Laurie Jones, Mission Oak High School
“I find so much identity in the title of teacher”
Mission Oak High School speech and debate teacher Laurie Jones is in her second career—one which she landed by accident. She started in the music business at the Recording Academy, better known as the organization that produces the Grammy Awards.
“I grew up there. I got that job when I was 20 and I was there until I was 30. It was a different kind of life,” Jones said.
Jones, who is in her 12th year as a CalSTRS member, fell into her first education job. Her background was in theater.
“I was just temping and I was figuring out what I wanted to do. Teaching was the last thing on my list.”
She was back in college and a professor suggested Jones get a teaching credential, saying there were emergency credential jobs available in Gahr High School in Cerritos. “I thought ‘I haven’t even taken a teaching course. I’m an actress.’”
Her professor told her to pretend to play a part in her first teaching job interview. “I had a pulse and they said ‘You’re in!’ I was arguing with them. I told them ‘I was just practicing! I don’t want the job.’”
But Jones jumped into her new job, after the classes she took over had been through a parade of substitutes. “It was scary and I had a stomachache every year for the first couple of years. But the first day I walked in, I knew I was meant to be there. Nobody mentored me—I was just thrown into the classroom. No benchmarks, no data, nothing.”
Jones picked a book she liked, The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, and just taught it. “From that day, it’s been 15 years. I’m so proud to say I’m a teacher. Much prouder than saying I worked at the Grammy Awards.”
She’s now in her 10th year at Mission Oak in Tulare. She’s also the literacy coach for the school. In that role, she works with faculty every other day on instructional strategy. “It’s to serve the students, but the literacy coach really works for the teaching staff. That has been a new challenge for me—it’s the third year working with my colleagues. The students are my comfort zone.”
Life at the Grammys
In her previous career, Jones was executive assistant to the president and CEO of the Recording Academy. “It was a stressful job but it came with a lot of perks,” she said. For the weeks surrounding the Grammy awards show, there would be parties and press, handling his calendar and handing out tickets.
“The music industry didn’t match my value set,” she said. “And I was just a girl.”
People used to tell her she was so mellow, but the job stressed her out. “My boyfriend at the time, now my husband, finally said quit to me. No one said that to me before. People said ‘You’re so lucky.’ They never said ‘Quit, you’re miserable.’ I knew he was the one when he said quit, and he got tickets and the best of the whole gig.”
Knowing she couldn’t work at the Grammys for the rest of her life, she quit and they moved to Hawaii. For a time, Jones worked for a concert promoter because all she knew was music. But she and her husband decided to move back to California, and he got a teaching job first.
How did you end up in Tulare?
Jones grew up in Hawaii because her father was in the military, but she describes her mother as a “little Tulare farm girl.” She and her sister spent every summer in Tulare when they were young, hanging out with their extended family. “I feel like I grew up here too.”
Jones and her husband moved back to Hawaii twice before settling in Tulare. “We love Hawaii but we’re both teachers. We couldn’t swing it financially.”
It was her husband’s idea to go to Tulare, rather than Southern California, where he’s from. They thought they would get paid about the same no matter where they worked in the state. Think of how far the money will go. And our family is there. “We just love Tulare. It’s a funny town. It’s definitely not glamorous,” she said.
Ten years ago they both took jobs at Mission Oak, a brand-new high school at the time. Before Mission Oak, she taught at the rival high school across town.
Not a lot of people wanted to transfer to the new school. “New high schools don’t open that often. Why wouldn’t you dive into creating a new school? It’s been a challenge. It’s been exciting. It’s been hard trying to wedge into a two high-school town.”
Who was your inspiration as a teacher?
“It was my eighth grade English teacher. I didn’t see it as a student, but she took some serious risks with us. She taught us Shakespeare. We read Macbeth, excerpts from Hamlet. She loved England and she would go every summer. She was an expert in her craft and her content, but she loved us and it felt good being around her.”
And that’s the formula she uses to be a good teacher—knowing your subject matter and connecting with students. “You can’t just love your kids and do nothing to challenge them. You can’t just teach chemistry and history and not know your kids’ names. You can’t teach one way and be truly effective.”
What’s one thing you’re proud of as a teacher?
Each year, she has a Poetry Out Loud competition—a national recitation contest that starts at the local and regional level. A couple of years ago, a student surprised everyone.
“Everyone memorizes a poem. Most kids stumble through. Edward was a rough-and-tumble guy, struggling in school, living in an outlying town. He got up and recited a 17th century poem and knew it by heart and took our breaths away. I was crying. My eyes just filled with tears watching him. I don’t know what happened where he could handle this language so beautifully.” Edward went on to compete in the county competition. “He’s such a beautiful kid. It was really cool.”
What’s something fun about you?
“I love documentaries about dark subject matters, like serial killers. I can eat vanilla frosting out of the can. It’s really gross. I’m trying to break that habit.”
Tell us about your family
Jones is married to Matt, who teaches chess and is the yearbook adviser. They have two children—son Toby and daughter London. Her mother also lives in town.
How long until retirement?
“I think I’d be a really bad retired person. I love documentaries and I love reading, but how much can you do that? I’m 48 but I started teaching in my 30s. I could see teaching until I’m deep into my 60s or 70s. I feel like I’ll know when I know. I find so much identity in the title of teacher; I think I’d really struggle without it. I’m a wife and mother and sister. These are all wonderful titles that I own, but teacher is something I created and I spent my whole life trying to figure out. It’s like never finishing a jigsaw puzzle. The better you get at teaching, the more critical you are of yourself.”
Teacher Talk is a series of profiles on California teachers and other educators. To be considered for a future profile, please email firstname.lastname@example.org, with Teacher Talk in the subject line.