UWM grad finds joy in new teaching career after tragedy

In a 13-year career in retail sales, Jason Lopez enjoyed educating his customers at American TV about the products they were buying. But he often thought about applying those skills to selling students on the importance of education.

The May 2016 UWM graduate was honored as the outstanding student teacher of the year by the Wisconsin Council of Teachers of English at the group’s convention last month. Lopez now teaches at Brookfield Central.

Lopez’s path into the field grew out of a tragedy and the decision to do something that would make a difference. Six years ago, his wife, Lindsay, died of leukemia, leaving him to raise a daughter, Olivia, on his own.

“She was proactive and concerned about us,” Lopez said. The insurance money his wife left for the family made it possible for him to make a career change.

“I knew the job I was in at the time was a dead-end job,” he says. “I wanted to do something that was a little more meaningful.” As a single parent, he adds, “I didn’t like working the weekends and every single night.”

The more he thought about returning to school for a new career, he says, the more he considered education, but he was a little daunted about returning to the classroom in his mid-30s. “I said there’s no way I can do four years of school…I don’t have that in me.”

Though his high school teachers told him he had potential, he says, “I was an awful high school student. I had like a 1.5-ish GPA.”

But he soon found he could do college-level work. “Once I started going to school and getting mostly A’s, I began thinking: ‘I can do this.’”

He student-taught at Bradley Tech in the spring of 2016 with UWM grad Diana Jones and did a field experience at Cooper Elementary in the fall semester of 2015. “Both my co-ops were awesome. They basically said: ‘It’s your class, you do it.’ It was great having the freedom to see what works and what doesn’t.”

His teachers at UWM also helped him, he adds. “I took a one-credit class from Jason Orozco, who teaches at Riverside University High School, and he had previously won this award as student teacher of the year. I decided that would be really cool to do that, but I never thought it would actually happen.”

Tom Scott, senior lecturer in the English Education program, and Andrew Kincaid, associate professor of English, were among the many UWM faculty who helped him and encouraged him in his studies, Lopez said.

His family was also supportive. His mother, stepfather and girlfriend, Cheryl Everts, a social worker, helped take care of the children while he was in class and student teaching. (Her son, Chase, is now also part of what Lopez calls his “happy blended family.”)

“I couldn’t have done it without my girlfriend. She was instrumental in encouraging me to do this. My stepdad has always been there for me, and always said he’d do whatever he could to help the next generation. And my mom was so happy. All her friends were there at my graduation.”

His teachers at UWM helped him gain confidence in his abilities. “I learned that I can be who I am and use that to help my students become better readers, better writers and better people.”

He was honored when the middle school students he had at Cooper invited him back to be the commencement speaker for their eighth-grade graduation.

“It was nice to go back and see the progress they’d made in the four or five months since I’d had them in class.”

Seeing that progress and encouraging their learning is the reward for the years of study and effort, Lopez said.

“I like to see the students’ eyes light up when they finally get something. That really gives me joy.”