Where They Are Now: Q&A with PSU Alum Jon Fresh
Author: Jillian Daley
Posted: August 29, 2019
Since graduating from Portland State University in 1993, Jon Fresh has been helping students with emotional pain learn and grow.

Fresh wrapped up his time at PSU with a master’s in special education specializing in behavior management. He has been teaching ever since, with his longest stint, the past 21 years, working in the Emotional Growth Center at Westview High School in the Beaverton School District. There, he helps students struggling with intense emotions, often from the loss of a loved one or from a traumatic event.

Fresh’s hard work helping students overcome suffering has not gone unnoticed. He recently was one of two PSU alumni to receive the Oregon Regional Teachers of the Year award (the other award-winning alum is Mercedes Muñoz). The award is via the Oregon Department of Education (ODE), which implements state education policies.

Teachers who receive the regional award are “assessed on leadership, instructional expertise, community involvement, understanding of educational issues, professional development and vision by a diverse panel of regional representatives,” according to the ODE. The ODE manages the award in partnership with the Oregon Lottery, and recipients are given a $500 prize and entry into the 2020 Oregon Teacher of the Year Award; the winner of that honor will be announced in September.

When he’s not doing award-winning work at Westview, Fresh teaches math courses at Portland Community College. A man with an eclectic academic mind, he has been a financial analyst at Dun & Bradstreet and earned a bachelor’s in psychology from the University of Oregon while working at adolescent and psychiatric colleges.

This Q&A with Fresh is the second installation of the COE’s new series, Where They Are Now (answers edited for length):

Question: What was your reaction when you won the Oregon Regional Teachers of the Year award?

Answer: My students were giving a presentation on the Emotional Growth Center. Right before they were going to start, one of the administrators presented the award. I turned about 17 shades of red, and I don’t think I’ve lived that one down!

I feel privileged; I feel blessed; I think it’s an incredible honor. It’s a small group of people who are recognized in this respect and for this 52-year-old special education teacher to get that recognition I think is pretty incredible, so I’m definitely thankful for the opportunity.

Q: Who were some of your mentors at PSU? How did they help shape your career?

A: Two who were absolutely instrumental were Joe Kaplan and Dave Krug. Joe, I met because I wanted to specialize in behavior management. He was my guru, if not the guru, of behavior management in the ’80s and ’90s, and when I met him and just started to talk with him about the program and what I wanted to do, he helped me understand something I was already beginning to see, and that is, why it’s important to work with kids who have these behavior challenges. …

Dave Krug, my advisor, helped me with my master’s thesis. I was, at the time, working at Pioneer Trail Adolescent Treatment Center. I was talking with students’ home schools [schools they had or would have attended before starting treatment] quite a bit, getting ready to transition students out of the hospital and to their home schools. The success was small, a lot of repeat behaviors, so I wanted to take a look at the appropriateness of transitioning students from a psychiatric environment and back to their home schools. Dave really helped me put all of that together.

Q: What was one of the most eye-opening classes you took or one of the most intriguing programs or projects that you experienced while at PSU? Why?

A: I think it was my master’s thesis, and there’s validity to it today. Kids have difficult transitions, and it takes time, especially today with all of these things that students have on their plates. We’re living in a culture and a society that is very tenuous. We didn’t used to think about active shooters, and kids come to school with that thought. We practice those scenarios all the time, so it’s always on their plate, as are the difficulties that they may experience in single-parent households, with unemployment, and with homelessness. There’s a lot that these kids have to deal with.

Q: What advice do you have for new teachers who have just finished school?

A: It’s all about relationships, so my advice to a new teacher, any teacher, is: Spend the time developing the relationships. I know we have curriculum to get through, and I know we have standards that we have to meet, but if you have a group of students who understand that you’ve got them, that they trust you, that you trust them, then you can eliminate so many things throughout the year, the hassles. Just be kind to each other. …

Q: What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were a graduate student at PSU before you became a teacher?

A: I think I became a much better, more well-rounded teacher after I had my own children. I wish I would have known what it would have been like to be a parent when I graduated because … I look at my students, and there’s difficult days … but one thing I remind myself is: That person is somebody’s child. If these young teachers can have a vision of these children as somebody’s child, then they’re going to be so far ahead of the game.

Just like a parent, Fresh has created three ground rules for his charges:

1.         Don’t ever lie; just be straight up.

2.         If you need to unload on someone, come to me and we can talk about it.

3.         Don’t make it personal by bringing my family into it.

We not only asked Fresh about his life but a couple of other experts, as well: his wife, Wendy Fresh, and a former student, Peter Evans:

Q: What do you think of Jon Fresh winning this honor?

A: “I think it is well-deserved. He tears up when he talks about his students, and so I think that he’s in it for the right reasons. In special education, you don’t get a lot of recognition, so I think it is awesome that he is getting this recognition.”

—Wendy Fresh

Q: What is Jon Fresh like as a teacher?

A: “He was just the most respectful, charismatic, kind person you could ask for. One hundred of him would make a good school. … You could just vent to him and he wouldn’t judge you, and he would give you advice if you needed it. He was a great outlet and a great support system. … He was there to help.”

—Peter Evans, Westview High School graduate, Class of 2018

Photo: Jon Fresh says his advice to teachers is to build strong relationships with your students. Photo by Jillian Daley

Catch the first installation of the Where They Are Now series on PSU alumnus Tyler Shelden.

To share stories on the College of Education, email Jillian Daley.