On Oct. 13, California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond named Jason Torres-Rangel PO ’03, an Advanced Placement (AP) English teacher at Theodore Roosevelt High School in the Los Angeles Unified School District, one of five 2023 California Teachers of the Year. Additionally, Thurmond nominated Torres-Rangel for the 2023 National Teacher of the Year competition.
TSL reached out to Torres-Rangel to learn what the nomination means to him, his passion for teaching and how his experiences at Pomona College shaped his career.
The interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
TSL: How does it feel being selected California Teacher of the Year and nominated for 2023 National Teacher of the Year?
Torres-Rangel: To be recognized in this way has been at once humbling, but also incredibly moving to get a chance to uplift the voices of my students and the work of my peers. I’m also the son of two retired Los Angeles teachers, and my brother is a teacher, so it’s also been really special to share this with my family. Teaching is a collective effort, it really takes a village and so this award is the celebration of everyone in my teaching family — students, coworkers, counselors, custodial staff, psychologists, librarians, bus drivers, everyone.
TSL: What do you find most fulfilling about being a teacher?
Torres-Rangel: While teaching can be incredibly challenging, it also fuels the soul like few other professions can. High schoolers are hilarious, thoughtful and brilliant, and I feel so lucky that I get to spend all of my days with them — coaching them, challenging them, and learning from them — every period, every day. We laugh together, cry together, wonder together, learn alongside together. It’s really special to accompany teenagers through life as your day job. You help guide them, nurture them and help them reflect as they move through such a pivotal time in their lives.
But you also get to work with other educators and unpack the critical education problems of our time. How do you best teach writing to students of minoritized identities? How can schools become community hubs that provide wraparound services for families? How can we better embed social-emotional learning into the school day? How can schools uplift and celebrate student voices in a national policy context that still uses biased standardized exams as yardsticks to say this student has what it takes, and that student does not? How can schools strengthen the very fabric of our democracy? These are the complex, so-called “wicked” problems of education that require smart, innovative, compassionate thinking, collaborative teams across disciplines and backgrounds. This is the charge of the current and next generation of educators and I’m so proud to be a part of this work.
TSL: What experiences at Pomona shaped your career?
Torres-Rangel: I had so many formative classes, professors, friends and administrators at Pomona that continually inspire my teaching, even now. My freshman seminar class was called “Maps in Fiction, Fiction in Maps” and taught by the renowned Edward Copeland. The class made my mind burst with wonder about what education could look like.
Another formative Pomona person in my life was professor Raymond Buriel, renowned Chicano Studies professor, who helped me not only explore my own cultural and ethnic identity, but he was also the one who set me on my current career path. Often it’s that mentor in our lives who sees something in us that we don’t see yet, and professor Buriel saw something in me.
One day, he told me that he thought I’d make a great teacher, and I remember being kind of surprised. Though my parents were teachers, I hadn’t considered the profession for myself. He said he would write a letter of recommendation for me for a special Rockefeller fellowship that would pay for a masters in eEducation. I followed his advice, got the fellowship and I think that’s one reason I got into Harvard [University’s] Teacher Education program.
Black Studies professor Phyllis Jackson was also a formative force in my own self-actualization as an activist — I am forever indebted to her for raising my consciousness, introducing me to bell hooks and Stuart Hall and always holding the highest standard for our studies.
TSL: How did your major at Pomona prepare you to become a teacher?
I majored in English but dabbled in a bunch of other majors first — Media Studies, Chicano Studies, Black Studies, Psychology — I think I was even an Anthropology/Archaeology major for a split second.
My Pomona coursework truly embodied the soul of what a liberal arts education is supposed to be about — pushing beyond the boundaries of a discipline to engage in the study of life, the study of those big existential questions, the study of injustice and about dreaming big for changing our world for the better. I bake all of that into my teaching.
I love to help students have those same consciousness-raising moments I experienced in my Black Studies, Chicano Studies, Gender Studies and English classes. I definitely teach through a social justice lens and believe that high school should inspire joy, self-discovery, activism, hope, community and ultimately love.
TSL: Do you have any advice for Pomona students looking to go into teaching?
Torres-Rangel: Teaching is one of the best jobs in the world. If you love learning, love helping others explore life and the world and you lead with joy, humor and love, I’d consider teaching! We always need good teachers! And programs like Teach for America aren’t the only way to get into teaching — in fact, I’d encourage folks to consider a masters-plus-credential program — those programs really prepare you well and attract some of the best people on this eEarth. And if folks are curious, feel free to reach out to me — I always love connecting with fellow Sagehens. As you can tell, I had a really great time at Pomona, and think it’s a pretty special place.