PTA Educator of the Year Just a Teddy Bear at Heart

Times Staff Writer

At El Camino Real Elementary School in Irvine, youngsters are sent to the principal’s office for being good. It is an office principal Gene Bedley shares with a pair of child-sized teddys, Huggy Bear and Bionic Bear. B-I-O-N-I-C, Bedley explains, as in “Believe it or not, I care.”

Officially, the school mascot is the mustang--or, as one of the staff put it, “We’re stuck with that old horse.” But for all intents and purposes, the teddy bear is king.

A poster in a first-grade classroom offers this prescription: “For relief of tears and nervous tension, one teddy bear, taken as needed. No side effects, but the love may become addictive.” Here and there, one might spot a child clutching a mini-teddy that wears an “I Love Mr. Bedley” T-shirt.

For if this is the Hamelin of elementary schools, Gene Bedley, 46, is the Pied Piper of principals. The national PTA, recognizing him as “uniquely innovative” and a man “whose relationships with students, parents and teachers have developed positive attitudes about the public schools,” will honor him as its Outstanding Educator of the Year at its convention, which opens Saturday in Washington.


An El Camino Real student, Kenny Lamb, 11, put it a little less elegantly, but the sentiment was similar: “Instead of scolding us, he talks to us. If there’s a guy you’re fighting with, Mr. Bedley finds out both sides of the story. Instead of hating the guy’s guts even more you feel you can work it out.”

And fourth-grade teacher Leslie Frazier, 26, who’s been at the school three years, said, “He helps you expand your thinking, gives you lots of support. Everyone says this is the Disneyland of schools.”

By 8 a.m. Gene Bedley, a motivator in saddle shoes, is on the job at El Camino Real, a year-round alternative school that serves a North Irvine population including affluent developments such as Turtle Rock and, across the freeway, wall-to-wall tracts where, Bedley noted, “a few years ago you could have brought in your MasterCard and made a down payment.”

There are 700 students and fewer seats; a waiting list is accommodated on a first-come basis. And, where many schools beg for more parental involvement, ECR’s active PTA has recruited 100 parent volunteers who have been trained in classroom skills such as computerese.


Parental participation appears to be infectious at ECR. Claudia Klett, for example, checking in with Bedley on a recent morning, has been a parent committee chairman for three years. “We (the parents) tried to get the bylaws changed so we could stay longer,” she said.

Bedley, who believes that education is “a shared responsibility,” said, “We administrators almost program ourselves for failure. Every parent values his kids’ education but we can’t get parents involved by writing in our newsletters, ‘If anyone would like to meet with me, please give me a call.’ ”

Rather, he said, “You meet them in their homes, with puppets in your hands.” The Bedley puppet box includes a fanciful creature named “Diz"--"His last name is Astor,” Bedley explained--as well as Tom Turtle and Disco Duck. First-graders giggle with delight when Mr. Bedley brings Rover the Red-Nosed Dog for a classroom visit, elicits a ventriloquist’s bark from Rover and then admonishes Rover for barking.

File for Every Student

For each of ECR’s students, there is a file card in Bedley’s Rolodex with the child’s photograph and family data. “I know where they all live,” he said, “and who they live next to.” And he doesn’t hesitate to call and ask, “Would you be interested in setting up a coffee in your home?”

Bedley doesn’t buy the idea that in schools where virtually every parent is a working parent, his formula is unworkable. “It’s a matter of saying, ‘We want you, we need you,’ ” he contends. “Working parents in our community may be making (school) buttons at home, or working on legislative action.”

Picking up the receiver of his wireless telephone, a gift from his PTA, he asked, “Do you think in the inner city schools if the principal walked around and offered the students a chance to call home as a reward for being industrious and working hard that the parents’ perception of that school would change?”

The call-home reward is one of the incentives established by Bedley during his 10 years at ECR to reward outstanding scholarship and citizenship. Others include “Bedley bucks,” a sort of Monopoly money given for writing skills, and cards ready for plucking from Huggy Bear’s shirt pocket that are “good for one hug . . . from any participating human being.” Bionic bear goes home overnight with an especially good child. And on Fridays Bedley drives his Model A in and offers spins around the schoolyard to those who have set goals and met them.


The bear boom began at ECR in 1978. Bedley remembered, “A parent came in and said, ‘My son doesn’t like school,’ which floored me. Every 6-year-old should love school.”

Looking for a way to turn that child on to education, Bedley asked his secretary to find “some big animal. If it had been an owl, we’d have called him Seymour Knightley.” She bought Huggy Bear, a toy that, 50,000 hugs (Bedley’s estimate) and seven re-stuffings later, is still letting youngsters know that at least one bear is proud of them for being helpful, courteous, kind and friendly.

Bedley laughed as he told of a small visitor popping his head in the door one day recently and asking, “Is this Huggy Bear’s office?”

When he is in his office, he maintains an open-door policy. But Bedley--"Gene” to his teachers--prefers to spend much of his time mingling with his students. Traditionally, he said, “Coming into the principal’s office is something kids can’t really relate to. The custodian is head of the school for most children.”

Not so at ECR, where the principal--greeted everywhere by enthusiastic “Hi, Mr. Bedley’s"--might on any given day have an agenda that includes:

--A visit to a kindergarten room to draw a clown face as a take-home treasure for the hardest-working child.

--A chat with a second-grader in the student mediator program about skills involved in mediating fights: “Do we give advice, Jason?” “No.” “What do we give?” “Alternatives.”

Tooth Exchange


--A short exchange with a first-grader: “Lose another tooth? Where are you putting all those teeth?”

--Offering a tip to an intramural softball player on blocking home plate.

--Suggesting a theme (famous people who were once rejected) to a boy struggling to come up with a topic for a class paper.

It is Bedley’s way of telegraphing to each child “the importance of their being here, that if they’re not here I miss them and the teachers miss them. This school is a family and they know where they fit in the family.”

Bedley looked reflective and said, “I lost a first-grade girl this year. It broke my heart.” Her name was Jenny, and her photograph is tacked to his office wall. He was with the parents at the hospital when Jenny died, their arms around one another. And he was there for Jenny’s classmates the next day, reading to them a parable about death, “The Fall of Freddy the Leaf.”

When, two years ago, he got word that his PTA president, Phyllis Lee, had been killed in an automobile accident, Bedley sped to the Lee home. Michael Lee, then a fourth-grader, had just been sent home on the school bus, unaware of the tragedy. Bedley stayed with Michael for two hours, until the father arrived--"I was the one who told him his wife was killed.”

El Camino Real is a caring place and, teacher Frazier said, “Gene sets the whole mood.”

Irvine Union School District psychologist Rick Triplett, who spends two days a week at ECR, put it this way: “A lot of people preach loving and caring. Gene puts his money where his mouth is. He’s got his stamp on this school.”

When Gene Bedley accepts his Educator of the Year award from the PTA at ceremonies tomorrow night in Washington, his family will be there--his wife Sally; his son, Tim, 21, a Biona College student; daughter Jana, 20, a student at Orange Coast College; and his son, Scott, 15, a freshman at Irvine High School. It’s a cash award, $2,500, and Bedley opted to use the money to take them to Washington. (El Camino Real PTA, which nominated him, also gets $2,500, earmarked for the school’s library media center.)

“Half the staff would pick up and go with Gene to Washington if we could afford it,” said second-grade teacher Judy Poutsma.

Accepting the honor will not be the inevitable fulfillment of a career carved by destiny. Not exactly. Bedley was something of a belated bloomer or, as he said, “It took me a little while to grow up. I’m not sure I’m there yet.” After graduation from Downey High in 1956 he flunked out of a California college which he asked be nameless before getting his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from California State University, Long Beach.

One of five children, he was born in Boston where his father had a greenhouse that “raised sweet peas for the Boston market.” When he was a child, the family moved West, relocating in Baldwin Park.

Gene Bedley is a man with traditional--some might say old-fashioned--values. He goes to church twice on Sundays, to his church in Irvine, Woodbridge Community Church, and, “for the inspiration and the commitment to the larger community,” to hear Tim Timmons at South Coast Community Church. Bedley’s wife Sally is a leader of a women’s Bible study group.

His heroes, when he was a youngster, were “my dad, sports people, a youth minister, Jesus, Peter. I’m a lot like Peter. I struggle in a lot of areas of my life in terms of all the things I want to do. (But) I’m more Paul than Peter. I just see so many things that need to be done. I sometimes sit in my chair at night and think how can we help all those people who are hurting.”

Today, the personal heroes he names include skier Jill Kinmont (“The Other Side of the Mountain”), former UCLA Coach John Wooden, former Alabama coach Bear Bryant, New York Mets catcher Gary Carter--"He’s very warm with kids, so warm and humble.”

‘The Most Significant Time’

Bedley is not bent on getting a higher degree that might catapult him into the loftier ranks of education; he is convinced that “with kids, there’s a time of influence. This is the most significant time, the elementary school years. I’ve always felt I was being pulled. People want me to be something more.”

Nor is greater monetary reward a spur. “If anybody was going to buy the wrong land, it would be me (and was, in Lancaster),” he said. “I think God is saying something, that He really wants me to be poor. If I had any money I’d just give it to the poor.”

Earning a salary in the low $40,000s (he can’t remember exactly), he said he is always “in the hole, thousands in debt” as the result of having been taken on a home refinancing deal.

He shrugged. The children, he said, are his reward: “To take these 700 kids and literally be able to influence their entire family with a message of love. I love to counsel, to guide, to encourage. . . .”

“The most important thing for kids to learn,” Bedley believes, “is that there isn’t anything they can’t do if they will it.”

He likes to talk about the bee: “The bee shouldn’t be able to fly, aerodynamically. The body’s too big for the wings.” But, he often reminds the children, “The bee doesn’t know it can’t fly.”

We have to “empower” kids, Bedley said, by believing in them, and their uniqueness. “You give power away to people through softness, through kindness. Too much of the administrative role is focused on control,” he added, rather than on “influence and responsibility.” In fact, he wrote a whole book on that subject, one of a number of books that are self-published, he said, so no publisher can fool around with them.

The newest, “The Big-R,” zeroes in on responsibility. The earlier “Big D” outlined approaches to discipline. The back cover of “The Big-R” lists among Bedley’s credentials: Author. Motivator. Catalyst.

Where does responsibility start? “Basically, with who left the milk out,” Bedley said. “Responsibility is not driving on the road like the Toyota commercials.” It means, he said, responsibility “toward God, ourselves and others, and in that order. Life is a series of responsibilities lived out in the context of relationships. Responsibility finds a way; irresponsibility finds excuses.”

Bedley does not hesitate to say that he believes the PTA award “happened for a purpose,” to abet him in his goal of reaching “every school principal, every teacher, every parent” with his message.

Already, through his books, he said, “I get 40 letters a week from principals around the country. I know I’ve been helpful to hundreds and thousands of people.”

All across the country, he said, “there are people who are not into convenience, but into commitment. I really believe I’m the leader of all those people.”

Educators must “set high expectations and challenge (students) to reach beyond their grasp,” he said, “but let’s provide the emotional nourishment. There’s a preoccupation in education with what’s not working.”

Bedley thinks there is a preoccupation, too, with testing: “Testing will never tell us whether a kid will pick up a book and read it. I think we ought to report to parents a child’s functioning level as well.”

He is convinced, too, that “testing focuses on the past more than it does the future. Punishment also focuses on the past. Discipline focuses on the future.”

‘People Come First’

People who make a difference, he said, are people who “reach out,” who “treat people for what they’ll become, as opposed to what they are.”

A number of teachers have left the profession, blaming “burn-out.” “An easy escape toward not making commitment,” he said. “Many people don’t even have a spark yet and they’re burned out. The people I’m going to lead, the people we’re going to take into the 21st Century, get energy from what they’re doing.”

But, he said, “Teachers in our society are not valued. The principal has to make them feel valued or they’re going to leave. Wouldn’t you? The amount of money we put behind each child in California, that’s a crime.”

Drugs and crime, which have infiltrated inner-city schools even at the elementary level, are not a major problem at El Camino Real.

There have been isolated cases of substance abuse, he said: “Everything that’s anywhere else is here, every problem families are facing. The personal tragedies that are happening in families. . . .

“I could almost predict where the cases are coming from. It’s symptomatic of kids left alone, parents so busy in pursuit of their materialistic goals, lack of supervision, lack of love.”

School psychologist Triplett said there are “fitful” instances of drug and alcohol use, adding, “We’re more worried at this school about kids saying unkind things to one another. Gene has brought it up to that level.”

“It’s an incident or two,” said Bedley. “I know my kids. I know what they’re into.” No child has ever been suspended for substance abuse. Bedley, in fact, seemed amazed at such a notion, asking, “Why would you want to punish a sixth-grade child? If God judged us on the basis of one incident we’d all be in hell.”

Rather, he said, “I deal with the pressures. Who are your friends? If friends are going to pull you down, do you need those friends? I’m not into sending kids to Alcatraz. I think the parent has to place some restrictions on who they’re with, how late they’re out.”

If a child is caught lying, said Bedley, “an appropriate consequence” might be for the child to design a poster on the meaning of trust.

“Don’t get me wrong,” he said, “I believe fear is OK. But when fear is the whole thing people tend to negate that over a period of time. Adults tend to mix love and fear together. You can’t physically kick a kid in the rear end unless there’s love. But you don’t train kids by kicking them.”

To be “an effectively functioning human being,” Bedley said, a child must learn “the eight basic human values": rectitude, responsibility, enlightenment, affection, service, well-being, power and influence “and there must be a balance.”

“Care” has been the theme this year at El Camino Real Elementary School. Next year’s theme: “Initiative.”