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Episode 17: 2022 Teacher of the Year with William Morejón

This episode is part of a Teacher of the Year series where we interview innovative teachers in the field. The Teachers of the Year program recognizes excellence in teaching across the nation, and the process begins at the school level, with teachers being nominated or chosen by their colleagues. One is chosen to represent his or her school district, and they then go on to compete at the state and national levels.   

William Morejón earned a Bachelor’s of Science in Biological Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a Master’s in Education from the University of Southern California and currently serves as chair of the Department of Mathematics at Hawthorne High School.   

After inspiring undergraduate teaching experiences abroad in Africa and Asia, he felt a calling to return to his alma mater and serve the community where he has taught for the past nine years. Recently, he has coordinated summer professional development opportunities with the district math leadership team and other teacher leaders to focus on strengthening the district’s newly adopted integrated mathematics pathway through the use of rigorous mathematical tasks.  

As an educator, he has developed practices that support differentiated instruction for both intervention and honor student populations. After teaching in the International Baccalaureate and now the Advanced Placement Program, he began exploring ways for mathematics to become a more student-centered discipline and is a big proponent of exploration and self-discovery through the use of concept lessons and technology in the classroom.  

As a current member of Stanford’s Hollyhock Fellowship for teachers, he values the power of collaborative networks of educators to yield quality instructional practices aimed at student-centered tasks and higher-level questioning in the classroom. He co-presented a workshop on sense-making routines at the UCLA Curtis Center of Mathematics and Teaching conference. 

The interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Nati Rodriguez [02:48] 
Well, thank you so much. It’s an honor to have you on our podcast today, and we’re excited to learn more about your work and all of your accomplishments. Can you tell us about your work and why you were selected as a Teacher of the Year?  

William Morejón [02:59] 
Sure. I feel like describing my work could be very simple or very complicated. As you mentioned in the bio, I currently work at my own high school, where I graduated from in 2007. So, we’re about 15 years out. To people who know education or people who are familiar with education, I also see myself as an inspirer, a mentor, and a colleague; there’s so many roles that I play on our campus.   

First and foremost, I’m a teacher in the classroom, spending about three-quarters of my day working with students. Specifically, my content area is math. I’m taking students, I actually have all grade levels this year, and just getting them to understand math and its beauty. I know the students have a love-hate relationship sometimes with mathematics. So, we try to make it fun and engaging and get them to think critically and overcome the fear that they had in middle school, “It’s hard”, and get them to believe in themselves.   

You also mentioned one of the other hats is being the department chair. I’m the liaison between my teachers, all the math teachers at my site, and the district leadership. If we want to adopt a new curriculum, we coordinate meetings for that. If we want to adopt a new textbook, we do pilots. I’m also the advisor of two clubs on our campus, so I advise Key Club, which is sponsored through Kiwanis – it’s a very popular community service group in society. We do a lot of community service outreach in the local area. I’m also the adviser for a club called Academic Decathlon, which is a scholastic competition every year.  

To answer your question about why I was selected as Teacher of the Year, I feel I work with so many passionate, hardworking educators. I’m still like, “Me, really? Like, I was chosen.”  

I really think that kudos to my colleagues and the students. You mentioned that it starts at the school site, and our principal threw out an email just saying, “Hey, anybody that you want to nominate?” I guess my colleagues nominated me and then we went from there. I guess they saw value in all the work that I do on my campus. I’m very appreciative of them being able to recognize us. 

Nati Rodriguez [05:19] 
You mentioned your philosophy of teaching. Can you speak to that?  

William Morejón [05:20] 
When a teacher comes into the classroom, we have this elementary idea of what it’s going to be, right?    

“I come in, I walk in, kids walk in. I write some stuff on the board, whatever, right?” 

As you become a seasoned veteran teacher, you also develop this, 

 “Why do I do this every day?” 

“What is my long-term goal?” 

“Why am I investing in these students?” 

“Where are they headed in 5, 10, 15 years, right?” 

This actually goes back to my first few years teaching. I was working with a group of kids, which we called it at the time, it doesn’t exist anymore, but we called it Cougar Academy. It was specifically students that were in need of high intervention, meaning they were probably failing multiple classes, they had behavior issues. School wasn’t their thing. They had other priorities. They work, whatever it may be. We identified a good group of at-risk students, and then we identified teachers that were like, “We’re going to sit here, we’re going to form a group, we’re going to work together, and we’re going to do every intervention possible to try to make sure these kids experience success.” 

At that time, I was like, “You know what, I have to be more than just my content.” I’m a math teacher, but I have to realize that these students are more than just paper and pencils, and tests and quizzes. Through that experience, I realized that a lot of my students have a lot going on outside of school. I think at that time my pedagogy evolved from, “Hey, I’m a math teacher, but I’m also like a mentor and sometimes a counselor, a coach.” You know, all those roles that young students need in their lives especially if you know, they’re lacking a lot of that oversight and guidance outside of the classroom.  

I would describe my teaching pedagogy as twofold. Obviously, as I mentioned earlier, I want to acknowledge and be very honest with the students. I know students go into middle school, and that’s where they start developing this, “Math isn’t as fun as I wanted it to be,” or “Math isn’t the most exciting subject anymore.” 

In high school, I’m trying to reinvigorate that passion, that love, that excitement, but I also try to explain to the students that mathematics is an exercise in training your brain as well. I often tell them that a lot of times, the reason why they fear math is because it’s the one that they are exercising their brain the most at, right? It’s the heaviest weight at the gym. It’s the one that’s hardest to lift. You’re always like, “Why do I ever need this? Why do I really need this?” 

I tell them, this is the subject that later on, you’re going to wish you had these analytical skills, especially know when everything is numbers and charts, and graphs and figures, and stocks and rising and falling. There’s so much data around us that I want the students to be savvy consumers of that data. There’s also the humanizing component, right? Whether you’re an A+ student or you’re failing the class, I don’t judge you based on what your grade is. I don’t judge you based off your performance. We can have a positive working relationship aside from what might be influencing your academic performance in the classroom.  

Nati Rodriguez [08:21] 
I love the analogy. What a gift it is to have a teacher like you in math because you’re right. A lot of students are very disillusioned by the time they get to high school. We read that this is the high school that you graduated from. How has that impacted your experience with students and even with your colleagues?  

 William Morejón [8:40] 
It’s definitely been interesting, I’ll say that. Obviously when I decided to come into education, there were a lot of options, especially now. I’m sure everyone knows there’s teacher shortages and schools are dying to get teachers. I definitely had options in terms of where I could have applied or where I could have worked. Honestly, when I was deciding to go into education, it was a no brainer. I was a product of this school. 

I understood that it was a school that was in need. I knew that I didn’t want to work in a school where there were a lot of resources already. I really wanted to target groups that needed assistance, needed somebody to really focus on, and needed somebody to care. I knew, coming from this community, that that was my school. I remember after undergrad, I reached out to the principal at the time, and I just told him, “Hey, just putting my name out there. I’m an alumni. I’m looking to come into education, specifically math. I graduated here, I got my engineering degree,” and he was like, “Yeah, we need math teachers. Come on, please. That’s the one area that we’re always losing teachers. We need them.”  

That’s when I enrolled in my Master’s program to get my credential and my Masters, and it was just an easy transition. I did my student teaching here. It is interesting because my first few years, I did work with a lot of my former teachers. It was interesting because I spent four or five years calling them Mr. So and so, or Ms. So and so and I still can’t break that habit. They get annoyed because they’re like, “We’re colleagues now. You can call me by my first name.” 

I’m like, “No, but you’ve always been Ms. So and so or Mr. So and so.”  

That’s interesting, but I also think that it gives me a very interesting respect with the kids because oftentimes they look at me and they’re like, “Why are you here? You’re accomplished. You have a quality, high education. You have a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree.” 

They don’t really equate with, why would somebody with that much education come back into high school and work with me, right? I do often have to justify my decisions to the kids, and I do often have to say, “I’m here because well so, would you rather you have somebody that doesn’t care about their subject? Somebody that doesn’t want to be here? Somebody that’s less qualified?” 

They’re like, “Oh, yeah, you’re right. I definitely want somebody that’s invested and cares and wants to be here.” 

It’s interesting to see how the dynamics of a school change so drastically, even in just a short period. This is my 10th year in the classroom, and it’s just flown. It’s so different than what it was 10-15 years ago. So, yeah, that’s about what it’s like working at the school that I graduated from.  

Nati Rodriguez [11:22]  
Thank you. It makes me wonder how we could get more teachers to return to their schools, right. What would that look like if leadership and principals were really actively trying to recruit their own graduates? I’m sure you’re getting students excited about math in a way that they aren’t typically excited about being a classroom teacher.  

Nati Rodriguez [12:16] 
I’m curious about Integrated Math. I don’t believe it’s very common across the country, and I’m curious what that is and why Integrated Math?  

William Morejón [12:24] 
Sure. This is actually something that I had to learn over the course of the last ten years or so. I started teaching around 2012 – 2013, and the word integrated was on nobody’s radar. To summarize Integrated [Math] in a nutshell, essentially the logic behind it is, what people noticed is that students were taking a year of algebra, and then they were taking geometry, and then following it with another year of algebra and so there were gaps. 

People were noticing, hey, students are forgetting their algebra from 9th grade year because their geometry classes focused more on shapes, and area, and volume, and circle. Students were struggling when they got to their third year of math because they didn’t always remember or see how the two were linked. There was definitely a need for that. 

The third thing that people noticed was, yeah, calculus is cool. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some calculus. I teach it, I love it, but that’s not everybody’s pathway. Some people are going to go more on a statistical path, or more on a data-driven path, or computer science path. Pretty much about six or seven years ago, I can’t really speak to who it was, I don’t know their name, but a group of people who develop curriculum said, what if we integrate the pathways?  

What if we take the elementary parts of algebra one, the elementary parts of geometry, and the elementary parts of statistics and merge them into one class, and we call that Integrated Math One.  

We take the intermediate parts of algebra, the intermediate parts of geometry, and the intermediate parts of statistics and probability, and we merge that into one class and call it Integrated Math Two.  

We take the advanced topics in algebra, the advanced topics in geometry, and the advanced topics in statistics and probability, and we merge that into a class called Integrated Math Three. 

It’s not different in terms of the standards that are taught. It’s just different in terms of the order that they’re taught. The other reason it’s called integrated is because we want the algebra, geometry, and statistics to work together so that the students don’t see them as isolated curriculum, but unified, joined curriculum. Our district over the past six or seven years has really championed this adoption, I guess, of these Integrated Math curriculum standards.  

You mentioned earlier we do a lot of summer PD around this. We get all of our teachers to meet in the summer to reflect on what’s going well in these courses, and what could be improved in these courses. We make curricular changes all the time. We call the algebra two path; we call it traditional. This new path is integrated, right? Integrated only goes up to Integrated Three. I will also say, too, that because of our adoption of Integrated Math we have also been able to offer some cool courses to our students. For example, we offer a class in Advanced Algebra with Financial Applications. We also have a class that focuses on Sports Statistics. We also have a class called Introduction to Data Science. 

I feel like the adoption to integrated has opened people’s eyes to, “Hey, there’s more pathways for math than just what has been algebra one, algebra two, pre-cal. Everyone was on this one-track path. Now it’s linear for a bit, and then it diverges, and it becomes different things. I like that because we can offer a lot of variety to our students.  

Nati Rodriguez [15:32] 
Yeah, I love this menu of options. I want to take these classes.  

Nati Rodriguez [15:56] 
I’m curious, how is math done internationally? I know you have some experience teaching abroad. Was it in math? How does that compare to the US. traditional math?  

William Morejón [16:06] 
Good question. You’re correct. I did have a good chunk of teaching experience abroad in undergrad. It was just one of those things where there was an office looking for people to travel, and I was like, I have nothing better to do. Sure, I’ll go and a couple of experiences that come to mind – I remember the first place I went to was mainland China, a southern part near Hong Kong, a city called Shenzhen. The reason I went there is because they wanted teachers to teach leadership. What they realized is that a lot of the students were really good at the textbook, but they didn’t have the social skills, or the idea of serving their community, or interpersonal skills, or group dynamics. 

That was the first experience that I had abroad, and then that grew more the following summer. I got invited to go to Rwanda. For that, we went to do a computer science summer coding workshop that was based on entrepreneurship. We wanted the students to learn this coding language and then find a need in the community and merge those. They had to code something like an app, for example, before apps were super popular. So, they were supposed to code an app that would serve some need in the community. There it was even something as simple as an app to make an appointment with their doctor, or an app to see if there were homes available for rent or purchase. There was a very high need for that when I was in undergrad. I feel like a lot of those experiences really motivated me to pursue and maintain my interest in education after I graduated as well. 

Nati Rodriguez [17:38] 
Yes. That brings me to my next question about Stanford Hollyhock Fellowship. What is your work with the fellowship and what will be the outcome of this experience?  

William Morejón [17:51] 
Yeah, so the Hollyhock Fellowship was actually something that came under my radar because of a colleague of mine. The whole purpose of the fellowship is to take, not necessarily early career teachers, although you can be anywhere between year one and year eight, and they want to create this network. The whole purpose is to take a step back and reflect on your identity as a teacher, your pedagogy in the classroom, and create this network where a teacher might be in Chicago or Florida or anywhere else in the US, that we can also get a window into their classroom as well. 

The structure of the fellowship was we had some summer professional development, and it was perfect timing because we got accepted in February or early March 2020, and then all of a sudden – COVID. I felt like I got thrown into the trenches because I had no idea what teaching online was going to be like. I had no idea. All the strategies and things that I had developed in my first six, seven years teaching were going down the drain. It was perfect timing, I feel like even a blessing because, going into that, I was like,  

“What are teachers doing?” 

“How are teachers functioning online?” 

“What are best practices?” 

We throw around these words, like “best practices”. There were no best practices for online teaching, right?  

When we joined the fellowship, it was perfect because they modeled a lot of the strategies that really carried me throughout online instruction. Essentially it was a two-year fellowship, so we did a summer, and then they have online coaching throughout the school year. We have a designated staff member from the fellowship, and they are our coaches. So, we would share these artifacts of our teaching. Last year especially, I did record a good chunk of my lessons and then I would share them with these teachers, and it was cool because we would watch each other’s videos and give just genuine, honest feedback. It was non-threatening.  

It was like, “Hey, we’re both being vulnerable right now. All three of us are being vulnerable right now,” and “How can we make our pedagogy better?” 

I feel like it gave me that fuel to fill the next, say, five, six years of my teaching, the next decade of my teaching, because I’m okay, now I’m not burned out. I know that other teachers are experiencing the same trauma that I am. I know that they’re struggling too to get their kids to participate and be invested in lessons. It was a really cool experience and it culminated this past summer.  

We had all been doing this virtually and we got the opportunity to go as a full cohort. I want to say 30, 40, maybe even 50 teachers that went to Stanford University this past summer. We did all these workshops around our pedagogy, reflecting on our identities as educators, bonding with each other. I felt like I came into this year super motivated, the tank was full, and I knew exactly why I was doing this.  

One tip I would give to any young educators that are listening is look into that fellowship and give it a shot. Because if you are lost, in terms of your professional identity, that’s a really good program that helps you realign yourself and figure out who you are. 

Nati Rodriguez [20:50] 
Thank you. There’s a lot of great information you’ve shared for our listeners who range in their experience as educators. I’m curious, where do you see yourself in five years?  

William Morejón [21:00] 
I feel like I’m riding a high on my professionalism right now, especially with all the recognition with Teacher of the Year and everybody’s like, “Congrats! Congrats!”  

Everybody’s like, “You’re it right now.” I think that that definitely is a large source of my motivation this year and for the coming years. One goal for myself is, I want to branch out beyond my school and district walls. What I mean by that is I’m really big on creating teacher networks and support. There are also opportunities, for example, to present at certain conferences and get the word out to more districts and more teachers. 

I’d like to sit down and identify certain aspects of my pedagogy that I feel might strengthen other teachers’ pedagogy. Maybe if there’s certain lessons that I feel are worth presenting at conferences or sharing with other teachers so that can infiltrate their rooms and influence their students as well. I do have experience with that. You mentioned that I did co-present with another colleague of mine at a UCLA conference, and that was really fun because you take a bird’s eye view and you’re like, “This is who I was. I was this teacher learning how to be a teacher and doing these cute little activities and having this ‘aha’ moment of I could use this in the classroom. I feel like that’s my next calling, is like, “Okay, how can I strengthen other teachers and build them up, so that they’ll be able to become better teachers in the classrooms themselves.

Nati Rodriguez [22:41]
We’d love to hear about what you’re reading, watching or listening to?  

William Morejón [22:47] 
Fun fact, I really love learning languages and studying languages. I think that also started from all the traveling that I was talking about earlier. I was supposed to go to Japan. I’m still hoping to make that a reality soon. I still read a lot of language books, Japanese, and I took actually a few courses at the community college. I’m trying not to lose it because you know how they say, “if you don’t use it, you lose it.” 

When I just have pleasure reading, I do a lot of sci-fi, like when the Dune movie came out a few months ago, I was like, “I don’t want to just watch the movie. I want to read it.” In terms of watching, this is one way that I bond with students a lot. I just get their anime recommendations. Kids are super into anime right now, like some have a cartoon or figure on their shirt. When I see one that I’ve never watched before, I’ll ask a kid, “Is that worth watching? Give me out 10, am I going to enjoy that one?” 

It’s an instant bond with the kids because they’ve invested so much time watching it. If I do, and I know the story, we have automatic conversation, just an instant connection.  

Nati Rodriguez [23:46] 
Is there anything else that you would like to share with our Learner audience?  

William Morejón [23:50] 
Yeah, first of all, thanks for listening. I think I especially want to speak to people who are on the fence about going into education, especially with the shortage and everything. I will admit that this profession is demanding, I’m not going to lie to you. I also find a lot of rewarding aspects of the profession as well. I think if people are out there and they really are passionate about working with students, young minds and at any level, it could be kindergarten, first grade, third grade, fifth grade, 12th grade, or even college. 

I just want the general population to continue to acknowledge teachers for how hard they’re working. It’s really demanding. I know as a society we’re finding more ways to value teachers, but you mentioned this earlier, we don’t do it enough. I do highly appreciate being recognized as Teacher of the Year, but I also look around at my colleagues every day, and I’m like, so many more of them deserve the same recognition. For those teachers, especially if people are listening and they know other teachers that are working hard and maybe they weren’t, they’re not getting a lot of recognition, definitely reach out to them and just validate the work that they’re doing. I know they will appreciate it. Sometimes I get messages from former students, and it just makes my day. It’ll just – instant full tank. I’m like, okay, I matter, what I do matters, what I say matters. Yeah, just thank you for having me. I really appreciate it.  

Nati Rodriguez [25:09] 
Thank you so much. I really appreciate your time, and congratulations to you.