Justin Bourassa, AHS English teacher, opens up. / Cayla Kwok photoJustin Bourassa, AHS English teacher, opens up. /
Cayla Kwok photo

You might have heard the name Justin Bourassa from his appearance on "Jeopardy!," standing beside then-host Alex Trebek and displaying an impressive range of knowledge. Or perhaps you know him as the assistant coach to the 2021 divisional championship boys' cross-country team at Arlington High School. Or maybe because Bourassa himself is a seasoned 14-time marathon runner.

Among our many-faceted residents

Many community members recognize him by his thickly framed glasses and his amiable grin, but high schoolers know him as Mr. Bourassa, Coach B. or the student-favorite nickname “J-Bou.” In addition to his impressive accomplishments and many titles, he is widely known to the AHS community as a dedicated and respected teacher who goes above and beyond both inside and outside the classroom.

Grew up in Connecticut

Where did it all begin? Bourassa grew up in Wallingford, Conn., with three younger siblings. His appreciation for connection illustrated through his coaching and teaching began at an early age: “I just treasure all that time I got to spend with my family,” he says, emphasizing, “I am so grateful for what my parents have done for all four of us kids.”

He highlights how his father, a fleet manager of a beverage-distribution company, “would leave for work at 3 a.m. so that he could be at all of our games and plays.” He conveyed a deep appreciation for his family, particularly cherishing his time playing T-ball with his father as his coach while working on his hitting with his mother. 

One of his early childhood memories was of going to a Red Sox Double A affiliate game. At 4 or 5 years old, he had thought, “This is so cool. I didn’t know the grown-ups could play baseball.” Despite growing up in an area populated with Yankee fans, his first professional baseball game sparked a lifelong love of the Red Sox for him and his brother.

Bourassa attended Xavier, a private Catholic high school, where his 10th-grade English teacher, Mr. Moremild, sparked his “lightbulb moment.” Bourassa laughs: “I was a punk,” explaining how he neglected to read the Scarlet Letter and wrote an essay arguing that Nathaniel Hawthorne was an amateur author and they should not read his book in schools. His teacher gave him a zero and offered to meet with him after school, taking the time to teach Bourassa about critical evidence and writing skills.

“You have a voice,” his teacher told him, “and it is incumbent on you to use your voice to speak for yourself and maybe for folks who don’t have a voice.” 

“You have a voice,” his teacher told him, “and it is incumbent on you to use your voice to speak for yourself and maybe for folks who don’t have a voice.” Bourassa says this changed his mindset and helped him realize that “I want to help people find their voice and share stories, and there’s just something really alluring about that, especially since a teacher had never given me that time and energy before.”

This teacher’s impact led Bourassa to enroll in the School of Education during his undergraduate studies at Boston College and later to earn his master's degree in curriculum and instruction at BC.

During his junior year, he studied abroad in England through an Oxford program and had the opportunity to “see a totally different education system.” His time teaching sixth- and seventh-grade students there was invaluable: “I’m really grateful that I had a chance to explore a new cultural approach to education.”

Bourassa broadened his perspective and approach to teaching through observing the UK’s Every Child Matters program, observing how it differs from America’s school system. America was just starting its “No Child Left Behind” initiative and Bourassa noted how the emphasis in the UK was on “every child” rather than “no child.”

Taught in Japan

During Bourassa’s first two years teaching in Arlington, the surplus of teachers in the midst of a tight financial situation gave him the opportunity to teach in Japan through Arlington’s sister-city program. He worked with students learning English and was fascinated to see parallels between the grammatical struggles of students in both Japan and America.

After returning from Japan in 2013, Bourassa has spent the past 12 years teaching in Arlington. As a teacher and a three-season cross-country and track coach, Bourassa is a well-known and admired figure at AHS. While sitting outside the school for this interview, he was constantly waving and smiling at the students, teachers and administrators passing by. 

He expressed his gratitude for his colleagues and the AHS community: “I feel really really proud to work at the English department here at AHS. I admire them so much, and I feel like they set really good examples of being real human beings and consummate professionals.” His humble and appreciative perspective on the Arlington community exemplifies his unceasingly kind demeanor.

Measuring up to 'Jeopardy!'

On Dec. 20, 2017, Bourassa’s appearance on "Jeopardy!" aired on national TV. Earlier that year, he had completed a successful online audition as well as a competition in New York City, prompting his invitation to the show. He says his wife “was actually a really good stand-in for Alex Trebek,” the host who died in 2020. Through perusing the website J! Archive, taking long walks with his wife and using a toilet paper roll as his practice buzzer, he studied rigorously. The impressive exhibition of his knowledge, making it to the final round with a lead, is still a popular topic of conversation among AHS students.

In the classroom, he teaches AP literature and "Examining Expression," but he has taught almost every other English class throughout his 14 years at AHS. The 10th-grade course "Examining Expression" was previously called "Literary Heritage." Why the name change? Bourassa collaborated with others in his department to “find works that are literary and also allow opportunities for all sorts of folks to see themselves in the text or in the authors.”

While Bourassa and the other teachers are still working to improve and diversify the curriculum, he commends the department’s openness and believes he and his colleagues are “headed in the right direction.” While he says he is more than content teaching right now, he hopes to someday create a districtwide curriculum.

Bourassa’s philosophy for his athletes illustrates his dedication and passion for coaching: “I want my students to be well-rounded people who grow up with a love of both learning and running.” This is his 11th year as the boys' cross-country assistant coach. He has also coached indoor and outdoor track, including both the girls' and boys' teams, as well as a myriad of disciplines and events. 

“I love that the running program here makes me a better teacher.” 

After school, you can find him out on the track with a baseball cap and a welcoming smile, doling out workouts, running advice and encouragement to athletes. Bourassa reflects, “I love that the running program here makes me a better teacher. I think coaching three seasons of running has really allowed me to see students as more [well]-rounded people, and it’s also allowed them to see me as a more [well]-rounded person.” 

During his undergraduate studies at Boston College, his roommate encouraged him to run a marathon and trained him for his first road race, the 2007 Boston Marathon. He enjoyed the training process and proceeded to run the Boston Marathon in 2009, 2010, 2011, 2014, 2016, 2017 and then virtually during 2021. He reminisces, “There's something special about Boston, because it's like a big party. So many people come to watch, there’s a big fanfare and there’s a Red Sox game in the morning.”

He has also raced the Sugarloaf Marathon in Western Maine three times. It is a significantly different experience from the bustling Boston race: “It's just beautiful. The first two miles are this gentle downhill on a perfectly straight road. And then it's so quiet, you just hear the footfalls, and you're surrounded by beautiful scenery.” In the future, perhaps when his children are older and he has more time and energy to dedicate to training, he would like to run a marathon in under three hours and 30 minutes.

Handling time pressure

Bourassa expressed that one of the biggest challenges with coaching is the time commitment and spending time away from his family. He lives in Arlington with his wife, Caitie Peterson, and their two young children. Similar to his approach to coaching and teaching, Bourassa says, “I hope my kids grow up to be empathetic, hard-working individuals. I want them to find the things that they love and are good at. I want them to be themselves and to be kind.”

Bourassa has established himself as a thoughtful teacher, an encouraging coach and a pillar of the Arlington community. Just as his 10th-grade self had hoped, he works to use his voice and elevate the voices of those around him. Teachers, administrators, students and athletes are all honored to call him a member of the Arlington community. 

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 This feature profile by Cayla Kwok, YourArlington's spring 2023 intern from Arlington High School, was published Saturday, May 20, 2023.