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Francisco Laguna, Eastwood Elementary School, Norwalk-La Mirada Unified School District

Third grade teacher changed careers to make a difference.

Francisco “Mr. Franco” Laguna became a teacher in 1997 after volunteering at a nearby after-school reading program.

“I liked sitting with a child and teaching them letter sounds,” Laguna said. “It’s rewarding when you teach younger grades. Once they learn to decode words and understand them, it’s up to them from now on. Whether they’re going to be a banker or construction worker or open a hair salon or be a sales rep—you’ve given them the bricks to build with.”

Francisco Laguna has short dark hair and is smiling. He crouches on sand at a beach with a cloudy sky behind him.
Francisco Laguna has been a CalSTRS member for 26 years. 

It didn’t take long before the school’s principal suggested Laguna should become a teacher. At the time, the state was recruiting younger men to become educators. “I gave notice at my job and didn’t look back.”

Tell us about your job

Laguna teaches third grade at Eastwood Elementary School in La Mirada, as part of a three-teacher team. Their main goals are memorizing multiplication tables and understanding writing and paragraph structure. He also makes a point of teaching cursive.

“It’s important. This generation of students, they did kindergarten, first grade on Zoom. In kindergarten, you learn how to hold a pencil, doing the strokes of printing. It was one of the challenges of teaching writing in the pandemic,” Laguna said.

He said his students are missing a lot of their elementary school memories. “I tell parents, ‘You remember the Halloween parties, the egg hunts, the Christmas parties, your teacher. We are going to celebrate everything.’ My students lost a couple of years of memories. You don’t remember learning quotations.”

How did the pandemic change your job?

“Luckily, I had a class that first year who I already had a strong relationship with. It was a lot of emailing and phone calls back to the teacher. The rapport was already built. I didn’t have a lot of kids not turning in assignments,” Laguna said.

For the second year, the district had training, guidelines and software safety protocol for teaching through Zoom. “It was like hosting a TV show, and I adapted to that well. When we returned to the classroom, I took those technology platforms and integrated them into a hybrid class—half of the day was in person and the other half was in Zoom.”

Now Laguna integrates digital platforms into his teaching, just in case they need to go back to distance learning.

Tell us about life before teaching

“I got to the point in my prior career where I made too much money and hated getting up too early,” Laguna said. He wanted to give back and started volunteering.

“The company was good, but I didn’t enjoy what I was doing. I wasn’t contributing to society. There’s nothing wrong with money—I thought my calling was to make a lot of money, but I didn’t get any intrinsic rewards,” Laguna said.

Despite the desire for more satisfying work, the pay cut from commercial equipment sales was hard. “My first year of teaching, I made 33% of what I made the year before, but I was 100% happier,” Laguna said.

Before sales, Laguna appeared in ads and commercials.

“I remember being classified as a ‘pretty-boy’ and that led to opportunities. But as I got older, from my late teens to my early 20s, I learned there was an unglamourous side to the industry.”

He ended up buckling down and taking college more seriously. “I couldn’t act. I was camera friendly—I did commercials without talking, where they would just show you.”

He said education gave him a good life. “I’m still on track to retire. I vacation, I travel, I’m a homeowner. I’m very blessed.”

Saving early, planning for retirement

Coming from another career, Laguna knew it was important to start saving extra. “I had the mindset that retirement comes early. Every pay increase, I increased my contributions into my own retirement account.”

He gives the same advice to young teachers and others going into the job market. “It might seem like a long way off, but you need to think about retirement.”

Laguna hopes to retire at 60—he used to think it would be 58. “I just don’t want to be that burned-out teacher. I want to leave at the top of my game.”

“I had the mindset that retirement comes early. Every pay increase, I increased my contributions into my own retirement account.”

After 26 years of teaching, he still hasn’t taught the children of his students, but Laguna says he’s gone through all their siblings.

“Talk to me in a couple of years,” Laguna said. “As long as I look forward to waking up, I’ll keep teaching. But I do love traveling—I look forward to that in retirement.”

Did you have a favorite teacher?

Laguna said all his elementary teachers were supportive. His junior high school physical education teacher changed his life. “I was a chubby kid, really smart, with thick glasses. I was quiet, I wasn’t good at sports, and I wasn’t coordinated. He taught me to run, about fitness, food and a proper diet. He would talk to me and check in with me. As a young man, you have a rapid growth spurt at the end of middle school, and I leaned out, got contact lenses. The world changed, it got great. He gave me a lot of confidence in all aspects of my life.”

Laguna’s PE teacher became high school dean of boys and kept in contact with him throughout school. “I wanted to be like him and inspire students like he inspired me.”

Another big influence was at Pasadena City College, with a counselor who helped him navigate the junior college system and get him into the equity opportunity program, setting him up with alumni and helping with a transfer to California State University Long Beach.

Finally, an economics professor mentored him in a program for first-generation students, which helped him get through college with paying for parking and books and getting tutoring. “I touched base with him after I got my master’s degree to say thank you.”

Why he almost left teaching

At the beginning of the 2006 school year, Laguna was frustrated with the challenges of teaching. “I was thinking of leaving the profession and ran into one of my students, which reminded me why I teach.”

Laguna was with his husband at a festival in Los Angeles when he thought he recognized a young man, who then approached him and asked if he was a teacher. The young man, Armando, was a former student Laguna had tutored in reading, first as a volunteer and then as he started his teaching career in 1997.

Laguna, also known as Mr. Franco to his students, caught up with Armando, all grown up at 6 feet tall and no longer little. The young man mentioned he realized there was more to life than working in a warehouse and said he planned to start college in the fall.

They parted ways, and as Laguna told his husband about the student’s story, Armando came running back. “When he reached me, he hugged me, I imagined like a son hugs his father, lifting me off my feet and whispered in my ear: ‘Thanks for teaching me to read.’”

Laguna turned the encounter into an essay he revisits every time he comes back for another year of school. “This is my why.”

One thing you’re proud of as a teacher?

“I enjoy being a teacher ambassador to the outside sector. People don’t know all the hardships, challenges successes and joys of teaching. Summer is not vacation. It’s my nonpaid time. We don’t get paid overtime. My day doesn’t end at 2:30 p.m. There’s planning and correcting. You’re the third parent or in some cases the second parent. It wasn’t in my job description, but it is now. People say, ‘I can’t do that.’ I look at them and say ‘Yeah, you probably couldn’t.’”

He also reminds parents what they said at parent-teacher conferences, about supporting teachers. “I tell them, good, I’ll call you when something’s up for a vote. I need your support now. I’ll remind them what they said. And by the way, your daughter is in eighth grade now. How’s she doing? I always save parent contacts.”

A new world thanks to a teacher

Laguna said nobody noticed that he needed glasses until the first grade, when he had to go to the board to copy things. “I was a pretty bright little kid, and I could read at home, but I couldn’t read in class. Once I got glasses, the whole world opened up to me. Thanks to my first grade teacher for noticing I couldn’t see. I’m one of nine kids and nobody else in my family wears glasses, so they didn’t know.”

One fun thing about you?

“I try to make my classroom fun. I try to build a strong student-teacher relationship. Kids will say, ‘I wish you were my dad.’ I say, no, I’m your teacher. If you think back in your own childhood or college, think of your favorite grade or subject. You liked the teacher or professor. If you have a good, strong relationship, they’re going to have a good year and there’s going to be good learning going on.” He tells the teachers he mentors the same thing: Build relationships with your students, and they’ll have a good year.

Another fun thing? Laguna loves to decorate his classroom for every holiday. But his love of festive décor doesn’t end in his classroom.

“In October, they call our house the pumpkin house. We have 64 jack-o-lanterns and live on a street where more than 1,000 trick-or-treaters come. For Christmas, I don’t have to tell you this house looks like Santa Claus lives here.”

Tell us about your family

Laguna has been with his husband, Jay, for 22 years and married since 2016. “His husband’s parents were public school teachers and he has an overwhelming appreciation for teachers. It’s one of the many things that binds us.”

How long until retirement?

Laguna plans to retire in a couple years, at 60. “I originally wanted to retire at 58, but I decided to stick it out. It’s more financially advantageous.”

He and his husband plan to retire at the same time. Laguna wants to travel, and his dream is to live on a cruise ship. “I go on two cruises a year and meet retirees that live on cruises, and that sounds great. That’s one of my personal goals. Is that my husband’s goal? Not yet.”

Teacher Talk is a series of profiles on California teachers and other educators. To be considered for a future profile, please email Communications@CalSTRS.comwith Teacher Talk in the subject line.