What makes a hero?
For Texas Tech University (TTU) alumna Leslie Ortiz (BA Dance 2014) heroism starts with being adaptable. Ortiz is the reigning Educator of the Year for Zachry Middle School in San Antonio, Texas, having won the award for the 2020 calendar year. A year infamous for the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and social unrest. Yet, Ortiz views the challenges faced as a poetry in motion—obstacles meant to trip you so you can rise from the fall.
Ortiz is a prolific TikTok personality not because she hunts pseudo-celebrity, but because she has used the platform to teach her students dance during quarantine. Originally, Ortiz thought YouTube would serve the needs of physical performance in a virtual world. She found, however, that her students were not connecting.
"When kids weren't engaging in [YouTube], I made my TikTok public, and, sure enough, that's when kids started showing up because I was the teacher on TikTok," Ortiz explains. "I'll even get students who tag me in dance videos, and they say, 'oh miss learn this dance!' So, I will do 'challenge accepted' and tag them in it too."
Middle school is rough. Everyone is going through awkward transformations and adjusting to the ever-changing ways something is "cool" or "uncool." Leslie Ortiz, to her middle school students, is cool. She has her list of top ten animes posted in her classroom, she reads comic books, she plays video games, and she delights in her students.
"I remember in elementary school and in middle school, I told myself I was going to be a veterinarian or a lawyer," Ortiz reflects. "Then high school hit me, and I was like, 'no, I really love to teach people how to do this and how to do that'—that's when I made my decision to be a teacher."
Though, as heroes know as soon as a choice is made struggles appear. For Ortiz, the first challenge was finding a dance program. She is not classically trained in ballet, and for most programs, this would set her back. The J.T. & Margaret Talkington College of Visual & Performing Arts' School of Theatre & Dance auditioned Ortiz and accepted her for her talents as they were. Her advisor, Beth Scheckel, put Ortiz on the path to a minor in secondary education from the College of Education at TTU.
Exclaims Ortiz: "I was like, 'yes, this is it. It was meant to be.' Red Raider for life!"
In true origin story fashion, Ortiz trained in earnest, dancing from dawn until dusk. Just as she pushed physically, a course in pedagogy (the study of how knowledge is spread to its learners) pushed her mentally. The physical and mental would add together. Soon, she would answer the call to substitute teach, and that would lead her to where Ortiz is today. But first, the difficult moments.
The East Lubbock Promise Neighborhood (East Lubbock Student Art Promise now) committed itself to outreaching the community through arts programs in and after school with the purpose of aiding children in underserved areas. As a research assistant, Leslie Ortiz was responsible for establishing dance programs for middle school kids.
"I work at a Title 1 school now," Ortiz says. "When I get the phone calls from parents or emails from family members letting me know what's happening in that student's life, I realize that as happy as they are in my classroom, home life is completely different. Coming to that realization is hard. Coping with it is hard. You still need to treat them as the human being that they are, and you do not want that moment in their life to define them. So, when you are interacting with them, you know they don't want the pity and the sorries. They just want life to be normal."
Snacks, water, and hip hop—the keys Ortiz discovered to opening doors to students. She endeared herself to her students by donning cosplay of Marvel Comics' characters and emulating choreography students found on social media, adding to it all lessons of jazz, contemporary, modern, and, yes, even ballet. Ortiz employed the ending of class as a time to check on her middle school kids, ensuring they felt safe and good.
"I found my voice as a teacher."
Heroes contend with the super villainy of many things—social, political, natural. The sleepless nights hit Ortiz as the COVID-19 pandemic crept on. Teachers need to teach. Students need to learn. This needs to happen without the fears of getting sick—without the fears of destitution and dying. The world and Ortiz wrestled with these fears late into the nights and early mornings as she developed lesson plans on virtual delivery software that was as new as the day that was rising. The fears, it seemed, were beating the world and Ortiz was its only hope. If she could just figure out this software.
"I was having meltdowns," Ortiz admits. "Then, when I started to realize that not a lot of stuff mattered—my kids didn't care what color the folder was. When I realized our daily check-ins didn't need to be so serious, I started telling dad jokes. I started creating mood boards and asking which person best represents how you feel today. That's what they care about.
Once I started to prioritize, once I said 'I'm only going to worry about my check-ins' that's when things started to turn around. I didn't have any more panic attacks. I didn't have any more cry sessions."
What makes a hero is someone who can adapt to fear by turning it to hope. A hero is someone who can turn pain into strength. The marvelous Leslie Ortiz is not only Educator of the Year for Zachry Middle School; she is a hero.