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1,100 students later, some thoughts on teaching

Next week, Jane Schwanbeck will retire from Lomarena Elementary School in Laguna Hills after 37 years as a kindergarten teacher, 36 of them in the same room.

Let the testimonials begin.

“I feel like she’s the best teacher I’ve ever had.” That’s from TJ, one of her current students. He added that he meant no offense to his pre-school teacher.

“What I’m going to say is that I love my teacher.” That’s from Kirsten, and there was a long line of classmates behind her, ready with more of the same.

These little interviews took place, by the way, after Mrs. Schwanbeck had let her students put me on the spot with a few questions of their own.

“How do you put the pictures in the newspaper?” asked one kid.

I tried to explain that photos are reproduced with patterns of tiny dots. One kid heard this and his hand shot up.

“Like Georges Seurat,” he said.

“Excuse me?”

“Seurat!” several classmates chimed in.

They learned about Seurat, the French neo-impressionist painter, in kindergarten?

Mrs. Schwanbeck invited TJ, Malachi, Arelly and Jackson to stand up and sing a song for me.

Georges Seurat

He painted with dots

And he called his method

Pointillism

Shouldn’t the Saddleback Valley Unified School District be begging Mrs. Schwanbeck to stay?

Actually, she told me, she’ll be back now and again. One of the things she plans to do in retirement is — are you ready? — volunteer at Lomarena, where she has been holding forth in Room 22 since the day the school opened, or long enough to have taught some of the parents of her recent students.

Can you imagine? I’ve got a first-grader, so I know how cute they can be. But they’re like jumping beans, and anyone who’s been in a small room with a couple dozen of them since Gerald Ford was president ought to get a medal.

I found out about Schwanbeck’s upcoming retirement from her husband, Fred. He had written to me once before, saying he and his wife respectfully disagreed with some of my musings on education reform.

They don’t think merit pay for better teachers is workable. With so many variables, how do you define merit, they wanted to know, and if test scores are part of that measure, what about the cost of training kids to take tests rather than teaching them?

When he wrote again last month, Schwanbeck, a former airline pilot, mentioned that his wife was leaving teaching. “Although she claims to be eager to retire,” he wrote, “I sense a twinge of melancholy. She’s going to miss the kids.”

I’ve taken some heat for saying that laying off teachers based entirely on seniority isn’t smart because you lose all that young energy. A lot of veteran educators took that to mean I didn’t understand the importance of experience.

Nonsense. In fact, I went to see Mrs. Schwanbeck because we also can’t afford to lose teachers like her and shouldn’t let them go without tapping the wisdom of their experience.

When Mrs. Schwanbeck’s little army of future leaders marched home last Wednesday, we sat together in the kid paradise she’s created and talked in the company of cutout barn animals and frogs.

Schwanbeck told me that when she came to California from Florida in the early 1970s, she couldn’t have been more thrilled. The state had a national reputation for great schools. Today, California’s national ranking in spending per pupil has fallen dramatically and the state is 49th in teacher-student ratio.

As much as she still loves teaching, Schwanbeck said, teacher morale is sagging because of the funding reductions, pay cuts and furloughs. It feels as though public education is under attack, so much so that she advised her son not to follow her, her mother and grandmother into the classroom.

“If you want to start a family, there’s no security in it.”

Schwanbeck said it’s tragic that the system scares young people away from a noble profession, but she’s not sure I’m right to say seniority is a bad way of deciding who goes and stays. Better to train new teachers well and require several years of service before granting tenure, she said.

We’re in total agreement when it comes to her pet issue — the larger the class size, the harder it is to teach. As we looked through her class photos going back to 1974, the number of students in Room 22 has fluctuated from 20 or fewer to 30 or more, and this year she has 32.

Twenty is a good number, she said, but when you add a dozen students, “You’re doing crowd control instead of teaching.”

Still, she said, there are times each day when the children inspire her with their breakthroughs, their sense of wonder and possibility. In those moments, teaching is as gratifying as ever.

Laura Canzone, the Lomarena principal, said Mrs. Schwanbeck will be missed.

“Whenever I’m having a down day I go in there and sit on the rug with those kids and the whole room’s on fire,” Canzone said. “Jane brings that to the room. She brings joy....There’s no way you can teach that.... It’s a gift.”

Come next week, Schwanbeck will have sent more than 1,100 children on their way, her impact on their lives incalculable. After 37 years, there’s only one thing to say:

Thank you, Mrs. Schwanbeck.

steve.lopez@latimes.com


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