Jesús Gutiérrez, Jr.: For LA County Teacher of the Year, It’s All in the Family

The Rowland Heights native creates a homelike learning environment; propels students to higher education.

When Alicia Escalante, a parent volunteer at Baldwin Park High School, is asked why she thinks Jesús Gutiérrez, Jr. (Class of ’01, B.A., Spanish; ’06, M.A., TEP) was named Teacher of the Year, she breaks into a huge smile tinged by incredulity, as if someone had just asked her why water is wet. Two students, Evelyn Ceja and Jonathan Tornero, tag-team each other in translating her response.

“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.”

Ceja and Tornero are juniors in Gutiérrez’s English Language Development (ELD) class. Students from all of his classes share the fact that their grades and often, their lives are turned around, thanks to their teacher, who was recognized as Teacher of the Year by both the Baldwin Park Unified School District and the Los Angeles County Office of Education.

“When I came [to school here] for the first time, I was too nervous,” says Amada Cipres, a senior who was in Gutiérrez’s ELD class last semester. Although she needs some help in forming her sentences in English from her classmates, she speaks with deliberate confidence in her teacher – and herself.

Proud Bruin Jesús Gutiérrez (Class of ’01, B.A., Spanish; ’06, M.A., TEP) propels his students to achieve a college degree - especially at UCLA. Courtesy of Jesús Gutiérrez, Jr.
Proud Bruin Jesús Gutiérrez (Class of ’01, B.A., Spanish; ’06, M.A., TEP) propels his students to achieve a college degree – especially at UCLA. Courtesy of Jesús Gutiérrez, Jr.

“I couldn’t come here with my parents, I came with my aunt and I was so sad,” says Cipres. “He was all the time really, really caring. When I have a problem, I can talk with him and he supports me a lot. 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.”

“You realize that you’ve been through a lot of things in life, but you keep going,” says Wimym Liu, a junior. “You have to be strong no matter what. And to always remember where you came from, your roots. And to be humble, that is the basis for success.”

“He’s always telling us, ‘Never give up. Education is the basis for growth,’” says Ceja. “He’s always telling us, ‘Do your work, do your homework, it’s important. I know it’s hard, but you’re going to get it, and in the future, you’re going to [reap the] benefits.’”

“He told us to just be ourselves, to not be followers, to be leaders,” notes Tornero.  “And, that education will open doors for us, no matter what. 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, who is a graduate of the UCLA Teacher Education Program (TEP), also sets a loftier goal for his students, many of whom are recent arrivals from Mexico, Guatemala, and other Latin and Central American nations.

Bericeida Hidalgo, a senior and a friend of Ceja’s, did not have Gutiérrez as one of her teachers. But she is also influenced by his mission to give his students self-worth, dignity, and confidence to build a bright future for themselves, despite the odds.

“He wasn’t my teacher, but I know him because my friends have him,” she says. “He’s a really good person. He does encourage a lot of students to try their best, go to college, and become better people. He encourages you; he pushes you. He wants you to do your best. That’s what makes him a good teacher.”

Jesús Gutiérrez, Jr. also has a few ideas about what makes him a good teacher. Growing up in Rowland Heights, as one of six children born to Jesús and Teresa Gutiérrez, he admits to not taking school seriously at first. The couple emigrated from Zacatecas to East Los Angeles, where they made ends meet with Teresa cleaning houses and Jesús Sr. doing everything from agricultural labor to construction work.

“My father is everything to me,” says Gutiérrez. “He came from central Mexico with a second grade education. Obviously, lack of opportunity brought him across the border. He worked as a field worker, picking the crops – lettuce, chiles, melons. He worked in a Price Pfister factory, putting faucets together. He worked installing sprinklers and for a construction company. Now he lives in Mexico, retired. He worked really hard, raising six kids. My mom cleaned houses, worked really hard. They were humble, hardworking people with integrity.

“Their lives are what feed my passion for teaching these kids,” he notes. “The fact that they have a language barrier doesn’t mean they don’t have an intellect.”

Gutiérrez relates the story of helping his mother on one of her housecleaning jobs. When the time came to break for lunch and he sat himself at the dining table of a luxurious house in Yorba Linda, his mother told him he could not eat there and that they had to eat outside.

“We sat on the step before you go to the front door, eating,” he says. “I was pushing my mom to tell me, ‘Why?’

“She said, ‘Look, I don’t want to tell you, but I’m going to tell you, fine.’ She had a previous experience when she was eating lunch with one of her workers [at a table], and the homeowner asked her, ‘What are you doing here?’ She didn’t know how to answer, she didn’t speak English. He said, ‘This isn’t for the help to eat at.’ She couldn’t defend herself with words, so she had to put up with it, because that’s just the situation of an immigrant. 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. I thought to myself, ‘How can I change that? How can I help someone [in the same situation]?’” UCLA helped me realize that [teaching] was meant for me. Seeing these kids who go through those indignities daily, if not their families as well; getting pulled over at checkpoints, paying bills, whatever it might be. Discrimination, racism, zenophobia – 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 those things I went through. That they can be empowered by someone who went through those things, and they can pay it forward.”

Back row: Juanita Solares, Jesus Gutierrez, Jonathan Tornero, Alexandra Gutierrez, Pam Estrella Front row: Maria Carrillo, Alicia Escalante, Wimym Liu Seated on floor: Evelyn Ceja
Jesús Gutiérrez (second from left, back row) with BPHS students and staff in his classroom. Back row: Juanita Solares, Gutiérrez, Jonathan Tornero, Alexandra Gutierrez, and Pam Estrella. Front row: Maria Carrillo, Alicia Escalante, and Wimym Liu. Seated on floor: Evelyn Ceja

Gutiérrez believes that fostering a safe environment for his students is what propels them to academic success. He felt that the assumption in education at many schools was that English language learners and low-performing students were unworthy of being taught, which helped define his objectives as a teacher.

“They always say, ‘If you can captivate [students’] hearts, you can stimulate their minds,’” Gutiérrez notes. “And that’s my philosophy. These kids are marginalized… they’re kind of ignored, even on campus [where some think], ‘Oh well, they’re failures, and they’re going to remain failures.’ I don’t believe that. Unequivocally, they can change and that’s my job.”

Gutiérrez was successful in his first year working with ELD students, most of whom had lived in the United States for three years or less. Enrollment at BPHS is near 2,100; approximately 35-40 percent of students are English language learners. When an unprecedented 20 out of 21 passed the California High School Exit Examination, he created a video of interviews with some of the students and showed it to his colleagues at a faculty and staff meeting. He followed it up with an act of recognition by his students of teachers who had been helpful in their success.

“I told my students – the 20 that passed the CAHSEE – to wait outside the cafeteria where we had our meeting,” he says. “My instruction aide opened the door, and I handed them each a white rose and a card. I told them to give it to a teacher who had treated them with respect and dignity, or had helped them in some way. So each of them took the mike and said, ‘Mrs. So-and-so, come on up.’ One of my students – who ended up graduating from UCLA – said in her broken English, ‘We just want to thank you for treating us with respect.’ Then they gave them the flower, the card, and a hug.

“That moment to me, changed the [school’s] culture toward the ELD students. They realized that [these students] were not a deficit, that they brought something to the table. After that, the [teachers’] demeanor changed. My students would come up to me and say, ‘Mr. G., so-and-so said ‘Buenos dias’ to me.’ I can change things, but we needed other teachers to buy in academically so that we can get the kids to those universities of prestige like UCLA. Now, we have a specific small learning community of English teachers that dedicate themselves to language learners.”

The walls of Gutiérrez’s classroom are decorated with his students’ “I Am” poems, an assignment he adapted from his time in a class taught by Annamarie Francois, director of the TEP Program.

“Even though I put my own spin on it, this is so powerful,” he says. “I start the year with this, because the most important thing is reaffirming their dignity as human beings. This one here, he’s a gangster.  At the end of the day, I gave this kid a test. He’s one of two that got a perfect score. What does that say? He knew that I deeply respected where he comes from and what he’s about. That’s how I can change him.”

Gutiérrez credits his education at UCLA with shaping his teaching style and philosophy, as well as lessons learned from professors like Francois, Gordon Suzuki, and Norma Sanchez, a postdoctoral scholar. He says that the TEP Program enhanced his sense of the importance of human dignity.

“[TEP] completely changed my perspective on humanity, on dignity, on self-respect, on respect for others,” he asserts. “Now I’m giving the students… a sense of identity. That whatever they’ve been through, it’s valuable, it’s worth something.

“The TEP program indoctrinated me with the fact that all these kids in all these neighborhoods have so much talent, so much creativity, so much intelligence. There is a tenacity in them. They have been through things that I can’t imagine at my age, let alone their age. Some people use [this information] as lip service for political gain. But if kids feel that you really mean it, they give you more than you could ever give them.

“I was raised to be empathetic and compassionate. And I don’t settle for mediocrity. That’s the secret to this. Kids don’t care how much you know, but how much you care. After that, you can take them to these levels.”

Pam Estrella, who has overseen campus security at BPHS for 14 years, says that Gutiérrez’s way of engaging and getting to know the students is effective, not only in improving their work habits and grades, but also in sending a message that bad behavior and the specter of violence that can affect an urban school will not be tolerated on his watch.

“Over the years, a little known fact is that if a kid is in trouble or having problems with other kids, at lunch I can always bring that kid to his classroom,” says Estrella. “The kid is welcomed by the other kids and protected, and not out where [anything] can happen to him. So that gives that student a [safe] place to go to. Or I’ve come across kids who are new and know very little English. They’re out in the hallway by themselves because they don’t know any students… they’re not socializing, they’re not mingling. I bring them here. And they’ve got a whole group willing to take them in and become friends with them. And that’s because he set up the classroom to be that way, and his kids respond to other kids by helping and reaching out.”

No matter what their reasons are for being there, Gutiérrez’s room is full of students during the lunch hour, who fill the space with lively chatter. He says that a classroom should always be full of discussion, not just lectures from a teacher. Evidently, his students find much more there.

“Kids don’t feel comfortable in school because they are shy and can’t get friends,” says Hidalgo. “But here, you come here and you have friends. Everyone in this class is friends and family.”

“You can see yourself in him, in a way,” notes Juanita Solares, a senior.

“When time passes, you don’t want [to leave class],” says Tornero. “My mother says, ‘There’s an example for you,’ like how he began. ‘Now you have to be like that. Take him for an example and use that to succeed.’”

“As you come into the classroom, you see the pictures, and the memories come to your mind,” says Cejas.  You’re just like, ‘Wow, I was there. I had fun that day.’ Or, ‘That was the first day I came here.’

“Sometimes in your house or your home, you don’t find what you find here. He’s always there for us. I think that’s so important, because nowadays how I see life, the world – it’s just about money, the position that you are in. He makes us feel like the same, we’re all equal. We just want to be with you because of who you are, not because of what you have. Because we find love right here.”

 

Above: Jesus Gutierrez, Jr. chats with some of his students during the lunch break at Baldwin Park High School. The Rowland Heights native represents the title for both the LA Office of Education and the Baldwin Park Unified School District.