“I lead with joy and humanity first”: Pomona alum was named California Teacher of the Year

Jason Torres-Rangel poses for the camera on the Marston Quad at Pomona College.
Recognized for his work in education, Pomona alum Torres-Rangel is now a California Teacher of the Year. (Courtesy of Jason Torres Rangel)

On October 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, as one of five California Teacher of the Year 2023. Additionally, Thurmond nominated Torres-Rangel for the 2023 National Teacher of the Year competition.

TSL reached out to Torres-Rangel to find out what the nomination means to him, his passion for teaching and how his experiences at Pomona College have shaped his career.

The interview has been slightly edited and shortened for clarity.

TSL: How does it feel to be voted California Teacher of the Year and nominated for 2023 National Teacher of the Year?

Torres Range: To be recognized in this way was humbling but also incredibly moving to have the opportunity to elevate the voices of my students and the work of my colleagues. I’m also the son of two retired teachers from Los Angeles and my brother is a teacher so it was very special to share that with my family too. Teaching is a collective effort, it really takes a whole village, and so this award is a celebration of everyone in my teaching family – students, colleagues, counselors, janitors, psychologists, librarians, bus drivers, everyone.

TSL: What fulfills you most about being a teacher?

Torres Range: While teaching can be incredibly challenging, it also nurtures the soul in a way few other professions can. High schoolers are hilarious, thoughtful, and brilliant, and I feel so fortunate to be able 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, marvel together, learn together. It is something very special to accompany teenagers professionally through life. They help guide them, nurture them, and help them think as they move through such a pivotal time in their lives.

But you can also collaborate with other educators and unpack the critical educational issues of our time. What is the best way to teach minority students to write? How can schools become community centers that provide full service for families? How can we better embed social-emotional learning in everyday school life? How can schools raise and celebrate the voices of students in a national political context that still uses biased standardized exams as a yardstick to say that this student has what it takes and this student doesn’t? How can schools strengthen the basic framework of our democracy? These are the complex, so-called “wicked” problems of education that require intelligent, innovative, compassionate thinking and collaborative teams across disciplines and backgrounds. This is the task of the current and next generation of educators and I am so proud to be a part of this work.

TSL: What experiences at Pomona have shaped your career?

Torres Range: I had so many formative classes, professors, friends, and administrators in Pomona who continue to inspire my classes to this day. My freshman seminar course was called Maps in Fiction, Fiction in Maps and was taught by the renowned Edward Copeland. The class made me burst out in amazement at what education could look like.

Another formative Pomona person in my life was Professor Raymond Buriel, a renowned professor of Chicano studies who not only helped me explore my own cultural and ethnic identity, but also the one who launched me on my current career path . Often it is 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 he thought I was a great teacher and I remember being quite surprised. Although my parents were teachers, I had not considered the profession for myself. He said he would write me a letter of recommendation for a special Rockefeller grant that would fund a Masters in eEducation. I followed his advice, got the scholarship, and I think that’s one of the reasons I came to 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 awareness, introducing me to Bell Hooks and Stuart Hall, and always setting the highest standards for ours studies complied with.

TSL: How did your Pomona major prepare you to become a teacher?

I majored in English, but tried a few 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 should be about – going beyond the confines of a discipline to engage with the study of life, the study of these big existential questions, the study of injustice and big dreams to change our world for the better. I bake all of that into my lessons.

I love helping students experience the same mind-expanding 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 who want to go to class?

Torres Range: Teaching is one of the best jobs in the world. If you enjoy learning, enjoy helping others discover life and the world, and lead with joy, humor and love, I would 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 would encourage people to consider a masters plus qualifications program – these programs prepare you really well and attract some of the best people into it Earth. And if people are curious, feel free to reach out to me – I always love connecting with other Sagehens. As you can see I had a really great time in Pomona and think it’s quite a special place.