Learning Matters: Teaching trait runs in these families

I’m always interested in how people find their way into careers, particularly teaching, a career that does not rank among the top career choices for graduates. Families of teachers intrigue me even more, and I’ve had the pleasure of knowing a few of them in Glendale.

Last month, on the topic of career technical education and the creation of the Construction Academy at Glendale High, I wrote about the Vessella family — Tom Vessella and his three teaching offspring, Tom Vessella Jr., Teri Vessella, and Betsy Astor.

But I didn’t share much of what they told me about their own career paths, which started for them as students in Glendale, the district in which their parents worked. Their dad was a coach, teacher and administrator; their mom was a school registrar.

Speaking about her father, Astor said, “Wherever we’d go, he’d know somebody.”

Tom Vessella Jr. and his sisters laugh now at how they chafed under their mom’s admonition, heard so often in the mornings as they left for school: “Remember who your father is. Don’t embarrass us.” But even as teens they could see how their dad was respected and appreciated by other students as well as adults.

As they got older, Astor told me, they absorbed the idea of teaching as a vocation, a calling, not simply an occupation.

“You’ll never get rich, but you’ll never go broke,” Tom Vessella Jr. recalls his father telling him as he wrestled with whether to continue working in construction for the movie studios or use his math teaching credential.

But he says it was his sister Teri not their parents directly, who succeeded in recruiting her siblings into “the family business” of teaching. Their parents didn’t pressure them.

Now, when Tom Vessella Sr. visits the Glendale High campus to see a football game or visit his daughters’ classes, it’s he who hears how much his children are appreciated and respected. And as anyone who attended a recent meeting of the Glendale Quarterback Club can attest, the senior Vessella is one proud teacher-dad.

Jo Ness, retired Glendale High dance teacher, is a similarly proud daughter of her teacher-mother, Gertrude Ness, who died Aug. 28, four months and four days after her 110th birthday. This newspaper ran a front page story on the elder Ness reaching the super-centenarian mark.

I first met Jo Ness at Glendale High in 1996, the year before she retired. I became acquainted with her mother a few years later when I served on the Glendale Unified School Board and the Arts & Culture Commission, and the two Ness women would appear on behalf of the California Retired Teachers Assn. or the Sons of Norway.

I also got to share in presenting a 100th birthday proclamation to Gertrude Ness. Their appearances were always fun.

I spoke with Jo Ness recently about her own teaching career and how it fit with her mom’s, who retired after more than 33 years developing and administering early childhood education programs in the district.

Had the daughter known she wanted to become a teacher like her mom?

“Oh, no,” she told me. “It just happened,” though she came from a family of teachers — not only her mother, but her aunt, her uncle, and at least two cousins.

As she tells it, education classes were simply part of her dance major, and before she knew it, she had a physical education credential, because dance credentials weren’t offered. Then her mother heard there was an opening at Glendale High, and the younger Ness applied and got the job.

Daughter Jo didn’t have any problem working in the same district as her mom. “Everybody knew her, but we were never in meetings together,” Jo Ness said.

As she said to the reporter at the time of her mother’s last birthday, she felt lucky to be “part of a relationship that’s been healthy throughout the many years.”

I spoke with Ken Niemeyer, another retiree, who worked with Jo Ness from the time he started teaching at Glendale High, eventually becoming family friends with both Jo and Gertrude Ness. He told me that Gertrude Ness, after retiring the first time, returned to teach again “because she loved the little kids so much.” She stayed until retiring from the district for good at 75.

Doing work they love for students they care about. It’s a trait that seems to run in some families.


JOYLENE WAGNER is a past member of the Glendale Unified School Board. Email her at