Public school advocate: 'It saved my life.'
Craig Rowe never saw himself becoming a teacher. Growing up in the 70s and 80s in Hayward, he remembers school as a diverse yet factional place with racial tension and frequent fights. As the son of a Hispanic mother and a White father, and as a youth who looked more Greek or Italian than Mexican, he remembers students speaking derogatorily about his heritage, which manifested in shame and anger over time. “This was before multiculturalism was a thing,” Rowe said. “School was definitely not a respite.”
A self-proclaimed terrible student, Rowe floated from one part-time job to another after high school. He enrolled in community college mostly as a cover story—to be able to tell his family and friends he was doing something when he actually felt lost and disconnected. He had no roadmap or role model, and no one in his family had attended college. He was later expelled due to lack of effort, confidence and desire. “I was quitting everything when challenges arose—college classes, jobs, relationships,” Rowe said. “I would walk away and put on a mask that nothing mattered to me, but inside it was creating a series of small humiliations, small defeats, and a part of me was dying every time.”
Shift in mindset
A pivotal moment came when he was waiting tables at a restaurant in San Francisco and one of the patrons recognized him from high school. She was the same age and ability level as him but had obtained her goal as an associate attorney, which was one of the careers he claimed to be studying for. That night at home, he looked in the mirror and told himself: “I’m worth more than minimum wage plus tips.”
At 26, Rowe moved to Washington and enrolled in North Seattle College. His English 101 class provided a formative experience. He described a narrative writing assignment in which the prompt was: “What I know to be true.” He wrote what he called a cynical and indignant diatribe directed at entitled patrons in the restaurant industry. When his teacher graded the essay, she noted he made some interesting observations and that she hopes he also remembers the moments people are kind. She wrote in the margin: This is one thing I know to be true—I think you’re one of the kind people. “After all the quitting, all the times I let people down, when this teacher saw goodness in me, I began to see myself differently and slowly take off the mask.”
Helping others, helping himself
Another key moment was when he signed up as an English as a second language tutor for community service credit. On the first day, a woman with a hopeful gleam in her eyes walked in with a stack of letters, which she asked him to read since she did not speak English. Rowe watched her optimism fade to despair as he read each employment rejection letter. He recognized this feeling of hopefulness shifting to hardness in himself and decided to help her. They met every day and learned how to search for jobs, write cover letters and fill out job applications.
“This collaboration was empowering for both of us, and the kinship felt good,” Rowe said. A couple of weeks later, this woman, who had been an accountant in Vietnam, received two job offers from unionized hotels. After helping her get a job, he thought: “Maybe I do have some value in this world. There’s something here I need to explore.”
Encouraged by the support he received from his North Seattle College instructor and with growing self-confidence, Rowe transferred to the University of Washington where he earned a bachelor’s degree in English. He credits a particular professor with inspiring his passion for historical and contemporary literature and plays.
“He lectured old-school style, which helped me retain information because I’m an auditory learner,” he said. “Plus, he was so enthusiastic about the subject. In his class, I first felt the joy of learning for learning’s sake—and understood that education isn’t just about learning a vocation. He expanded my awareness of beauty.”
Rowe continued his education and earned a master’s degree in dramatic literature from the University of California Santa Barbara, and completed his doctorate in performance studies at the University of California Berkeley.
Teaching more than an occupation
Rowe became a CalSTRS member when he started teaching at Truckee High School. His first class was English 11, the general American Literature course. Right away, he noticed several students with high grade point averages were in this class rather than the college preparatory course. He asked about their college plans and realized they didn’t believe a college trajectory was for them due to family history, self-doubt and societal conditioning.
Seeing himself in them, he helped students research colleges and prepare for the SATs during lunch. To meet the community service requirement, he helped them launch the Tahoe Language and Literacy Alliance, a reading group at the local senior center. Mostly, though, he provided encouragement and hope, as his teachers did for him and as he did with the accountant from Vietnam. “Looking back at the time I was an ESL tutor, I was acquiring the skillset for scholarship and admissions writing,” he said.
Inspired by his students, Rowe founded La Fuerza Latina, a program to help low-income, first-generation students access college and career programs. Students participate in summer internships, apply for scholarships and learn how to complete college applications. He gets satisfaction from working with kids who are in the same situation he was—students who have no other guidance and no idea how to apply for college. “Our motto is ‘When the sun rises, it rises for everybody,’ he said. “Opportunities are not just for certain students.”
The program supports eight to 10 students each school year and boasts students who have attended Boden College, Carnegie Mellon University, Pitzer College, Swarthmore College, Stanford University, University of California Los Angeles, University of California Berkeley, and Wesley College, among others. “We have a 100% graduation rate. I’m super proud of our students,” he said.
Rowe’s energy, excitement and genuine engagement with his students created a buzz at the school and within the district. He won Placer County Teacher of the Year in 2022 and was a 2023 California Teacher of the Year finalist. “I am so grateful to be doing what I love,” he said. “Teaching is not just an occupation for me—it’s truly a salvation.”
Teacher Talk is a series of profiles on California teachers and other educators. To be considered for a future profile, please email Communications@CalSTRS.com, with Teacher Talk in the subject line.