Pride Month: Jonatan Cruz

Growing up in the rural-coastal town of Isabela, Puerto Rico, in the 1990s, I was always ready to go on an adventure with my brothers and childhood friends. We would discover new trails and creeks, collect seashells and sea glass along the beach, and explore tropical coral reefs together. These experiences became the foundation for my sense of discovery and awe.

My world was a place of wonder. Trying to make sense of it all. What or who would bring comfort, and what or who would bring quite the opposite, or both at once. Looking back, I can feel the energy being consumed by worry, anxiety, and fear, because at every turn I was redirected to “man up” for the slightest reasons: For the way I’d hold my books at school. For the way I held my drumstick at the dinner table. For spending too much time with the girls at recess. For not sitting or standing “manly” enough at church. For not having the right set of toys. “Behave like a boy!” “Sit like a man!”

Rather quickly, I had to develop a keen ability to predict when a scolding or a mocking was brewing, to avoid the uncomfortable and degrading “advice” from adults or the bullying from peers. Over the years, I internalized that it was best to be a people pleaser. People’s opinions mattered to me more than what I thought of myself.

Not knowing how to set healthy boundaries, I spent at least 15 years of my life questioning, as actor and author Viola Davis did in her memoir: “Am I enough? Am I worthy? Am I deserving? Am I lovable? Do I matter?” Learning to live in the closet takes its toll, particularly at the emotional level. It was not until I went away to college that I truly began the challenging, yet much rewarding journey of self-love, healing, and gratitude.

Transformed by education

The instinctive drive to explore and understand new things fueled my academic endeavors at the University of Puerto Rico, in San Juan, where I earned a Bachelor of Arts in Social Sciences. As an undergrad student, I took courses in human geography, geopolitics, and studied Brazilian Portuguese and the languages and cultures of the Portuguese-speaking world. In graduate school, I focused on linguistics, the influences of the African diaspora in the Caribbean, the complex history of neo-colonialism, language, and identity in Puerto Rico, and language acquisition. Interests that would eventually lead to my career as a dual language teacher in Dallas ISD, where I was recently honored to be celebrated as Teacher of the Year in the Choice/Magnet category.

College helped me acquire a deep understanding of the common elements and collective dimensions of the human experience in society. As my values and aspirations evolved, I volunteered for a literacy program for adults in San Juan. My grandmother had been illiterate – her signature was the letter “X” – so I had grown up with someone who didn’t know how to write or read, and here I was helping people to do just that.

I was inspired by the program participants every time they shared their milestones. They’d say, for example, “I was able to write a letter to my family back in the Dominican Republic!” or “I was able to understand the discounts at the supermarket.” That was when I first witnessed in real life the meaning of the quote, “Knowledge is power.” The experience struck something special in my heart. Little did I know that it was a pivotal moment in my call to service.

The path to Dallas ISD

Armed with my degree and some experience, I was filled with confidence and faith – so much so that, after interviewing with a Dallas ISD hiring team, I booked both the entry-level assessment test and my flight to Dallas at the same time. Family members believed I was over-confident and did not approve of this move. But, as well-intentioned as their comments and advice were, I knew I was going to make it work somehow. And so, I took the test and flew the next morning. Once in Dallas, I got the results, and started the Alternative Teacher Certification Program.

That was June 2017. The training began that summer and ended the following one. The professional development, led by Dr. Delores Seamster, included theory, hands-on learning-by-doing, experiential practices, and in-classroom observation. Of course, in the field of education, we know the real training begins once you are given a roster and your students walk into the classroom.

I interviewed for a teaching spot with several principals around the district and received feedback like, “Jonatan, you seem like you bring a lot of energy and enthusiasm, but you just don’t have the experience. I wish you luck.” That luck came in the form of Ms. Ruby Ramirez and Ms. Felicia Cook. After two intensive rounds of interviews. I was offered a second-grade bilingual teaching position.

Under the guidance of Ms. Ramirez, then principal of the now-renamed Bishop Arts STEAM Academy, and Ms. Cook, the school’s instructional coach, my skills improved quickly. Their feedback was immediate, in bite-sized, tailored-to-the-classroom context, and celebrating every milestone each step of the way. It was a blessing that my commitment and leadership skills were seen and continue to be nurtured by Ms. Ramirez, now executive director for OTI (Office of Transformation and Innovation) and magnet schools, and Ms. Cook, the magnet coordinator at the School for the Talented and Gifted in Pleasant Grove (STAG in PG).

Instructional leadership

I taught for two years at Bishop Arts, second and third grade, before moving on four years ago to STAG in PG. After two years of teaching fourth grade there, I now teach sixth and seventh graders in dual language, including the grammar and mechanics of language, and narrative essay writing.

My work doesn’t end with the school day, however. Through the years, I’ve worked with the Dual Language ESL department as a facilitator and co-presenter during Professional Development for teachers, and on a variety of district initiatives. I’ve served in leadership roles on districtwide and campus committees, trained teachers on dual language best practices and the new Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, and have been selected to serve as a Dallas ISD curriculum and assessment writer. And I try to instill my leadership skills in my students.

On my campus, we started the Owl Student Leadership Club, named after the school mascot. We teamed up with the Magnet and Recruitment Committee and offered the students an opportunity to participate as Owl Ambassadors for recruitment events. Little did I know the students wanted to showcase their school to prospective families and students. During open-house events, they were the ones conducting guided tours. Applicant families were impressed, the Ambassadors were ecstatic to be representing their learning community, and parents expressed gratitude that their children were given the opportunity to engage in leadership work.  

I welcomed most of these students in fourth grade when they joined STAG in PG. And now I have the honor to be their teacher again in sixth and seventh grades. I’ve seen some of them grow from very shy children to talented leaders. These are moments I share with fellow educators. Moments where we have concrete evidence of how we create leaders for our democracy. The students take pride in it. And so do I.

Jonatan Cruz told his story to a staff writer. 

You may also like