Profile: Special-ed teacher overcomes tragedy to succeed

“The best advice I can give is only to say, don’t hold back,” says John Gonzalez as he takes his student’s hand. John, 35, is a para-educator (aka special-ed teacher) at Sunnyside High School in Fresno. He tells me that out of his 35 years of living he never would’ve thought he’d end up where he is today.

“I would not give up my job for a million dollars,” he says.

As a kid, John wanted to be a cop. He wanted to make this world a safer place. He soon realized during his adolescent years that being a cop didn’t line up with his situation in life. He hung out with the wrong crowd during his highschool years. He also felt that because he is hispanic it would lead to assumptions about him. He didn’t want to worry about any of his so-called friends calling him a “narc” or threatening him to let them slide.

Special ed teacher and students playing dominoes
John Gonzalez, a special ed teacher at Sunnyside High School, plays a game of dominoes with his students.

At the same time he felt as if he didn’t want to be another statistic. No one in his family had graduated from college. John made up in his mind that despite his failing GPA he was going to graduate from his high school and be somebody important in this world.

Steadily, he began reaching his goal. But in his senior year, things started falling apart in his life. “It was like everything was crashing in on me,” John said. His younger brother died in a car crash. John was driving. “I felt as if was all my fault, I ran away from my mother when she needed me the most, and everything I had that was good – I just let it go to waste.” Despite the turmoil, John graduated from Roosevelt High school with a 2.8 GPA and attended Fresno City College.

John soon began subbing here and there at different schools, mostly for elementary grades. When Sunnyside High School opened he subbed for a special-ed class, and he enjoyed it. He started learning people’s different personalities and how to respond to them. “It made me grow in patience and [be] more mature. All my friends that doubted me are either in prison or dead. I feel like my job changed me.”

John is overjoyed with his job and wouldn’t change it for the world. “It took me four years after I graduated college to realize that I was meant for something bigger. If I could help at least one student realize their potential, that is payment enough.”

The kNOw Youth Media
The kNOw works to support and equip young people with the journalism and advocacy skills they need to tell their stories and the stories of their communities.

In 2006, over 25 youth began participating in weekly after-school writing workshops where they congregated in the hallway of a two-story building in West Fresno and learned the essentials of creating media and telling their stories. The group evolved over the next five years and is now proudly recognized as The kNOw Youth Media.

Through our program, we create opportunities for our youth participants, who in turn create long-term positive change in their communities. Our approach weaves youth development and youth media innovation to produce our biannual youth publication, multimedia projects, and community forums.

The kNOw began as a project of New America Media, which was the country’s first and largest national collaboration and advocate of 2000 ethnic news organizations. In 2018 The kNOw became a project of Youth Leadership Institute.

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