Working as an instructional specialist in Richmond, Virginia, Jorge Valenzuela knew his mission was to help other educators elevate their work. But it wasn’t until he spoke in front of the U.S. Senate that he discovered his purpose in life.
In 2017, not long after participating in an expert panel for the Senate’s Career and Technical Education (CTE) Caucus, he got a call from the office of Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) asking for a statement to include in a press release about the CTE Excellence and Equity Act, a bill to help fund more relevant CTE courses in high schools.
“At that moment, I thought perhaps my work was meant for more than what I thought it was,” Valenzuela says.
Since then, his career has veered off in unexpected directions. Now an education coach and adjunct professor for Old Dominion University’s Department of STEM Education & Professional Studies, Valenzuela continues to travel to Washington, D.C., when his schedule permits to advocate for educators and students.
“Going to Washington makes me realize I have a purpose. I was inspired by visiting Washington and realizing that people there need educators to tell them about what’s happening in the classroom. Otherwise, they won’t know how to allocate education funding,” he says. “It was empowering.”
Teaching came naturally to him
Growing up an English language learner in the New York foster system, Valenzuela felt like he didn’t have many talents in life. But he did have teachers who drew out his academic inclination and motivated him to work hard in school. He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in computer science and business, scoring a contract for a networking job with an IT firm. When his favorite auntie suggested he’d make a good teacher instead, he decided to try his hand at summer school.
“When I went into the classroom on the very first day and stood up in front of the kids, I felt like I belonged there. I felt like I was meant to be a teacher,” he says.
At first, it seemed he’d been destined for the classroom. While obtaining a master’s in school administration, he realized he’d rather remain a teacher than become an administrator. So when Richmond Public Schools approached him about becoming a curriculum specialist for the engineering program he taught for, Valenzuela resisted.
Eventually, however, he did the math. He could keep teaching 150 kids a year, or he could provide professional learning for 40 other teachers, each of whom was teaching 150 kids.
“That’s a bigger impact,” he says.
An advocate of Hispanic and Latin students
From there, his impact kept expanding. He learned how to teach workshops using action research. He became an author, penning the ISTE book Rev Up Robotics, and began writing about his teaching philosophy, which is grounded in the learning sciences and combines academic, career and social and emotional learning (SEL).
“I feel that the art of teaching is unique to every individual,” he says. “Every individual has their own way of planning and teaching and putting their own spin on things. But teaching is also a science, and I strongly believe that all teachers need to understand the science of teaching. They need to understand the learning theories and theoretical framework that informs how they plan and teach those lessons. They also need to know their students as both people and learners in order to personalize lessons in ways that are relevant and compelling to them.
“I believe that my gift is in connecting all these things in a coherent way so educators can understand it.”
Since the pandemic began, Valenzuela has branched out his coaching business, Lifelong Learning Defined, to help educators activate social and emotional learning in their lesson plans.
“To create opportunities for every student, we must consider what kids are going through, based on what’s happening now. We need to take time to empathize with them to understand their interests, goals, assets, and learning needs. We need to become someone they can count on and who’s always working in their best interests. We can do more harm than actual good if we don’t understand the right language and data about the kids we teach.”
He also continues to advocate for Hispanic and Latin students at the national level.
“Because I am from a disadvantaged population, it’s not enough for me to have success in my career. That’s not the purpose of education. The purpose of education is to make opportunities accessible and equitable for all students,” he says.
“I think that everyone needs a purpose in life. If you take on the thing you like to do the most – for me, teaching and learning – you can become an expert at your passion. But passion can be selfish if it’s only about you. If you’re able to flip that into a way to help other people, you’ve made a purpose for yourself.”
Nicole Krueger is a freelance writer and journalist with a passion for finding out what makes learners tick. This is an updated version of a post the published on Sept. 30, 2020.