Connections: Linking Talented Educators
Connections: Linking Talented Educators

Spotlight: 10 Questions for Jonathan Cadena (AZ '17)

March 6, 2018

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Chemistry teacher Jonathan Cadena (AZ ‘17) says his Milken Educator Award has given students something to brag about and raised the profile of Tucson's Desert View High School: “We’re doing a lot of good things and people need to know about them.” He won Arizona’s 2017-18 Award on January 18, 2018.


1. What went through your mind when you heard your name called at your surprise notification?

Jonathan Cadena: Honestly, my first reaction was disbelief. I was operating that day on only a few hours of sleep and the whole assembly was surreal. My students were giving me a hard time afterwards because apparently it took me quite some time to realize that I was supposed to stand up to accept the Award.

2. How did your students respond to your Milken Award? What impact has it had on them?

Jonathan: My students are so happy for me. The Award has started a lot of good conversations with my students, and it’s always great to hear “You deserve it, Mr. Cadena” or “We thought it had to be you.”

The Milken Award has had a positive impact on my students, my former students and the community as a whole. We’re on the south side of Tucson, and a lot of people in town have preconceived notions about what it means to be from Desert View, based on what they’ve heard in the media or from other people. This Award gives Desert View students something to brag about. We’re doing a lot of good things at our school and people need to know about them.

1000w Tucson 2017 Jonathan Cadena Lowell Milken catching breath

3. How did you end up in education?

Jonathan: Growing up, I always enjoyed school. I came from a home that valued education but was not the most stable. School was always a place where the things going on at home could be sort of pushed to the side. I found that I really excelled at school. I also found that there were people at school, adults, who wanted me to excel and were very proud of me.

I went into college expecting to become an engineer. It turned out that engineering wasn’t for me, but while taking my prerequisites, I stumbled onto a really great chemistry class. The content was very interesting and the particular instructor was also amazing. The University of Arizona had a great program where science professors showed prospective science teachers the correct methodology for learning science, and it really triggered the inquisitive part of my mind. It was a great challenge to anticipate the best and most efficient path for breaking down a learning objective.

Fast forward a few months, and I had the opportunity to go into a classroom. It was so exciting to be on the other side—being that adult at school who could push somebody to excel.

4. Who are your role models as an educator?

Jonathan: Dr. Vicente Talanquer from the University of Arizona. He is an amazing chemistry teacher and works tirelessly not only on his content, but on the methodology of teaching science. He has put in a lot of hours researching how to get first-year chemistry students to think like chemists.

There’s also Mr. Jimmy Heintz, a longtime teacher in the Sunnyside district who recently retired. He was my instructional coach for my first year of teaching. It was amazing watching a master teacher at work. He turned what should have been a dry series of meetings into an engaging lesson. As a young man fresh out of college, I found his thoughts on teaching so helpful, and I was reassured to know that I had such a great resource. I still use many of the tools and techniques that he showed me seven years ago.

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5. What memories stand out from your first year of teaching?

Jonathan: I don’t remember specific days—maybe my brain was so overloaded that I’ve blurred everything together. What I do remember are general feelings: first anxiety and fear, and then, as I struggled, inadequacy and wondering whether teaching had been a mistake. As my students began to succeed, those negative feelings were replaced by hope, excitement, and anticipation as I looked forward to improving.

6. What are students most likely to remember about their time in your class?

Jonathan: I often hear from former students that chemistry was a difficult class but that they knew I expected everyone to learn. I run my class in a way that makes it obvious that I want every person there to succeed and I am trying my best to get every student there. I always think of that quote about teaching that says, “They might not always remember what you said, but they will always remember the way that you made them feel.” I tell my students on the first day of school that my number one job as a teacher is to treat them with dignity and respect; the chemistry will come later.

1000w Tucson 2017 Jonathan Cadena classroom

7. What’s your biggest challenge in the classroom?

Jonathan: Taking difficult content in a maligned subject area and making it accessible to every student who enters my classroom. Everything eventually comes down to that hurdle. What do I need to do so every kid in my class has a shot at learning this today? Sometimes it’s thinking of the right question to ask. Sometimes it’s finding the right connection to a real-life example. And sometimes I can’t quite figure it out. Those are the difficult days. My wife may think her husband is crazy some days because I will mull my lesson over in my head and talk to myself, but that challenge is really exciting for me. It’s difficult, but it also the most rewarding aspect of my job when it works out.

8. How do you think you’ll use your $25,000 Award?

Jonathan: To be honest, I have never had this much money in my bank account. It was a shock to see it there when the check was deposited and I’ve been hesitant to spend any of it. Many of my students have asked me what I am going to do with it; my canned answer is that a lot of it is going towards “grownup things” like my newborn son’s college fund.

I also want to set part of my Award money aside for these lab kits I have been working on this year. Being a chemistry teacher is sometimes an expensive hobby, especially when I find myself going to the store multiple times in order to get something to work just right. I would really like to get a few classroom sets of some of my standard labs but would also like to explore some new labs that I had been hesitant to try out due to cost. Beyond that, I am not quite sure.

1000w Tucson 2017 Jonathan Cadena students

9. What would you say to a student who expresses interest in a career in education?

Jonathan: I would tell that student not to be afraid. The profession has been raked over the coals by many people—sometimes including ourselves—but it is not as scary as the media would have you believe. It is such a rewarding career field to be in, especially if you find the right mix of being a “people person” and loving your content. I get to do both on a daily basis. It is a really fun job that never has a dull moment. I have often told students, “Say what you will about teaching, but I have never had a boring day.” It is a difficult job but the payoffs are huge.

I would also tell them that if they care about making a positive impact on their local community, teaching is the best way to make real changes in real people’s lives. If you combine that with passion for your content, you will make real change in this world.

10. What’s your definition of success?

Jonathan: I think this year in my life is the definition of success. As adults, we get all caught up in the day-to-day negativity at our jobs while ignoring all of the great things happening at the same time. Sometimes it takes an outside force, like the Milken Family Foundation, to really wake us up to what is going on.

I am married to a beautiful and supportive wife who just recently gave birth to our first child. I am at a job that I love and working in a field about which I am very passionate. I wasn’t sure if people were noticing, but they are. People notice when you show up to work with a smile. People notice when you put time and effort into your lessons. Students notice how you speak to them and when you try every day to get them to learn. It is an indescribable feeling to know that all of these years of give and take, people were watching. They cared about what I was doing because it mattered to them. That is success.

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