Educator measures success in generations.
After 63 years of service in education, Joe Mendoza enjoys his current job as director of Special Populations Educational Support with the Ventura County Office of Education. “I didn’t think I would be living this long. I’m 87 years old. It’s a surprise to me. I’m still enjoying myself, which I suppose is the key.”
Mendoza got his start in the classroom in 1957 teaching sixth grade. He spent the next 20 years teaching at every level—including university—before shifting into administration.
“What keeps me going is the children and the parents and the colleagues with whom I work. They’re positive and supportive of the work we do. My supervisors have all been supportive of the things I try to accomplish. When everyone accepts and supports you, who wouldn’t stay on?”
What do you do right now?
“I head up working with at-risk kids: Migrant students and homeless students, foster students, teen parent students and preschool students. Those are the major programs I oversee and work with.”
Working with generations of families has been satisfying, he said. “When you’ve worked as long as I have, you can see the value and success of education. When you’ve only taught 10 to 15 years, you don’t know, did my kindergartener make it? You only know they graduated. But when you’ve worked with three generations, almost four—you can point to teachers, lawyers, doctors, superintendents who have been in our programs, who have succeeded. I can see students not only graduate but can attest to the kind of life they have, thanks to the quality of our education.”
What was your favorite teaching job?
“I just loved my sixth-grade students. In fact, I had two of my students, both teachers, from my original class in the 1950s, call for a cup of coffee a year or two ago. I asked, ‘Why did you call me out of all the teachers you’ve had?’
“’You became our role model and the reason we wanted to have coffee is we’re retiring, and we wanted to thank you,’” he recounted. “My students are retiring? There’s something wrong with this picture.”
You often hear from former students who inspire their grandchildren to become educators. How does that make you feel?
He recounts meeting a former student at a basketball game. “This young lady came up to me and said, ‘You don’t remember me, but this is my grandson playing here.’ That’s what makes teaching so rewarding. You can’t measure it or pay enough to measure how great a gift that is—to see the grandchildren of your students. I wish everyone could have that experience.”
The ‘noble profession’
Mendoza’s commitment to education shines through everything. “I’m old school. I’ll admit that. To me, teaching is the most dignified and noble profession of all. I can’t think of any profession that has more nobility than being in a classroom, working with children.”
Any guesses to how many students you’ve interacted with?
“Thousands. In my community and my country, I see them teaching, practicing law. I’ve got medical doctors and dentists I can count among my students. There’s too many to count.”
Why did you become an educator?
“I grew up in a segregated community and within that segregation, I remember my third and fourth grade teachers. They motivated me to read. I always remember that. I was a voracious reader and they would give me all the classics and poetry—not just reading and writing. I remember graduating from high school and knowing that was what I want to do. I wanted to be a teacher.
“In the 1930s when I was growing up, there was racism and segregation. If you’ve got a good teacher, you overcome those barriers. They give you a sense of belonging and a challenge to be better than you think you are. My generation—we all were Mexicans, working in the fields and picking lemons. I was one of the few that came out of this. I went to high school, college. The elementary teachers believed in us. And I believed in those people and trusted them.”
What’s one thing you’re proud of as an educator?
“It would have to be longevity. To have lasted this long, you can’t just help but say, ‘how did I do this?’”
You’ve been selected for so many awards, including an honorary doctorate at California State University Channel Islands. How does it feel to be honored on so many levels?
“That was the highlight of my career, the doctorate. I remember when they called me and told me. I said ‘Are you sure? Are you making a mistake?’”
The other recognition he wants to talk about is the Ohtli Award, which he received from the former president of Mexico, Vicente Fox, for his service on behalf of migrant students and parents. It’s the highest honor given to people living outside Mexico.
“I’m just lucky to work with people who allow me the privilege of working with them. That makes the award special.” Mendoza said.
Advice to teachers getting started or anyone interested in administration?
“Stay in the classroom as long as you can, as long as you want. That’s where education really makes the difference. Administration is nice, but don’t forget compassion. Your job as an administrator is to support the teacher. Go visit them and tell the teacher ‘you can take a couple of hours off’—get their classroom plan.”
Tell us about your family
“I have a wonderful wife. We met in college and we’ve been married 63 years. I have a son and daughter who are fraternal twins and the loves of my life.”
How long until retirement? You don’t have to answer
“My last two bosses asked me that question just once. And I said to them, ‘When I’m ready, I’ll let you know.’ And they never asked again. My current boss just said give me two years warning so I have time to train my replacement.”
Mendoza said maybe he will retire in three years, when he’s 90. “I would go for when I’m 100 years old, but that’s pushing my luck. A round number at 90—that sounds nice.”
Teacher Talk is a series of profiles on California teachers and other educators. To be considered for a future profile, please email Communications@CalSTRS.com, with Teacher Talk in the subject line.