What does English, literature and leadership have in common? Those are some of the courses that the 2021 Kern County Teacher of the Year winner, Jason Spitzer, teaches at Desert Junior-Senior High School on Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.
“It means that I’ve accomplished something, and my students have accomplished something tremendous,” Spitzer said. “It’s not just a victory for me personally, it’s a victory for my students, the school, district and Edwards.”
Spitzer said that when he applied for the annual competition, one of the impetus for doing so was that it would showcase his students and the school.
“When I was filling out application I wasn’t thinking about just the accolades for myself but I wanted to show what the school does and how great the school is, and show how great our district is and the Edwards community as well,” Spitzer explained. “When they read my name, I was really shocked and I felt so honored…I just feel a lot of pride to be a Desert teacher and to represent my students; I wouldn’t be able to do what I can do without my students.”
The Riverside, Calif., native earned his English degree from the University of California, Riverside, in 2009. He has parlayed that passion for English into a successful tenure as the English Department chairperson where he helped increase the school’s English and Advanced Placement scores. He also spearheaded a Speech and Debate class and serves as the Associated Student Body adviser, however he is most proud of the accomplishments of his Leadership class.
“The thing I’m most proud of is the leadership component and feeling like every year, 30-40 kids are growing as leaders and they’re going off to college or to a career in the military, with leadership skills and they’re going to go off and they’re going to mentor and teach people,” Spitzer said. “You can be a teacher, no matter where you go.”
The Leadership class stemmed as a need by the school to go above and beyond for their students after the previous ASB adviser stepped down from the role.
“We as a staff talked about creating a class where students can basically learn to be leaders because before they had titles: President, Vice President, whatever, but they didn’t really understand leadership, what it means to lead,” he said. “You don’t need a title to be a leader…so I imagined a project-based course where students can plan, execute and reflect on events that they plan.”
Some of the projects that the ASB conducted this year included educational videos during monthly observances such as Black History Month, Women’s History and Month of the Military Child. The students posted videos on the school’s YouTube channel, www.youtube.com/thedeserthigh. The students also created instructional videos for new students about COVID-19 safety protocols when the school returned to in-person learning earlier this year.
For the past year, Spitzer and other teachers at the school, has had to find innovative ways to keep their students engaged due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He said he had to restructure plans while they were conducting virtual classrooms, but more importantly, he also saw how his students’ isolation from each other was taking its toll.
“My philosophy is to set the bar high, give them the support that’s necessary to get there, so obviously I was aware that it was hitting everyone hard,” Spitzer explained. “So I just had to balance, making sure that I had a rigorous instruction and curriculum, but at the same time not to overwhelm them. My philosophy became ‘let’s do what we can, not worry about what we can’t do.’
And that was the attitude with everything that I did, whether it’s the English classes or leadership, where we created the YouTube channel and we would do Spirit Weeks and things like that, virtually.”
Spitzer utilized a unique and innovative approach to teaching about Leadership, by allowing them to fail.
“I allow them to fail…I will let them plan an event and I’ll give them some feedback on that, but I will let them go through and fail because failure is the greatest teacher…and I’ve learned much more from my failures than anything,” he said. “There’s so many great leaders that are coming out of Desert now because of the class and it’s not just all me, it’s because the students are buying into what we’re trying to do here.”
Spitzer shared his process to his students: plan, execute and reflect.
“So they always reflect and there’s always room for growth, and that’s the biggest element of this Leadership class: ‘let’s reflect on where we’re at,’” he explained. “Matter of fact, that’s one of the assignments here at the end of the school year: they’re reflecting on their personal growth throughout the year, as well as the organization leadership and ASB, our growth throughout the year. Leadership is absolutely essential, not just to being successful in a future career but just being a good person, being a citizen. A citizen leader steps forward, when no one else will, to help people make a difference.”
And that difference has had a positive impact on his students and the Edwards AFB community. As part of the application process for Teacher of the Year, Spitzer needed letters of recommendation, and the community reciprocated his efforts.
“There is no better teacher, role model, mentor, and innovator who motivates his students to be better every day,” said Alison Vasquez, Physical Science and Engineering Librarian, 812th Test Support Squadron, Edwards AFB Technical Research Library.
Vasquez said in her letter of recommendation that her two daughters were privileged to have Spitzer as their Honors English, AP English Language, and AP English Literature teacher. His teaching inspired her older daughter to pursue English and Creative Writing in college, and she received perfect scores on both AP English examinations. Her younger daughter, currently a high school senior, has been incorporating what she learned in Spitzer’s class on her college and scholarship applications and has received several acceptance letters so far.
“He is always enthusiastic, creative, patient, and willing to give his all for the benefit of the students,” Vasquez said.
Spitzer said he plans to keep all of his letters of recommendation and use them as motivation.
“What I plan to do now is actually print all those out and make a little book, so that anytime I have a hard day, I can just look at that and realize that I’ve done something pretty, pretty great as far as having such a positive relationship with everybody,” he added. “And that’s why you get into being a teacher and educator, to make a difference. It’s the whole reason why I do what I do. I think everyone has good days and bad days and especially teachers and educators, and things like the accolades and all that stuff pushes you to work even harder.”
Spitzer’s commitment to go above and beyond his teaching duties is not lost on the Muroc Joint Unified School District superintendent, Kevin Cordes, who said Spitzer’s selection from a pool of over 40 other school districts was a humbling experience.
“As the Superintendent of the Muroc Joint Unified School District, I am uniquely aware of just how hard our teachers work, and their dedication to student safety and success,” Cordes said. “I am grateful that one of our own was selected to represent not only our district, but all of the districts throughout Kern County.”
“Of all of Mr. Spitzer’s accomplishments I am most proud of his ability to effectively demonstrate his genuine care for students, families, and colleagues. Jason doesn’t just say that he cares, he shows that he does. Whether through his creation of new classes and curriculum to enhance student opportunities at Desert High School, his steady guidance with the school’s student leadership, or his efforts in collaborating with his peers, Jason has proven that his actions truly represent his heart and his motives. We are better as a school district because of Jason Spitzer,” he added.
As a further implication of Spitzer’s accomplishments, Cordes selected him to become Bailey Elementary School’s new principal, at the conclusion of the school year.
“I am looking forward to Jason’s new assignment and responsibilities. I expect that he will bring the same enthusiasm and genuine care for high school students to the elementary grade levels,” Cordes said. “Jason is very approachable and a terrific communicator. I have no doubts that he is up to the tasks before him. He is a consummate professional who truly cares for student safety and academic success, and I am confident that the parents and students of Bailey Elementary School will recognize that immediately.”
“I’m really, really excited about going to Bailey and really excited to continue to be a part of this community, just in a different way,” Spitzer added. “And I’m really excited to help, obviously I’m going to be stepping away from the classes that I do here, but I’m going to be supporting the other teachers here. I’ll be supporting the teachers at Bailey…the next part of my career now is going to be mentoring and building capacity in other teachers, creating other teachers winning Kern County Teacher of the Year. I think it’s very possible that we can have many teachers from our district do this thing.”