A challenge from his dying father to give ‘everyone a seat at the table’ is at the center of all that teacher Jason Ortiz-Crespin aims to do
Not too long ago, if you would have told Jason Ortiz-Crespin that he would be a teacher someday, he might have laughed at you. He does have a pretty good sense of humor, so he probably would have cracked some jokes about it, too.
Ortiz-Crespin is in his fifth year of teaching, his fourth year in District 191. Prior to becoming a teacher, he had a successful career in marketing. During that time, he had received a phone call from his brother, telling him that his father had become very ill and he needed to come home right away. He headed back to his childhood home in Grand Junction, Colo., to be with his father and family. They discovered that he had been living with cancer for years and that there wasn’t really any more that they could do for him to stave off the disease that consumed most of his internal organs. Ten days later he passed away.
While his dad was in the hospital, Ortiz-Crespin uncovered things about his dad he never knew. Ortiz-Crespin, whose heritage is of Mexican and Native American descent, learned that his dad, a former Marine, had been very instrumental in Colorado. From his work in the Chicano art movement and creating art galleries for people of color to creating after-school programs for children with special needs, writing grants to secure funding for schools and working with the local hospital to help returning Vietnam vets assimilate to civilian life, Ortiz-Crespin’s dad led an amazing life that was dedicated to helping others, specifically those who had no voice.
In his last days, Ortiz-Crespin’s dad called his four boys into his room to say his final goodbyes. “It’s still very emotional for me,” said Ortiz-Crespin. “He said I’m going to leave you with a challenge. Everyone deserves a seat at the table, and I challenge you boys to go do something about it.”
“Those were his last words, and it changed my life right then and there,” said Ortiz-Crespin. “I couldn’t stop thinking about it. All I could think of is that I’m going to make a difference. I’m going to do it.”
While he was still working his full-time marketing job, Ortiz-Crespin started working as a special education educational assistant in another school district. He soon learned about a cohort offered at the University of St. Thomas, where he could earn his teaching license and a master’s degree in a fairly short period of time. The difference in compensation as a marketer and as a teacher was glaring, but he didn’t want to base his decision on his own comfort. “How is that truly serving,” he thought.
He spent his first year teaching in the special education resource program at Hidden Valley Elementary. A year later, he moved to the FOCUS program at Sky Oaks Elementary. There had been quite a bit of teacher turnover at the school, and bringing Ortiz-Crespin on board would give the kids the stability they needed.
“I am not your traditional teacher,” he said. “Everybody that meets me thinks I’m the basketball or football coach. I am not paper-organized. I speak differently. My humor is different. I’m really this odd object in this teaching world.”
Reflecting on his own experiences as a student in a special education program, Ortiz-Crespin doesn’t speak fondly of it.
“Back then, they just threw us in a room and we colored all day and were forgotten,” said Ortiz-Crespin. “I hated myself when I was younger for being in these classes. It was extremely tough because I didn’t understand why I would have massive panic attacks about going to school. I talked all the time because I had ADD. I wished that I was smart. I had a reading disability that caused me to get way behind, and I couldn't retain anything. I once had a teacher tell my mother that I should never go to college because ‘he’s not college material — he needs to do a job that he can do with his hands.’”
“I guess that meant I was supposed to be digging ditches or something,” laughed Ortiz-Crespin.
He believes that there’s something inside him that his students see and they know he gets them. They know he’s on their side.
“I will take all the criticism on my pedagogy and everything else,” said Ortiz-Crespin. “One thing that no one can take away from me is the fact that I’m 200% authentic with these kids and their families. They trust me like they’ve trusted no other, and that’s such a huge gift. And that scares me sometimes because I never want to violate that in any way. I’m constantly offered other positions outside of teaching. Even if I tried to consider it, the first thing I think about is these kids. I feel like I owe them. And every year I get new kids, so I’m like ‘well, now I owe them.’”
Ortiz-Crespin’s philosophy and approach to teaching, as well as his work as a racial equity advocate, are one in the same — authenticity.
He believes that in all of his work, whether it be with Education Minnesota’s Educator Policy Innovation Center (EPIC), the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) or District 191’s affinity group for staff of color, Amplify, it’s his responsibility to build authentic relationships. He is a strong believer in community-building and connecting the community to their local school.
“The work you put into it comes out, but it really drives itself,” said Ortiz-Crespin. “I don’t set these kids up to fail. Our expectations for our students are extremely high. And they deserve it. I think we deserve to represent them in the same way, making sure we are there to represent them not only in the school but in the community as well.
Ortiz-Crespin is passionate about his advocacy work, specifically around cultural competency and fully-funded special education programs, and making sure that decisions going through legislation have teeth from teachers and not just politicians or administrators.
“We’re the ones on the frontlines, and we know better than anyone what our kids are feeling and what authenticity should look like,” said Ortiz-Crespin. “It’s kind of backwards that you take all this knowledge and then you vote with people that haven’t been in school for 40 years. My work with pushing to get adequate funding for special education and the cultural competency piece is to take the things that are happening in schools and push it forward to say this is what’s going on and this is what’s needed.”
Another focus of Ortiz-Crespin’s work that he hopes could be a model for other classrooms in District 191 is the use of restorative circles. A restorative circle is a technique that builds and restores relationships through equal opportunity sharing and listening. Born out of indigenous societies, circles build positive relationships, heal harm, address concerns, celebrate achievements and more. Over the years, Ortiz-Crespin has engaged in several hours of training for implementing circles in his classroom.
His circles include students from first to fifth grade and are peaceful, open sharing opportunities for kids to express openly and confidently what they are feeling. The circles provide a place of reflection, and it’s up to the students if they want to participate.
Four months into implementing the circles, disruptive behaviors in his classroom went down by 88 percent.
“What would happen if we did the restorative circle before we had to restore justice?” said Ortiz-Crespin. “Why wait until there’s hurt to do it? That had a lot to do with the behaviors going down. Restorative circles are very important, but I like the proactive side of them. Doing them before the harm is done. I push circles so that kids have a voice. It really does stop the behaviors or fears going on out there. You can’t head off everything that happens, but it’s a healthy, productive way for kids to share what they are feeling or going through that impacts their learning.”
Ortiz-Crespin is excited about where the district is headed and appreciates that it recognizes that there is still much work to do, whether that’s retaining teachers of color so that schools can reflect the community they serve, going deeper with cultural competency, removing barriers to learning, and making impactful connections with parents and the community.
“I’m working on an island,” said Ortiz-Crespin. Every single person I deal with as an adult is a white female. And, they’re great teachers. But when kids find out I speak Spanish, see that I look like them, and I’m the first male they’ve seen in their whole career at school, that’s an issue. It’s a problem when you hire five teachers of color in the fall and by the end of the year they are all let go due to budget cuts.”
Ortiz-Crespin is a proponent of change and a force to be reckoned with when it comes to advocating for his students and his community.
“These kids take on and deal with a lot. There’s real authenticity when you can say ‘you are you when you come to me. There’s no expectation other than that you respect me.’ All of my kids know that when they come through those doors at the Yellow Center at Sky Oaks, they can be whoever they are.”