at Wilson High School in LAUSD for many, many years. They ran the MESA program there, which is a STEM program for underrepresented minorities in the sciences. Whenever I was at Wilson, growing up as a little kid, I used to go with them on field trips to JPL and to Cal State LA for STEM competitions. Just kind of seeing not only the opportunities that they fostered over the years for students at East LA, but really seeing these lifelong relationships that they built along the way with their colleagues and their students, where their students came back and became teachers and taught with them … it’s really great and kind of wild to be a part of that history, that tradition.

Can you walk me through that journey and how you ended up on this path for teaching?

Torres- Rangel: I’m a big champion for folks to study abroad in undergrad because that was really the catalyst where I made this kind of change in the direction for my whole life. But before I went to study abroad, I thought I wanted to go into Hollywood to be a film director. At the same time, I was taking Chicano studies classes, Black studies classes, gender studies classes, and I was kind of, you know, having this political consciousness really crystallized for me. I studied abroad in Kenya and we landed a few days before the September 11th attacks, and that experience just seeing the outpouring of love and compassion from my host family in Kenya and the surrounding community, I was like, ‘Oh, man, I can’t go back to the States and work for the Hollywood machine,’ I want to really get back to a community that has given so much to me. And it was this professor, he was also Latino, Professor Ray Burial, he taught Chicano studies and he’s like, “I think you would make a really great teacher. I’ll write your letter of recommendation for a fellowship that will pay for a master’s in teaching and a teaching credential.” And I was like, ‘okay, I can’t say no to that.’ And 20 years later, I haven’t looked back.

In your nearly 20 years of teaching, what have been the greatest highlights of your career and what about the challenges?

Torres- Rangel: The highlights are definitely seeing light bulbs go on in students. Especially moments that surprise you, big and small, where it’s a student who didn’t see themselves maybe as a writer or a reader for whatever reasons, and suddenly their head is trapped, buried in the pages of a book, or a student showing you their completed essay where they’re like, ‘this is a first essay that I’ve ever written or that I’m really proud of.’ It’s college acceptance day, It’s graduation day, it always gets me. I love graduation so much because the families all come and you see the full picture. It’s also running into former students when they come back and visit or you see them out in the real world and they’re thriving and doing their thing. It’s cool to see what they remember, the little lessons here or there or they’ll shout out like some kind of term that we studied. It’s really powerful to see that the effect that you can have as a teacher is really, really ongoing and is very real, very tangible. The challenges. It can be an exhausting profession. You give your heart and soul every day in the classroom, and that takes a lot of energy, a lot of will.

I read that a student actually nominated you for the award because they felt welcomed, challenged, supported in the classroom. Can you share what you do in and outside the classroom to make sure your students feel this way?

I think I lead with a lot of humor and joy and human interaction. I try to include lots of activities where students are interacting with each other, talking to each other. There are days where we just go outside and play games, and especially after COVID, I think it was real- after COVID remote teaching, it was very obvious that students were really hungry, just for human interaction. I make sure that comes first before you jump into the content. You know, teaching is a very human endeavor,  if you don’t ground the work and center of the work and the humanity in the room, that it’s not going to be as rich as it could be.

As a teacher at Theodore Roosevelt High School, you know, one of the schools most famously known for participating in the East L.A. walkouts, what is it like to teach and engage students at a school with such an important history in the Chicano Movement? 

I think what’s really special is that, well, one, it feels like an honor, a privilege, you know, that I try to live up to every day. What’s really special is that Roosevelt is very unique in that there are many alumni who work at Roosevelt and sometimes second, third generation Roosevelt alumni work there, or people you talk to have family who went to Roosevelt and know family, like everyone is interconnected, and you definitely get that sense of family on campus. There’s definitely a respect for the history of the community, and that you feel amongst colleagues and even the students, you know, sometimes high school students can be cynical sometimes and kind of caught in their own world, but I think what’s great is around campus, there are a bunch of beautiful murals and testament to the history of the area, and the school that kind of remind us of where we’ve been. And right now, Roosevelt has a brand new facility that has been going up the past couple of years, and so new murals have gone up and they’re stunning, and one is literally like a hallway through history, through Boyle Heights history, from Japanese internment to to the walkouts, to the indigenous who lived here before colonization. We, as a faculty, I think we really value culturally relevant student centered curriculum. Ethnic studies is really big at Roosevelt. Everyone, even our math and science teachers, are really thoughtful about making sure that history is also centered in our curriculum. So it’s very cool. And there’s the rivalry that we have with Garfield High School, the East L.A. classic football game and other sporting events that are really next level, they really don’t happen anywhere else in the country. 

I read that you also teach ballet folklórico, is there any crossover between teaching folklórico outside the class and in the classroom and vice versa?

I’ve danced since I was little, I have always loved it. I dance in a semi-professional group outside, in my free time at Plaza de La Raza in Lincoln Park and I wanted to bring it to the students, and so sometimes it’s been a (student) club in the past. Sometimes we’re able to make it an elective. It varies depending on where we’re at with school. The school master schedule, things like that, but I think there’s absolutely a parallel between learning to dance and learning to write or learning to read, learning to critically think, and what I love about being a dancer is that I remind myself that it’s always important for the teacher to continually be a learner and be in the learner spot…  There’s lots of similarities, you have to be patient and that’s not easy when you have lots of priorities competing against each other and there’s a limited amount of time and resources. Good teaching is putting yourself in the shoes of students and thinking about where they are at, what they need to hear, what’s going to be most powerful for them to hear right now and what’s going to be most interesting for them.

If there is one lesson that you want your students to take into their everyday lives, what would it be?

I want them to realize how much power they have, not only over their own story, their own destiny, but also the world around the, and I want them to realize that the world is changeable, that things are not fixed, that ideas that have long been accepted as an unchangeable stone are, in fact, moldable, pliable and can be broken down, remixed, rethought, and that they have every right, every ability to do that. I really want them to feel that deep in their bones.

With what you know now from your teaching journey, what is something you would tell your younger self during that first year of teaching?

I would tell my younger self to believe in yourself. I would tell myself to go slow, be okay with going slow. Don’t feel like you have to rush, rush, rush to get things done. Actually, the slower the better in all aspects of the classroom. Taking time to pause and let ideas germinate. They say teachers are our gardeners and they’re always planting seeds, tilling the soil, and I think we can get kind of impatient or anxious for seeds to sprout, and have faith that you’re doing the right thing, that what you’re doing is having an impact. And you might not see it today, you might not see it this week, you might not even see it this school year, but things will sprout and even when you don’t think that you’re having an impact, you absolutely are!

This article is part of a collaboration between The 74 and the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

LeeAnna Villarreal is a senior at the University of Southern California, originally from Houston, Texas. She is studying journalism and cultural diplomacy.

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