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From RPS 205 to Harvard University, 2014 Jefferson Alumnus is now Teacher & Coach


RPS 205 to Harvard

During his senior year at Harvard, Gerardo Castillo knew he wasn’t cut out to work in a research lab. Nor did he want to be hired at a hedge fund. His superpower was helping others.

And so the former Gates Millennium Scholar, Jefferson High School Class of 2014, chose a path that landed him in an unfamiliar town in an unfamiliar state in an unfamiliar profession.

But the place, as it turned out, had a familiar name: Jefferson Middle School.

In 2018, Castillo became a first-year teacher in Oklahoma City, Okla. Upon graduation from Harvard, he was selected for Teach for America, which places the country’s brightest college graduates in schools in underserved communities. Jefferson Middle School had a high percentage of low-income students and Latino students. The mix fit Castillo.

While he had a Harvard degree, his family didn’t have much money. He burned through his college savings pretty quickly once he got to Oklahoma. In Teach for America, recruits spend the summer in professional development. He had $50 in his pocket when he got his first paycheck from teaching.

The classroom quickly made up for it. So did coaching--volleyball, soccer, cross-country, track and basketball. “Once it all started, I ended up enjoying it a lot,” he said.

The first year, he taught seventh and eighth grade science to students who were new to the United States. The majority spoke Spanish, the language his parents spoke at home in Rockford. “I had a couple of students who didn’t speak an ounce of English and I had a couple of students who didn’t speak an ounce of Spanish,” he said.

Teaching has always been second nature for Castillo, said Auburn High School teacher Elisabeth Zorn, one of his former teachers at Jefferson. “I remember he would spend all of his time tutoring other students,” she said. “Just because they needed the help. He would never say no to anybody.”

At Jefferson Middle School, he learned a variety of teaching methods. He also had to develop discipline strategies.

He remembered one student in particular who was known for being defiant. One day, the student came to class and didn’t want to sit down. “He’s dancing--honestly, just being a middle schooler. I asked him if he would challenge me to a dance battle.”

Little did the student -- or the class -- know that Castillo break-danced with his friends in middle school. “I told the class, “OK let’s go ahead and move the tables. Let’s create a whole dance floor.”

The student is now turning bright red. “I turn the music on. I tell him to start dancing. Then I go down to the floor, start doing a few things. The class is going wild and insane.

“From that point on, that kid--whenever he walked into my class--I’d say, ‘are you challenging me again?’ And he’d say, ‘no sir!’ He would sit straight down, take out his notebook and take out his pencil.”

Castillo is now in his third year at Jefferson Middle School, after having signed on for one more year beyond his two-year commitment with Teach for America. He wants to get a master’s degree in education. “He just doesn’t realize the gift that he has,” Zorn said. “He is somebody who can make a lot of change and get people behind him to support him. Not everybody can do that.”

Castillo has no regrets about giving up the lucrative opportunities available to people with Ivy League degrees. Between scholarships from the Gates Foundation and Teach for America, he figures his post-graduate expenses are covered.

Zorn sees Castillo as offering an object lesson for students and peers: choose a fulfilling career where you can have an impact on others. “He’s showing people: Just don’t go down a certain path because that’s the expected path.”

For Castillo, his path – and how to get there – is clear.

“Time is the most valuable commodity that you have,” he said. “I want to spend it with others, to help others grow, to help others change.”

Headshot of Mary Kaull

Mary Kaull

Mary Kaull has worked in communications for the Rockford Public Schools since 2012. She has lived in near northwest Rockford for 30 years and has two adult children. In her spare time, she exercises, reads, cooks and contemplates her growing pile of craft materials. She is fostering her son's hunting dog, Seamus.