November 5, 2014

A legacy of teacher excellence

If you don’t know the name Gerry Jones, you should. She is a local treasure.

In 1952, Gerry, age 23, was a first grade teacher at Hope School. McCall’s Magazine, a large and influential national magazine of the time, was very concerned about the national teacher shortage, which it considered inadequate to serve the needs of the post-war “bumper baby crop.” The magazine also wanted to do its part in counteracting what it considered unjust criticism leveled against public education. Sound familiar?

As one means of bolstering confidence in public schools and at the same time encouraging young people to enter the teaching profession, the magazine decided to create a selection process and sponsor an award that would be bestowed on a National Teacher of the Year.

Dr. Earl James McGrath, the U.S. commissioner of education at the time, asked all state departments of education to nominate a worthy candidate for the honor. He and representatives from McCall’s Magazine then observed nominees at work for several months.

Gerry Jones, that young 23-year-old teacher at Hope School in Santa Barbara County, was their combined choice, and became the very first National Teacher of the Year.

The photo spread in the magazine shows Gerry being congratulated by President Harry Truman. In another picture she is seated beside the senator from California, Richard Nixon.

The magazine cited her personal qualifications along with the ideal conditions of her California training and working environment, pointing to the modern facilities, comprehensive surroundings for students, and the “harmonious relationship between teacher and superintendent, board of trustees, PTA, and community.”

California’s state superintendent of public instruction at the time, Dr. Roy Simpson, said, “Gerry Jones understands and loves children – and they adore her.”

The always modest Gerry Jones was quick to cite the work of others. “The honor that came to me and the entire teaching profession through the McCall’s article has been a most thrilling experience. I personally thank all teachers everywhere for the opportunity to represent them… I humbly live in their glory,” she said.

Fast forward to today, when she continues to be a reluctant celebrity.

She is still close with friends from her childhood and has kept all the memorabilia — magazine covers, newspaper articles, and letters from all over the U.S. She talks of the game shows and talk shows that featured her as a young teacher, shaking her head in seeming disbelief.

She also spoke of how she worries that teachers are too busy today to show down and really pay attention to the students. There are just so many demands.

Gerry’s success has come full circle with this year’s county teacher of the year, Allison Heiduk, a third grade teacher at Vieja Valley School, also in the Hope district. In a remarkable conflation of events, Allison’s sister was one of Gerry Jones’ first grade students long ago.

Both women will be honored at the second annual A Salute to Teachers, a black-tie gala at Bacara Resort and Spa coordinated by my office’s Teachers Network, and sponsored by our office and Cox Communications. The event will recognize the County Teacher of the Year, plus three distinguished mentors and beginning teachers.

It is a fitting way to honor what is best about our profession, and to celebrate the legacy of teacher excellence that is so evident throughout our county.