Students are her ‘heroes’

Juanita Ortiz

Elementary teacher Juanita Ortiz uses her cultural background to help her students

Juanita Ortiz realized she wanted to be a teacher while she was working in the Head Start program.

“I didn’t know until I stumbled into it,” she says.

Ortiz says she began noticing she had more success with the Latino children because she knew their language and culture, and could communicate easily with their parents.

Now two decades later, Ortiz is one of two East Side teachers who are among the 11 finalists for the Minnesota Teacher of the Year Award, an award that celebrates Minnesota teachers and the work they do.

For 11 years, Ortiz has been at Phalen Lake Hmong Studies Magnet, where she teaches ELL and Latino culture to students in kindergarten through fifth grade. 

Ortiz lived in Mexico with her grandmother until she was age 9. She then moved to Worthington with her family and eventually to El Paso, Texas, where she raised her two children (now 25 and 27) for half of their lives.

Returning to Minnesota in 1998, she attended Mankato State University to obtain her classroom teaching license. She also is licensed as an ELL (English Language Learner) and a Spanish-language teacher. 


Cultural awareness in the classrooms

“They ([the students] come in with a worldview that some of us teachers have no knowledge of,” Ortiz says. 

She believes the classrooms and schools need to become more student-oriented, which means adding more elements that are tied to the children’s cultures.

“We need to learn their language and their culture so we can bring it into the classroom to improve their self-identity and their pride,” she says.

Ortiz has been fighting for equity and cultural awareness in both the classroom and for the teaching community in general.

She and a few of her St. Paul Public Schools colleagues were chosen by Superintendent Valeria Silva to be trained as lead facilitator in a program called “Courageous Conversations.” The program was started by Pacific Educational Group, a national organization dedicated “to creating racially conscious and socially just PreK through 12 and higher education systems.”

Ortiz is also a member of the League of Latino Educators. She works with the state teacher’s union, Education Minnesota, to pass state bills to hire more teachers of color and to make testing more equitable for all children.

In addition to her nomination as candidate for the Minnesota Teacher of the Year Award, Ortiz was named Minnesota Latino Teacher of the Year in 2015 by Navigate MN, an organization that helps immigrant students pursue higher education. 

Catherine Rich, principal at Phalen Lake Hmong Magnet, says she most admires Ortiz’s self-reflection. She explains that throughout the school year, Ortiz assesses her own teaching methods and tries to find better ways to deeply engage her students. 

Rich adds that Ortiz takes on a leadership role at the school and brings about cultural awareness through her actions, words and “her intentionality.”

“She really just sees each student through a lens of hope and possibility.”


‘They’re my heroes’

Ortiz says that at the end of the day, it’s about the students and helping them become aware of their own culture and their classmates’ cultures. 

She understands as well that some students may have challenging home situations.

“No matter what their circumstances at home or their immediate surroundings, they show up to class every single day and try their best. 

“If they show up every day and try their best, so can I. They’re my heroes.”


Marjorie Otto can be reached at 651-748-7816 or at Follow her on Twitter at @EastSideM_Otto.

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