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Bill Cirone: Mentor — The Trusted Guide

Mentor, we learn in Homer’s The Odyssey, was the name of one of Odysseus’ trusted friends. The king, before departing to fight the Trojans, left his island realm in the care of his reliable counselor.

In addition to his stewardship, Mentor also served as a teacher and advisor to Odysseus’ young son. Little did Mentor know he would have to fulfill those duties for nearly 20 years, as the King of Ithaca labored away in the siege of Troy, and then was waylaid for another decade on his winding return home.

The allusion to Homer is an appropriate introduction to three remarkable Santa Barbara County educators who will be recognized as Distinguished Mentors at next month’s A Salute to Teachers, a gala event that will be held at the Lobero Theatre Saturday, Nov. 14, 2015.

Francisco Diaz Real of Lompoc High School, Clanci Chiu, who worked in the Carpinteria Unified School Districtlast academic year and now works at the Santa Barbara County Education Office, and Janis Spracher from Monte Vista Elementary School, will be recognized for their selfless work with students and new teachers.

All three distinguished mentors are home-grown, outstanding products of local public school systems to which they continue to give back. Together they are shaping the lives of their students while fostering professional development in young teachers — much as they were helped when they first began in the field.

It wouldn’t be correct to say that each entered education as though it was his or her destiny, however.

“It was something of an odyssey,” Diaz Real says of his route to the classroom. After graduating from Cabrillo High School in 1995, he went to a trade school in Phoenix to study architectural drafting.

“I was 17,” he says. “My parents had to sign my rental agreement.” The program was expensive, but Diaz Real soon knew it wasn’t a good fit for him.

“I was in it at that point, however,” he says. After finishing the program, he returned home to work as a draftsman. “I had to honor the sacrifice of my parents. They had very little disposable income and really tightened their belts to make my future happen. I couldn’t just walk away, but I started looking for alternatives. I wanted to be a teacher.”

Over the next eight years, Diaz Real would study part time at Allan Hancock College, eventually earning his associate degree.

“Thankfully, the road to my bachelors went much more smoothly.” Now in his eighth year of teaching math at Lompoc High School, Diaz Real has found his calling, and the students and young teachers who benefit from his compassion and expertise are glad he has.

For Chiu, teaching was in the gene pool. Both her parents taught in local schools, and the idea that an education was the door to opportunity was impressed upon her not only by her folks, but by her grandfather, too.

Mr. Yee, the long-time owner of the Fresno Market on the corner of Micheltorena and Bath Streets in Santa Barbara (now La Bamba Market), emigrated to the U.S. from China in the 1920s with just a fifth grade education.

“He was never embarrassed about his lack of formal schooling,” Chiu says, “but he also understood that education can be a game-changer for a child’s future.”

Chiu, who as a schoolgirl frequently spent afternoons at her grandfather’s store, says she wasn’t the only one who benefited from his wisdom.

“My grandfather emphasized the importance of school to just about every kid who walked through that storefront,” she says.

A graduate of Santa Barbara High School, Chiu says she first learned the importance of mentoring when she began student teaching at her alma mater.

“It was strange at first, having been a student, and now I was a colleague. But those teachers believed in me,” she continues. “I saw how they fostered relationships and established connections with students. And when I struggled, those mentors were the first ones to offer encouragement.”

Chiu recalls those moments from her formative years when she works with young teachers who struggle with classroom management and teaching strategies.

“Teaching is a craft and requires a lot of practice and commitment. I love working with educators who recognize that.”

Education was also a family business for Spracher. “My mom and my two older sisters were teachers. But I wanted to break the tradition,” Spracher says. She went to UC Irvine and earned a degree in psychology. Soon after she married and started a family.

“I started volunteering at my children’s preschool and continued doing so when they started at Monte Vista,” she says. Soon she began working on her teaching credential at CSU Northridge.

“Hope Elementary needed a fifth-sixth grade combination teacher, and they initially brought me on with just an emergency credential. The support I received from teachers that year was remarkable,” she says. "They would share the workload and share ideas — even about their failures. It provided an opportunity to reflect, to think about the cycle of continuous improvement.”

Spracher marvels about her current school and its staff. “To be surrounded by so many people who are so talented and dedicated … that’s a very special thing.” The help she received as a new teacher is what compels her to be so generous with her expertise with new colleagues.

Fittingly, Spracher told me she’s been teaching The Odyssey to her sixth grade students at Monte Vista for nearly 10 years.

“It’s a poem that nearly every student can relate to,” she says. “Homer’s figures are so rich; students can always find someone in there with whom they identify.”

Not surprisingly, Spracher has a fondness for the Mentor character. “I admire his integrity, his sense of duty and commitment,” she says. She also likes the fact that the goddess Athena would often disguise herself as Mentor when she appeared amongst the mortals.

 “A good choice,” Spracher says, smiling. “Smart woman.”

— Bill Cirone is Santa Barbara County’s superintendent of schools. The opinions expressed are his own.

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