SANTA ANA, CA—Most new teachers can’t ask their mother for tips on classroom management or phonics lessons. In fact, some teachers are probably happy not to get professional advice from Mom at all.
But when first-grade teacher Kathy Alex needs help this year, she can simply walk down the corridor of Santiago Elementary School and talk to fellow first-grade teacher Carolyn Alex _ her mother.
“She’s a great mentor,” said Kathy Alex, 28.
It’s rare but not unprecedented for mothers and daughters to teach at the same school. Santiago will have two pairs when classes begin Sept. 7.
Julie Cundall, a teacher since 1958, teaches first grade in Room 31. Her daughter, Colleen Stevens, will teach fifth grade in Room 45.
Orange County schools are in the midst of a hiring frenzy, adding thousands of new teachers a year to cope with growth, class-size reduction and retirements. Santiago’s mothers and daughters say their relationships are a model for how those new teachers can learn their jobs.
“I think the key to becoming a good teacher is to have a mentor, and it’s neat to have that be your mom,” said Stevens, who for the past three years has taught a class of nine disabled students at Santiago, often teaming with her mother’s class for lessons and field trips. “I’ve learned more from her than any class I took. “
The mentoring process works both ways. While the mothers bring experience, the daughters bring the latest techniques from teaching schools.
Some of the new teaching methods were old when the mothers launched their careers. Carolyn Alex had to make a mid-career switch to teaching in Spanish because of bilingual education requirements, which went out the window after voters mandated that most classes be taught in English last year. Systematic teaching of phonics, spelling and grammar has come back after a decade when children were expected to learn reading and writing through exposure to great literature under the “whole language” philosophy.
“I see it as a return to the back to basics,” Cundall said.
Stevens, 41, was reluctant to become a teacher because she had seen how hard her mother worked. But she took an interest in teaching when her two daughters, Emma and Hannah, started school _ at Santiago.
Hannah, 10, will be in her mother’s fifth-grade class this year.
Emma, now 8, learned to read in her grandmother Cundall’s first-grade class. She’s undecided about becoming a third-generation teacher.
“I might want to be something else,” Emma said.
Kathy Alex is the fourth generation on her mother’s side to teach. Her father, David Alex, is a retired junior high teacher.
Her mother was Orange County Teacher of the Year in 1990.
“I went into elementary school teaching because of my mom,” Kathy Alex said. “I could see the joy of the job. The atmosphere is happy and alive. It keeps my mom young. “
Carolyn Alex agreed: “Here I am in my 50s. What other profession would someone tell you that you look pretty today? What other job would they cheer when you walk in the door? “
Kathy Alex taught at Wilson Elementary in Santa Ana for three years before joining her mother at Santiago. She was attracted to the school’s active parents, and she wanted to work with her mother.
Mother and daughter still live together. They start their days at 4:30 a.m. with a trip to the gym. This week, they decorated their classrooms and planned lessons together.
“I wish my mother could have seen this,” Carolyn Alex said as she arranged bookshelves with her daughter.
“I almost cry because she’d be so proud,” Kathy said.
“Another generation reading the same books,” Carolyn said.
“Am I becoming my mother? ” Kathy gasped in mock horror. “Or are you regressing and becoming me? “
John Gittelsohn can be reached at [email protected]