Jesús Fernández of Geyserville New Tech Academy named Sonoma County teacher of the year
When he was a kid, Jesús Fernández dreamed of becoming an Air Force pilot. When that didn’t work out, he toyed with the idea of working for the FBI or CIA. But a chance encounter with a former teacher in 1999 changed his plans.
He began volunteering in her class, and now, 23 years later, he’s teacher of the year.
The Sonoma County Office of Education selected Fernández, a social studies teacher at Geyserville New Tech Academy, as its 2021-22 teacher of the year from a pool of 20 nominees.
“It felt humbling,” Fernández said, “because there’s so many great teachers that work in this county.”
“Every time I go in his classroom, I learn so much,” said Deborah Bertolucci, Geyserville Unified School District Superintendent. This was Bertolucci’s first time nominating a teacher for the award in her seven years as an administrator.
“Our judges were impressed with how Mr. Fernández incorporates multiple perspectives into his teaching of history, as well as how he uses his own experience as a son of immigrants to inform his outreach to school families,” said Steve Herrington, Sonoma County superintendent of schools.
Fernández is also nominated for the State of California’s Teacher of the Year program. Winners will be announced in September.
Fernández was born in Sonoma County, where he has lived for most of his life. His parents immigrated to the United States from Michoacán, México. He teaches middle- and high school social studies at New Tech, where he’s worked for 20 years. His teaching philosophy is driven by a desire to challenge his students to engage with difficult topics and understand how history is relevant today.
His classroom is adorned with photos of historical figures like Malcolm X and César Chávez. One poster has the words “You must be bold, brave and courageous and find a way to get in the way” superimposed over a photo of the U.S. Capitol.
Passion gleamed in his eyes as he spoke about his students.
“What I would love to have students take away when they leave is, one, the love of learning, and two, more than anything else, how history connects to their lives,” Fernández said in an interview with The Press Democrat.
He didn’t always know he wanted to be a teacher though. When he was younger, he had his sights set on the U.S. Air Force — he wanted to be a pilot. But hearing and vision challenges nixed that plan. Eventually, he realized he wanted to do something that would allow him to use his language (English, Spanish, and French) and geography skills.
“I have always been a geography buff,” Fernández said with a smile. “As a kid, I had maps all over the place.”
The turning point came around 1999-2000, when Fernández reconnected with his high school history teacher.
“She inspired me so much,” he said.
He volunteered in her classroom at Rancho Cotate for several months, and one day he realized he could see himself in her shoes. So he went back to Sonoma State University and got his teaching credential. Other than a year of substitute teaching, he’s been at New Tech ever since.
He’s clearly adored by students and staff. Kai Klaassen, the school’s industrial arts teacher, walked by and handed him an apple as he answered questions from a reporter.
During Fernández’s eleventh grade Contemporary United States History class Wednesday, one student joked that “we’ll be your roadies,” if Fernández wins a statewide teacher of the year award.
“The way he teaches, it makes me want to study history,” said 11th-grader Jackie Camarillo.
Though still in disbelief that he was named teacher of the year, Fernández shared some words of advice for new teachers, based on his two decades in the profession.
“Two things,” he said. “Be passionate about what you teach, and get to know your students. Get to know them very well.”
You can reach Staff Writer Elena Neale-Sacks at email@example.com. On Twitter @elenaneale17.