For 23 years, Stewart has taught incarcerated youth
For nearly a quarter century, math teacher Craig Stewart has helped shape the futures of California’s incarcerated youth. He began his Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) career in 1999 as a part-time employee at Fred C. Nelles school in Whittier. Two years later, he became a full-time teacher, working at several California Youth Authority/DJJ facilities including now-closed facilities in Norwalk.
Today, he’s a teacher at Mary B. Perry High School at the Ventura Youth Correctional Facility.
Since August is Back to School month, DJJ is profiling a few of its teachers, who are part of the California Education Authority, DJJ’s own school district.
What are your proudest career achievements?
When I first started there was a lot of things I didn’t expect, of course. Just the climate of when kids don’t like each other, you know, you had to kind of get used to a tornado coming through your room and then being able to pick it up and say, “Hey, where did we leave off?” Not getting emotionally caught up in what just happened. I realized that I knew I had this interesting personality where I could do that, I really could pick up the pieces and resume and get everyone back on task. I guess my redirection skills are pretty good because in my first year of teaching I got teacher of the Year Award and Employee of the Month.
Who influenced you?
I had great mentors. A vice principal when I came here to Ventura, Felicia Jones, had a Changing Lives award, given every year to any staff that had a positive effect on the students to change their lives in a direction other than what they were brought here. That was a probably one of my favorite awards I’ve ever gotten.
At Norwalk, Superintendent Cassandra Stansbury was there at that time. She was so amazing and the things I learned from her really rubbed off on me in a way that I use today. Her philosophy was simply treat these youth as if they were yours. That was her philosophy, and it was a winning philosophy. And so it was easy to adopt that with my students.
Here at Ventura., We have a lot of respect for each other. There’s a great group of teachers here that are really here for the right reasons. That’s the type of people that I love to work with. We just kind of feed off each other.
With the closure, there’s a lot of anxiety right now and we can always sit down with a coworker. We eat lunch together. My room is always open as well. It’s one of the bigger rooms, so people stop by. It’s a great place to be right now, even though we’re getting ready to close.
What’s something people don’t know about you?
It’s hard to tell from my profile picture, but I lost my leg when I was 19. I was in the military serving in the Army and I got bone cancer in my right knee and the only way to save my life was to take my leg. So I get around on my crutches or my wheelchair. I don’t really bring my wheelchair here to work. I have these amazing titanium Canadian forearm crutches that have continued to carry me through my life’s adventures for over 30 years and at the same helped me stay in shape.
But the kids see that I’m obviously a disabled person as well. There’s a lot more compassion that I get from the kids because of that. There’s been times, believe it or not, I’ve been rolling around in my chair and caught an edge, tipping over my chair. The kids have rushed over and picked me up and put me back in the chair and asked if I’m OK. There’s a real sensibility from them. They really respect where I am in my abilities, but then they realize, “Oh man, he’s the kind of guy he’s really here to help us and champion us through.”
And now I have a reputation. The kids know who I am. They know that I’m a complete advocate for them. I have to be. That’s why I’m here. Also, I have a great sportscaster voice and take great pride in using that talent for high school graduation when I announce all the graduates names in my booming voice!
What do you do on your spare time?
I’m a huge train enthusiast. I’ve taken the Amtrak Coast Starlight train at least a dozen times. In retirement, I’m looking forward to traveling in Europe and taking all the great trains they have there.
By Mike Sicilia, DJJ Deputy Press Secretary