When Alicia Escalante, a parent at Baldwin Park High School, was asked why she thought Jesús Gutiérrez, Jr., was named teacher of the year in Los Angeles County, she broke into a huge smile tinged with incredulity — as if someone had just asked her why water is wet.
Listening in, students Evelyn Ceja and Jonathan Tornero tag-teamed each other in translating her response into English:
“The way he teaches.”
“He uses more ‘human’ strategies to get to the students.”
“He cares about the academic success of the student — but first, how their life is.”
Jesús Gutiérrez jokes with students in his class at Baldwin Park High School. A UCLA alumnus, he was chosen Teacher of the Year by both his school district and the Los Angeles County Office of Education.
Ceja and Tornero, juniors in an English Language Development class taught by Gutiérrez, a UCLA graduate and alumnus of its Teacher Education Program, would agree with Escalante. They and other students in his classes — many of whom are recent arrivals from Mexico, Guatemala, and other Latin and Central American countries — share some common ground: Their grades, and, for some, their young lives, have been turned around, thanks to Gutiérrez, who was selected teacher of the year by the Baldwin Park Unified School District and one of 16 best educators for 2013-14 by the Los Angeles County Office of Education, from among the county’s 75,000 K-12 teachers.
Student Amada Cipres recalled how nervous she was when she started high school. That changed when she joined Gutiérrez’s class. “When I came here to this room, I felt like it was my home — comfortable. I feel like I can do anything. And I can talk with him about my problems, about how I feel. He empowers me all the time to go to college and to improve my English.”
“He’s always telling us, ‘Never give up. Education is the basis for growth,’” echoed Ceja. Tornero agreed. “Education will open doors for us, no matter what,” he recalled his teacher saying. “If we raise our grades, we’re going to be more successful in life and get into a good college. That is his main focus for us.”
Gutiérrez has a few ideas of his own about what makes him a good teacher.
Growing up in Rowland Heights as one of six children born to Jesús and Teresa Gutiérrez, he admitted to not taking school seriously at first. His parents emigrated from Zacatecas to East Los Angeles where they worked hard to make ends meet, Teresa cleaning houses and Jesús Sr. doing everything from picking crops to construction work.
“They were humble, hardworking people with integrity,” the teacher said. “Their lives are what feed my passion for teaching these kids. The fact that they have a language barrier doesn’t mean they don’t have an intellect.”
His empathy for what many of his students and their families have experienced as immigrants stems from an incident that occurred when he accompanied his mother on a housecleaning job. When lunchtime came, he sat down at the dining table of the luxurious house in Yorba Linda they were cleaning. But his mother told him they had to eat outside on the front step.
When he asked her why, she reluctantly told him about a previous time when she had done what he did at another client’s house.
When the irate homeowner asked her, “What are you doing here? This isn’t for the help to eat at,” she didn’t know how to respond because she couldn’t speak English, Gutiérrez recalled. “She had to put up with it, because that’s just the situation of an immigrant,” he said. “She didn’t want to lose her job; she had to feed her kids, right? So ever since then, she would eat outside.
“That moment stuck with me forever,” the teacher said. “I thought to myself, ‘How can I change that? How can I help someone [in the same situation]?’”
Gutiérrez found the answer at UCLA.
“UCLA helped me realize that [teaching] was meant for me,” he said. “Seeing these kids, if not their families, go through these indignities daily … I can help these kids change that. That’s what keeps me going. I can be an agent of change so that these kids don’t have to go through the things I went through.”
Through the Teacher Education Program in the Graduate School of Education & Information Studies, he said he developed a teaching style and philosophy that enhanced his sense of the importance of dignity. The program "completely changed my perspective on humanity, on self-respect and on respect for others," he said. "Now I'm giving the students ... a sense of identity."
As a proud Bruin, Gutiérrez shows his students what they can aspire to by taking them on tours of the campus, Santa Monica and West L.A. to show them that they too have every chance of being there someday.
The bulletin boards of his classroom are covered with snapshots of these places and other activities that help create a sense of home and family for his students. He pointed out with pride that a student who graduated recently told him that she wanted to become a teacher rather than enter a more lucrative profession.
“She said, ‘The way you were with us — I want to be that with other students also,’” Gutiérrez said.
Gutiérrez said he believes that fostering a safe environment for his students is what propels them to academic success. Sadly, in many schools, he said, English language learners and low-performing students are regarded as unworthy of a quality education.
But not in his classroom. “If you can captivate [students’] hearts, you can stimulate their minds,’” Gutiérrez noted. “And that’s my philosophy. These kids are marginalized … they’re kind of ignored, even on campus … I don’t believe that. Unequivocally, they can change, and that’s my job.”
To see the complete story, go to Ampersand, an online magazine for UCLA’s Graduate School of Education & Information Studies.
In this video, Gutiérrez explains what he thinks makes him a good teacher.