Spotlight: Jose Rocha
Interview by Liz Cardenas, PFF Fellow and Doctoral Student in the School of Community and Global Health. Liz is also the Assistant Director of Leadership Equity, California Primary Care Association
Jose R Rocha Rangel, M.S., ACSM- EP-C, NSCA-CSCS. Full-time Lecturer, Department of Kinesiology and Health Promotion at Cal Poly Pomona, Adjunct Professor of Public Health, School of Health Sciences at Chaffey College, and Personal Trainer at Podium Sports Performance.
Jose Rocha received his bachelor’s degree in Kinesiology from Cal State San Bernardino (08’) and his MS Exercise Physiology from Cal Poly Pomona (11’) and is currently a Ph.D. student in Health Promotion Sciences from Claremont Graduate University. He is currently teaching at Cal Poly Pomona and Chaffey College and works in the fitness industry as a personal trainer. Jose has experience in teaching an array of courses within Kinesiology and working with various populations in the personal training field. He is interested in anything that has to do with exercise/physical activity- anything! Besides academia and training he spends as much time as possible with his wife and three kids.
“I feel that I have been teaching for a long time now. But there is never a class where I haven’t learned from my students”
How were your expectations different from the reality of teaching?
I think it’d be fair to say that I’ve been teaching for about 10 years. When I started, I did have some expectations of teaching and what the environment would be like, but it was very superficial. I knew I wanted to teach in the long run, after getting my PhD and so forth, but I never thought that at 25-years-old I was going to start teaching.
I graduated with my graduate degree in June of 2009. In January of 2010, one of my former professors asked if I wanted to cover a class, which started a week from when he asked me to teach it. So, you can say I was thrown into the fire. I couldn’t pass up the offer even though I had no experience in teaching other than doing presentations in the classroom to my peers. So thankfully, that professor who asked me took me by the hand and became one of my mentors. One of my expectations then was how important it was to put myself in my student’s shoes and keep the classroom environment open and to have students feel free to ask me questions and express their intellectual curiosities.
Now, 10 years moving forward, I have many more expectations, mostly for myself. I teach Kinesiology and Health Promotion. So, it’s mostly about health, exercise and physical activity. I’ve been teaching classes, labs, and lectures in a range of formats. One of my expectations is to be fluid with myself and how I teach and allowing my students to have some fluidity as well. As you know, I’m a personal trainer and that really has helped me keep people accountable and be fluid. I like to probe by asking questions like – why are we doing this? How is this going to be helpful? I try to be clear and intentional. It is not just the content but also the activities we do and how it translates to whatever fields my students are going into, or even just apply it in their personal lives.
What have you learned about teaching from your students?
I feel that I have been teaching for a long time now. But there is never a class where I haven’t learned from my students. Some of my students will share their personal experiences and their backgrounds. Sharing experiences requires people to be in a vulnerable spot. I try my best to provide a safe environment to share if they want to. Over the years, I have become more open about who I am. And my experience through teaching and how I got to where I am right now. I feel my students try to be open with me, so I try to be more open with them as well. It is important to be reciprocal and remove any communication barriers. From the beginning, I tell my students they don’t need to call me Professor unless they want to. I try to remove the authoritative figure that the Professor title has in society because I want my students to be comfortable and know I am just another person.
What are some of your best techniques for inclusive and equitable learning?
I would say being transparent about the content and assignments and being intentional and explaining why I’m doing what I’m doing. I usually start all my classes by introducing myself and telling my story. Because I have learned that if I make myself vulnerable to my students and tell my story, my experiences, and who I am as a person, it sets a culture of sensitivity and inclusion.
I also add a bio about who I am and how to reach me to ask questions in the syllabus. I also tell them about my experience as an undocumented student. I work at Cal Poly, so most students are Hispanic, and some students might be in the same situation. I tell them how I worked at a fast-food restaurant and then got into teaching. I have learned the value of self-reflection to reflect on the person I am to be truly vulnerable and put myself out there in front of a classroom. I don’t think it’s easy since I would consider myself more of an introvert. I also remind students that if you’re that type of student, that’s fine. You don’t have to be the type of person that raises their hand all the time. Because for me as a student, I always process my thoughts. In the classroom, I was present physically and mentally – maybe I didn’t participate but always captured everything said. I try to provide compassion and be understanding of everyone’s personal situation and be accommodating to the needs that they might require.
What are some changes you would like to see in higher education?
Grading. From my personal experiences, I’ve gotten Cs in some of my classes, where I have learned so much. Even more than in classes where I got A’s. I feel grading doesn’t allow you to start with a good baseline. You rarely know how much knowledge a student already has coming in. So, therefore, we assume. Especially if it’s a class with prerequisites, we assume that because the student has taken the prerequisites, they know certain content coming in
There’s a lot of pressure even in high school to get these excellent grades. But even if students don’t get them, that shouldn’t mean they can’t do anything else. I’m not saying terrible grades, but you know, you can still get far wherever you want to go with decent grades. Hopefully, higher education will be more students centered/ human centered in which the classroom is being co-created with students. This can be achieved by asking students what their expectations in the classroom are and how to best guide them in the classroom. As an instructor, I see myself as someone who guides, mentors, and helps students to be accountable.
What are some predictions for how you see higher education changing?
I see changes in asking students what they want to learn or how they want to be graded. In theory, it sounds great. But I also don’t know if students are ready to take on that role. It could be because they have never been in that spot where someone has asked them, and they’re mostly in shock. Or they haven’t processed their thoughts and haven’t reflected or haven’t seen that point of view.
For example, my daughter is in second grade, and she comes to me and says, the teacher had us do this, and asks why do I have to do it this way? And I catch myself saying, well, she’s the teacher – she’s telling you to do it. I was like, Hold on. Why am I saying this to her? I need to rephrase myself and say, maybe she’s doing it because of this. I find it a bit hard to realize how early on students are programmed, sometimes unknowingly, to see learning in a certain way. The way we learn comes in many ways.
What are three key pieces of advice for other teachers or your younger self?
- Take time for yourself and your health. It’s not just for someone who’s going to teach, but in any profession, in any job, and even as a student. We sometimes get too caught up, but it’s important to remember we are more than a student, teacher, or employee. So just take time for yourself and your overall health.
- Focus on reflection. Take time to reflect in any form, whether it be writing a journal or when you’re stuck on the freeway, take time to reflect on the class, how you want the class to be, and reflecting the responses that you get back from students.
- Don’t lose hope. Catch your breath and say that everything’s going to be okay. In the end, everything works out. So never lose hope if something goes unplanned. Or, you know, when you get asked to teach at the very last minute, or if your schedule changes in the second week of the semester (it has happened to me), it will all work out in the end.
How has the PFF program impacted your teaching? (if applicable)
PFF gave me the space to reflect after eight to nine years of teaching. I learned why reflections are so important, be more thoughtful, and see the big picture of why I teach. One of the quotes from PFF that stuck out to me was, “we teach who we are.” That resonated with me in sharing my story and experiences with my students as an undergrad, as being undocumented, and as being a Hispanic student. Knowing who I was as a student has given me the space to reflect and apply that to the classroom.
What do you love most about teaching?
I love the interaction I get with students and peers. I always tell my students, “you bring a lot to the table, and I can learn a lot from you.” I like creating space to share my experiences with my students and hopefully remove some anxiety that can be present in the classroom.
I also love holding people accountable. My experience as a personal trainer has helped me with my teaching in many ways because you have to keep people accountable and be fluid in their training. My goals as a trainer and as a teacher are quite similar. Sometimes my clients might not be feeling their best, and that’s okay. We make changes to their routine that still help keep them accountable. I also use the same approach when I teach. Some days, my students don’t feel that great or have emotional distress, so we pivot and take a different approach.
I also love it when I hear back from former students telling me about their journey and expressing their gratitude.