4 Things that Made a Difference in my Rocketship Career
Principal Juan Mateos, Rocketship Fuerza Community Prep
I didn’t always know I wanted to be an educator. I was born in Mexico and moved to Oxnard, California when I was a young boy. We lived on the working class side of town where most kids fall through the cracks. I saw friends and family drop out of high school and fall into gangs. More often than not, the school system didn’t see their power and potential.
Fortunately, my parents set the tone for me to succeed. My mother was my greatest champion in my education. My father, a man who went from selling chiclets on the streets in Cuernavaca, Mexico to putting himself through college and earning his degree in chemical engineering at 24, taught me ganas — the desire to overcome challenges and persevere no matter what stands in your way.
That fire motivated me to excel and eventually led me to college where I studied political science at Stanford University. I knew I wanted to make a difference in communities like the one I grew up in and initially thought I’d do that through law or policy work. Then, I realized I could make a real impact teaching. Now I help ensure every student and teacher I work with taps into their potential in the same way working at Rocketship has helped me tap into my own.
Having worked at Rocketship since 2011, I’ve experienced a lot of growth and challenges as an educator and school leader. So, I wanted to share a few things that have made a difference along the way.
1. Rocketship parents are my most powerful partners.
Rocketship teachers form deep partnerships with parents. We get to know each child and their family and a critical part of that is through home visits — something I experienced the power of firsthand when I was a student.
As a second grader, I wasn’t interested in school. I stopped doing my homework and when my teacher sent notes home, I threw them away. But one day, there was a knock on my door. It was my teacher, Ms. Myers.
She told my mom about my behavior in class, my apathy towards school, and the potential she saw in me. I vividly remember my mother sitting on our couch with tears in her eyes as she told Ms. Myers that she didn’t speak the language and couldn’t help with my homework.
My teacher looked at my mother and said, ‘You might not speak the language, but don’t think for a second that you can’t help your son. There is power in your son and there is power in you.’
She lit a fire inside my mother that night. And from then on, my mom was relentless: she checked my homework all the way through high school. She became the greatest champion for my education and is the reason why I, a first-generation, undocumented immigrant, graduated from Stanford University.
Whenever I visit students’ homes, I remember that day. A strong teacher-parent relationship can change a student’s trajectory and the parents at Rocketship are the most engaged, dedicated mothers and fathers I know. Having them as partners has not only helped me feel more connected to the San Jose community but has also allowed me to make a greater impact as a teacher and school leader.
2. As a teacher, I had a level of support I hadn’t experienced before.
Before joining Rocketship, I worked at a district school in San Jose for three years. I joined Rocketship Mateo Sheedy as a fourth grade teacher and immediately noticed the steady, one-on-one mentorship, specifically with Maricela Guerrero, who was my principal back then and is now the vice president of schools at Rocketship.
In the classroom, I wasn’t just being observed. I received real-time coaching through our headsets or cue cards. I met with Maricela each week for professional development sessions and that frequent, critical feedback wasn’t always easy but it helped me grow into a better teacher and now a better support system for teachers at Fuerza Community Prep.
3. I was able to make a difference both in and outside of the classroom.
Maricela helped me realize I had agency and if I didn’t like the status quo I should do something about it. There was a time when I felt Rocketship’s students didn’t have enough options for middle school. So, I went to Maricela, fired up, with a speech ready on why these lack of options were hurting our students and how something needed to be done. She nodded, looked at me and said, “What are you going to do it about it?” I wasn’t expecting that. In that moment, Maricela helped me realize not just my duty to our beautiful community but the power I had to do something about it.
She inspired me to set up a middle school exposition where hundreds of our fifth graders and their families could get more information about their options and visit schools to decide which would be the best fit. That level of ownership is equally important in the classroom. As a teacher or school leader, challenges happen. But we decide if we’re going to stand by or do something to improve it.
This same mentality motivated me to apply to be an assistant principal. Maricela helped me see my broader role. It wasn’t just about one student, one class, or one grade level. She helped me see the entire school, block and community. So in 2013, I became an assistant principal at Mateo Sheedy.
Shortly after, we teamed up to join the Innovate Public Schools’ Fellowship to hone our leadership skills and plan for the opening of Fuerza Community Prep. It was an exciting time of envisioning what principles we wanted to build this new school upon and how we’d put those values into practice. We wanted this school to unleash leaders who could strengthen the community. As Fuerza’s former assistant principal and now principal, I’ve loved seeing our students and teachers bring that to life every day.
4. I’m proud to support teachers just as my mentors supported me.
Maricela continued coaching me when I became an assistant principal. She inspired me to help teachers see their own power and potential just as she had done for me.
But I’m not the only one who has experienced this type of growth. 70 percent of Rocketship’s school leaders were once Rocketship teachers. That type of internal growth is important. It’s been an honor to see teachers and leaders I’ve supported become assistant principals and principals, because while we’re all here to help our students grow, we can’t help them reach their potential if we aren’t challenged to reach our own.
Now, that’s the best part of my job — being a part of that capacity-building ripple effect. Together, we’re building a community con ganas that gets stronger by the day — one that ensures Rocketeers rise with the school system instead of fall through the cracks. I’m proud to be a part of that.
Published on November 12, 2019