Learning today to lead classrooms tomorrow
Joel Perez hasn’t had a typical high school experience until now. As he navigates advanced placement classes, football practice and his role as a student leader, he’s focusing on a future in front of the classroom
Host Joy Walczack speaks with Joel Perez and his teacher Randy Cotts
Joy Walczak: Welcome to the Your Dream is Our Dream Podcast where we celebrate student success one dream at a time. This program is made possible by Kent ISD in partnership with WGVU. I'm Joy Walczak and I have with me today, Joel Perez, a junior at Byron Center High School and a member of the Kent ISD Student Leadership Community, along with Randy Cotts who teaches AP U.S. History and AP Government at Byron Center High School. Thanks so much to both of you for being here today.
Joel Perez: Thank you.
Randy Cotts: Thank you for having us.
JW: Well, you're welcome. I'd love to get right into our conversation. Joel, let's start with you. We first met when you joined the Kent ISD Student Leadership Community, and I'd love to talk to you a little bit more about that in a few minutes, but first, I wanted to go back to your start in high school. You're a junior and the beginning of high school for you as a freshman wasn't exactly typical. Can you share with us a little bit about what it was like starting that year during COVID and how this year's going for you, and maybe how your teachers helped you through that transition?
JP: Yeah, of course. So, 8th grade, you know, after coming back from break, COVID hit, you know, and at first, you know, I was more like, oh, this is great. I don't have to go to school and everything. But after I’s say a month or two, I got really bored and, like, I kind of missed the social setting of school and my friends itself, like I want to go back. I want to learn something. I was getting bored of life sitting at home and running out of things to do. And finally, going back in high school, you know, was different because I got overwhelmed with the, you know, the sense of the social setting that was huge that the students are in the hallway, even though it was hybrid, it still is half the capacity that it is now again. But having hybrid, I think, helped ease me into it. But it still was hard, especially, you know, with, you know, just striking up a general conversation with me know, because I always had, you know, shyness, I was always timid. And I'm, you know, have always had social anxiety. But that did alleviate a little bit with the hybrid. But it was still tough, you know, getting back into that social setting. And then now I'd say my year is actually going very well. I’m having opportunities open up to me and I'm starting to listen to them. You know, taking tests that aren’t required, like I just took the PSAT national merit one for scholarships, you know, hoping that I might get scholarships on that, and you know, really, it's been going well, I say social setting. You know, I've actually become a lot more social in general. And, you know, I really do like, you know, talking to my friends hanging out more getting outside, you know, getting to know people really make connections.
JW: And your teachers, I understand that during the pandemic, you were communicating via Zoom and other methods of teaching that Mr. Cotts, you and the other teachers at Byron Center, High School embraced. Can you tell me about teaching during that time and how you connected to the students like Joel, and then Joel, can you share after that how that connection helped you bridge that gap and come back to school on a full-time basis.
RC: You know, it certainly is a change for all of us and especially for someone like myself who's been in the classroom a long time in the traditional sense. I’m a teacher who feeds off the students. I want to read fit body language. You want to see their faces. And so for me, losing that connection, that was a big deal to overcome. And when we're able to go back to the Zoom and I could only see their faces that, first of all, it's a great help, but that also especially when they're at home and you can kind of get a sense of their home life, a little bit. And I found myself asking them a lot more about their hobbies that I ever have in the past. What do you do when you're at home now have some time, like Joel referenced. You’re home quite a bit. And so for me to be kind of force to a good way to ask them their personal interests, what was a lot of fun and to I try to continue to do that now that we're back in session and it's added a lot to my experience and hopefully the students as well.
JW: And, Joel, asking about that experience, that's one of the things we'd like to get to, the dreams that you have. I understand they've changed somewhat from the focus that may have been more in a scientific world when you're thinking about a future career, to something you want to share with us now about what you like to be when you are looking at your future.
JP: Yeah, definitely. My career path has changed a lot and I’d say it is was due to COVID freshman year and everything because with Zoom and everything. It did become a more personal experience. You know, they saw your home life. They saw how you normally act at home or how you dress in home life, not trying to impress or, you know, do anything at school and be in a more public setting. You know, and I’d say it did get to more personally know that they would ask if everyone is okay, you know, if you got sick in the you know, you get to know that everything and then we also had a flex time on Wednesday, it would be a half day, and then if you needed help, you would go into their individual. Zooms and get help for that hour or two, how long it was. And my path changed from a doctor to a teacher, you know, high school education. You know, it really grew to me because of the way they helped me, you know, get through and learn, especially you know, with biology and, you know, history with my teacher, Mister Crandall, you know, helping me learn and teaching the material really well and being thorough. And, you know, other teachers just helping me, you know, learn the content in the way that I think was best at the time. And that really made me love education, you know, seeing for me, I feel like the experience was getting that excitement from learning something new again. You know, that really did show me this is a great feeling. And other people should be feeling this, you know, getting the joy from learning something.
JW: Randy, it must be great to hear him talk about how he is now seeing a teaching experience. And I know schools are always looking for educators. You are also a teacher of Advanced Placement History and Government. And can you tell us about having Joel as a student? And I understand there's a lot of curiosity about the world and also studying languages that factors into Joel’s experience.
RC: Yes, absolutely. I first met Joel when he came into my classes as a sophomore in AP U.S. history. And of course the sophomores are all new to me. I'm new to them. So it takes time to figure them out and Joel struck me right away is a very quiet, but a quiet leader. And I figured out fairly quickly that he's not going to say much in class. But when he does contribute and ask questions or make comments, you know, we're going to be listening because Joel is going to have something really worthwhile to say. And so I've come to appreciate that, that he's willing to participate. And you can tell, I can see him in class. He sits in the front row that he's contemplating what's going on. And I see that as a sign of inquisitiveness and interest. And oftentimes, you know, I've had conversations after class where we’ll further follow-up on some questions. And so the fact that he's taking the time to do that is really interesting. And when he approached me and said, hey, I think you might want to become a teacher, that was fantastic! That really made my day and to cause we need people like Joel, to get involved. And so I hope this road continues for him. I'm sure will. But, yeah, his nature is really fun to be around and his interest.
JW: Joel, you had thoughts again of going into science and shifted those thoughts a little bit about teaching and perhaps even abroad. I heard you once say that. Can you tell me a little bit about that and also about the languages that you're learning and how that might have influenced some of those decisions?
JP: I started in 8th grade learning Spanish. So I took Spanish 1 and I went all the way up to Spanish 3, which I stopped Spanish last year. And this year, I picked up Japanese and I'm taking a full season of the year, a school season, of Japanese. So I'm finishing semester one with the exams coming up 2 weeks. And I it's been going well, you know, even though it is online and the teacher aspect is kind of more a little bit absent because it is just e-mailing them. I've been doing pretty well, you know, because I do have a teacher that's there to help me answer questions if I do have them. And with studying abroad, the learning the language has really inspired me to do at least want to try to travel even during college, you know, the especially because I went on to Spain and Italy trip this summer because they were in Spanish and it was really eye opening. And I think it did change me when I came back, you know, with being more social and more open and, you know, trying to make connections with people did open me up and, you know, force we had a show that they had to use my language, you know, knowledge to communicate with other people, ask for directions or ask for a menu item or ask for the bill. And that really felt very exciting for me because it’s something new that I was willing to try and put myself out there. You know, it made my heart racing, made me nervous, but also gave me the satisfaction of, you know, getting to speak another language and getting to know other people.
JW: Absolutely. And it sounds like it may have also influenced your future dreams. As an AP history and government teacher, I'm sure listening to Joel talk about that world view is something you encourage with your students.
RC: Absolutely. That's what we talk about, even though it's U.S. history and AP government in terms of the United States approach, we definitely encourage kids to get involved In a bigger perspective. We talk current events quite a bit. And just where do we fit in the world at large and again, hearing what Joel has to say about traveling? That’s just so that's exciting to hear. And I can see where he would do well with some of those experiences. You know, so often kids an adults well, we kind of stay within our small little communities. And we do want to necessarily appreciate just how wonderful the world is and how diverse and exciting it is. And so for me personally to hear Joel kind of pick up that excitement an in someone so young, that just fantastic. I wish more kids would do something like that.
JW: So when you're listening to Joel and your other students, what do you think educators can learn by asking students what their dreams are?
RC: As I said earlier, teaching’s always been a personal thing, but sometimes, I think, given the classroom, we get caught up in grades and standardized tests and the pressures that comes along in teaching and it's very easy, sometimes as teacher, to lose sight, forget that we're talking with kids and kids have dreams and people have dreams. And when you take the time, as I learned via zoom and so forth to say, hey, you know, what do you like and what are your interests? I found that my teaching has actually improved because now I can find out, hey Joel might be interested in this and I might have another student interested in music or whatever it might be. And especially in history class room, I can maybe tailor the lessons to meet more the interest of the kids. And I think we can all appreciate that when the learning is more personal, you're going to you're going to embrace it more. And so as teachers, I think if we don't make an effort to find out what kids are interested in, we really kind of miss the big picture of what teaching is all about.
JW: I think that that's a really terrific point to make. And speaking of the people who influence others and dreams, your teacher talked about how learning about your dreams, Joel, and the other students, really influences his career and what he's doing. Who else in your life is encouraging and inspiring your dreams?
JP: I would say, you know, first and foremost, my parents. You know, they always are supporting me, no matter which direction I keep changing to them. You know, randomly I'll tell him, oh, you know, I don't want to be a doctor anymore. I want to be a teacher. And at first they were like, okay, you want to be a teacher? You know, just so you know, if you were doing it for the money, it is going to be different cut. I want you to know that so you’re not like changing it all the time, and that, you know, you aren’t the most social. Yeah, I know, but it's you know, I like the satisfaction of people growing up to, you know, learn something new. Because my job right now is I teach people how to do their job at my work, which I work at Celebration Cinema. And it's always nice to see them, you know, get it. I’ll have to figure out ways to teach them and help them memorize their job and tasks. So I'll change it up. Like sometimes have them take a little quiz or I’ll have to do hands-on, or I’ll do a point of view where I’ll do the work and have them watch me. And then if they are willing and comfortable enough, I can have him join in and help me do the work. You know, I'd say work is helping me with it, too, because they're giving me opportunities that I'm taking, you know, to further my, you know, way to figure out how to help people. And I'd say that school just being in school in general helps, you know. All my teachers, you know, show different ways and styles that they teach and SAT prep, which I am taking now, has actually taught me a lot because we had to make our own English questions off of the SAT, and math questions, you know, and it taught me to be more creative with the way we want to word things are, you know, set problems up. Even just taking, you know, a simple SAT problem like in math and switching up the words and the numbers and making a new equation and mathematical problem to solve. And it always is nice to see them puzzle and try to find new ways to solve my question, when I know there's a pretty simple answer. I’ll help them teach them, you know, the simple way.
JW: Those are a couple of terrific examples of opportunities that have come your way. And another one that I know about is the Student Leadership Community that you're part of at Kent ISD. Can you tell us a little bit about that experience and how that may have inspired some dreams in you as well?
JP: Well you know, definitely because when I joined, I didn't know what to expect at first, you know, it was like, Oh! We're starting up this new Leadership Community and, you know, you've been selected in your school to join it, you know, and with another student, Kaylie Goeman, who is, you know, a friend and I know her and we talked about it. We we're like, yeah, we're going to do it. You know, we decide to carpool and, you know, ride up to Kent ISD and, you know, see what it really was about. And, you know, we got welcomed and even got a gift bag, you know, saying, you know, welcome. And then we actually delve into some pretty easy topics. The first time it was getting to know each other, you know, getting to know our different views, especially kind of teaching us to open our minds and like, listen to what people have to say about their experiences and their life. You see know not to have a closed mind set, have an open one and to be able to change. And, you know, listen to people's reasons instead of just continually shout at each other with no reason because you just not aligning with their viewpoints. And that question was whether soup is a cereal or not. And, you know, I agreed that it was a soup, many people did. And I still heard their reasons. And it still was logical. You know, I still did take consideration that, yes, it couldn't be a soup. But, you know, I just had my viewpoint. And it was, you know, fine, you know, I did convince some people that it was a soup, you know, and then really the next time we met, we really got the really deep things. It was really listening to people's different mindset and thinking of how their school experiences. It really shows you that not everybody has the same opportunities you can take nor experience. I'd say with the Leadership Community, we really do get to learn other's views and bring new ideas from those schools into ours, you know, and, you know, talk to our faculty on a more personal level and give the students a voice in the the problems that the school might have that the teachers and faculty just don't know about.
JW: In the Student Leadership Community I want to clarify for our listeners is a collaboration of students from across 20 different Kent ISD public school districts and these students come together on a regular basis to inform educational decisions and also to share common practices and wonderful exchanges of information between students who might not otherwise ever have an opportunity to talk with one another as we're all on this educational journey together. So thank you for bringing that up and for letting us know how that's impacting you and your peers. It's great to be able to elevate your student voices. So I want to know a little bit more Joel. Tell me about what you really think of when you think about that dream and what you can achieve let's say 10 or 15 years from now. And then also, how will you actually know when that dream comes true?
JP: Well, I think in 10 to 15 years, you know, I see myself either in a different country or, you know, back at home, you know, teaching kids. You know, that's really what I see - teaching kids who are wanting to learn, wanting to be in that, you know, right, mind say, you know, of learning something new in getting the excitement to let you know. And it really, you know, just seeing me teaching and to be able to experience, you know, and see kids get that feeling or the light bulb switch on, you know, that that they found a new problem or learn something that could help them make this question easier or, you know, get them, you know, to think more about the question in general, you know. In Mr. Cott’s class, I always have to think critically, or, you know, try to think about what he's teaching. You know, what he's saying instead of just seeing what's up front in clear view, looking behind and more in depth in those words and really viewing, you know, what's the viewpoint. What's the the bias or if it’s unbiased, if it's partisan, non-partisan and really I want to get kids to challenge their thinking, you know, get to see the world for what it really is and teach them about it, you know, in a way that, you know, could be fun, And then getting to know whether I achieve my dream is whether or not I've impacted kids’ lives. Is if I’ve made their school experience, you know, fun, you know? But also, you know, they learn something that they, you know, learn something they take with them in life, you know, life lessons. You know, they can take into the real world and also get to navigate through the world through the what I've taught them.
JW: Mr. Cotts, as you listen to Joel talk about what he sees in his bright future. What can you share with him with your experience of years of teaching that you might want to share with him that he could take into his future as an educator? What would be your advice?
RC: First love what I hear from Joel about making a difference. I've been fortunate in my life to have numerous teachers to do that for me. And I would encourage him to to stick to that. Remember that there's going to be days where he's gonna go home and I think haven't oh, wow, what did I do here. And then there's other days where like, well, this is what I was meant to do. And I hope whether it's 15 years from now, 30 years from now, he never loses that dream. What he's talking about right now and I think his dream is exactly what he needs to do and the impact for kids - I can see him doing that. And.. I don't know if I'll be teaching 15 years, right, from now, but if I had the opportunity, I would love to have Joel as a colleague and that would just be wonderful. So keep on dreaming. And to always remember what he's what he's talking about today.
JW: I want to thank both of you for talking with me and also for dreaming big.
JP: You know, no problem, you know. I always want to have a plan, you know, I've always thought of having a plan, you know, having like a set plan in life. But there's always going to be something that goes wrong I know, but to have the dream that I'm going for, I am really happy, you know, that I know where I'm going to go. It's nice. And, you know, I know that I want to do that because it does make a difference. And I feel really happy that I'm able to make a difference in people's life.
JW: That’s wonderful. Thank you again for sharing. And thanks to all of our listeners today for being with us for the Your Dream is Our Dream podcast. If you know a student who dreams big, we'd love to share their story, too. Submit your ideas and hear more Dream stories at KentISD.org/YourDream. The Your Dream is Our Dream podcast is presented by Kent ISD in partnership with WGVU.