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‘I Thought That Was You.’ Grad Student Reunites with Childhood Mentor in the Classroom

When School of Education graduate student Ramon Gutierrez was a student at Harloe Elementary School in southern San Luis Obispo County, he looked up to his principal, Juan Olivarria, better known back then as “Mr. O.” 

Mr. O stood at the entrance of the school every morning to welcome students and parents, Gutierrez remembered. He also spoke Spanish with Gutierrez’s parents, including them as active participants in their children’s education and school activities.  

“I think my learning from Juan started the moment that I started elementary school,” Gutierrez said.  

He knew even as a child that he wanted to become a teacher, and in 2023, he earned his bachelor’s degree in child development from Cal Poly. Just like Olivarria, Gutierrez is a first-generation college student. 

Though Olivarria was always an inspiration, it wasn’t until Ramon started graduate school that he got to reconnect with his mentor. 

Last summer, Olivarria, now a lecturer in the School of Education, was going through his list of new students when one name stood out.  

“When Ramon came on the screen on a Zoom call, I thought I recognized him, but I wasn’t sure because he has facial hair now and he’s a lot taller,” said Olivarria, who supervises student teachers training for K-12 education careers. “But towards the end, he said, ‘You were my principal.’ And I said, ‘I thought that was you, Ramon.’” 

Juan Olivarria, left, and Ramon Gutierrez, right, walk and talk on the campus of Grover Beach Elementary School, where Ramon student teaches.

Olivarria has always strived to serve and support “all students and not just the gifted ones,” but Gutierrez stood out as a child for his hard work and dedication. 

“Not only was Ramon a good kid, but he studied hard,” Olivarria said. “It doesn’t surprise me that he has become a great young man.” 

All these years later, it quickly became apparent to Olivarria that Gutierrez’s dedication to education hadn’t wavered. Even though his teacher training program at Grover Beach Elementary School didn’t start till late September, he showed up on the first day of school in August, Olivarria said.  

“Ramon was there from day one and before, to work with his teacher and be in the classroom,” said Olivarria. “That just shows a lot of initiative.” 

Olivarria said that, as former principal, his feedback as he observes Gutierrez’s teaching is akin to how he coached professional K-12 instructors. He added that principals tend to give “a little bit harder feedback and more demands.” 

“As a principal, you really have a guiding hand,” Olivarria said.  

And during Gutierrez’s time in the classroom, Olivarria saw him become a “great role model for these kids,” adding that in this way “we kind of pass it on.” 

Gutierrez, who didn’t start learning English until kindergarten, hopes to help students in similar positions.  

Through his education and experience, he recognizes learning gaps for students who are learning English as a second language, including for students who aren’t fluent in either English or Spanish and need support to improve their proficiency. 

Ramon Gutierrez sits on a cafeteria table and laughs as Juan Olivarria stands and looks at him.
Ramon Gutierrez and Juan Olivarria share a laugh on the Grover Beach Elementary School campus.

“Throughout my teaching career I hope to always keep ESL (English as a Second Language) students in mind, always provide support for them and connect with them,” Gutierrez said.   

As Gutierrez prepares for the challenges of his career path, Olivarria reminds him not to be too hard on himself. 

“He tells me that teaching is a learning process,” Gutierrez said. “Some lessons go great, others not so great. The important part is to always reflect on each lesson and decide what works and what needs changes.” 

Gutierrez hopes to eventually fill the shoes of his mentor, first becoming a teacher and then serving as a principal himself. 

Olivarria said he sees Gutierrez “making a big impact, first with his own classroom as he’s teaching and then as he becomes principal and beyond that.” 

Gutierrez is part of the , which provides living wage stipends to those who aspire to teach in special education and bilingual classrooms in local high-need schools. As part of the program, Gutierrez will teach in a partner district for three years after completing his credential.  

In Gutierrez’s case, he plans to serve in the Lucia Mar Unified School District, where he was once a student. 

“Hopefully the students can see the representation in me that I saw in Juan,” Gutierrez said. 

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