Retirement didn’t stop this educator from going back to substitute full time. ‘I say teaching is like a disease, almost.'
Tony Brancato loves education so much he couldn’t stay retired. After 20 years as a principal and seven years as a teacher, he tried to stop working.
“I got bored at home. Even though we have a little farm and there’s a lot to do. I started subbing,” Brancato said.
Brancato’s path to teaching was unconventional. He wasn’t allowed to finish high school and had a first career as a hairdresser. He was pulled out of school as a teenager by his father and told to get a job. “What kind of a job is a 14-year-old going to get? I had these horrible jobs that paid nothing.”
Brancato knew he needed a trade, so he worked in fast food at night and during the day took the required training for becoming a hairdresser.
He worked as a hairdresser for 11 years, ending up in Los Angeles. “I was not a Hollywood stylist. My clients were bread-and-butter working women and I enjoyed it. Hairdressing is a fabulous career for young people. But as you get older, it’s difficult to work on your feet all day, and you’re around people smoking and chemicals.”
Back to school
Brancato decided to go to community college, again with the plan of working at night while taking classes during the day. The problem was he didn’t have a high school diploma. “I had it very tough. I was on academic probation. A counselor called me in and asked for my transcripts and I said I don’t have any. I was told if I passed my classes, I could stay.”
He turned his grades around and earned an associate degree, then a bachelor’s degree and got his teaching credential. He eventually earned a master’s degree in early childhood education and another master’s in school administration.
His experience with education gave him empathy for his students. “When I did home visits and saw some of the situations children had to put up with, I could understand. I think if you just reach out to kids, it helps. I don’t believe in just kicking kids out. What I want to convey is we live in a nation where these things can happen. How can someone like me, who lived in Appalachia and moved to Connecticut and had no education, go into the middle class? Only in the United States can this happen.”
Beginning his career in education
Brancato started with teaching kindergarten and preschool and loved it. In Santa Maria, he taught all-day kindergarten and made home visits. “I went to every child’s home after school and on weekends to develop a rapport with the kids.”
He never planned to become a principal—Brancato said it just happened. “I was teacher in charge and the district encouraged me to apply for the principalship at a school that was doing poorly. There were 250 candidates and I thought there was no way I’m going to get this.”
For the first year, Brancato worked as both a teacher and principal, and it took him two years to turn the school around.
He said Ralph Dunlap Elementary School in Santa Maria became famous. He wanted kids to take ownership, so they helped with cleaning, landscaping, planting trees, growing food to donate and random acts of kindness. “The secretary answered the phone with, ‘It’s a beautiful day at Ralph Dunlap school.’ She told me ‘but it’s not beautiful,’ and I said we’re going to change that perception.”
The student government was patterned on a constitutional monarchy and had a token economy where students earned token money with jobs like tutoring or picking up trash. Students eventually could cash in earnings for real money. They also had a weekly radio show and branched into television. They even had a school flag.
“We had a deal—if no one had a detention, we would fly the flag so the community would see there were no problems at the school, and we were flying that flag all the time. I told teachers if a kid is getting detention all the time, it’s not working.”
For discipline, the school developed a student court that included a bar exam, judges and lawyers. Brancato said an adult was always present to make sure students weren’t unfairly punished, and there was no jail.
He learned the name of more than 600 students each year and called their parents. “I called and the parents would ask what did my kid do now? I would say nothing. I just want you to know how proud you should be of them. Parents were flabbergasted.
“We were a family,” Brancato said. “We had breakfasts and lunches together. Kids felt connected to their school and they painted murals. I know principals don’t have that latitude today.
“I also did something my colleagues frowned on. One day a month, I would have a teacher become principal for the day and I would teach their class. It’s so easy to forget what teachers do all day. I taught K-6 at least once a week so that I would never forget what it was like.”
Why did you become a teacher?
“When I was in sixth grade, I wasn’t a very good student, and my teacher took a special interest in me. He was so kind and generous, and I knew I wanted to be a teacher when I grew up. But I was a poor student and unfortunately, my dad and stepmom had no education and didn’t encourage me. We were living in an abandoned store at the time.”
Life as a sub
After moving to Beaumont for retirement, Brancato got bored and started subbing. Eventually, he was subbing so often he was asked to be a permanent, in-house substitute. “I enjoyed that so much I taught at the high school. But I enjoy all the grade levels. I find the kids so refreshing and I particularly like the kids with learning disabilities.”
He now mostly teaches at the middle school. “A lot of teachers won’t go there. But if you respect kids and treat them politely, they’ll do the same.”
How did your work change during the pandemic?
“Remote teaching—I had to learn that. I’m pretty computer savvy, though not like the young people are. It’s tough to do that, particularly for primary youngsters and trying to teach them on Zoom.”
What’s one fun thing about you?
“I like to garden. I love animals. We have bighorn sheep and pigeons. I’m a wildlife painter.”
Tell us about your family
“We’ve been married for 52 years. She was a client of mine in the beauty salon and you’re not supposed to date your clients.”
They didn’t have children, but his kids were at school. “We’ve always had animals and they’ve been like our kids.”
After retiring, Brancato and his wife moved from Santa Maria to Beaumont, which is west of Palm Springs. “The Central Coast is a great place to live but it’s damp, foggy and cold. Beaumont is just a beautiful area to live. Housing is not cheap, but compared to the coast, it’s reasonable and there’s acreage. We live in a rural area.”
Any plans for retiring again?
“People ask when are you going to quit, and I say teaching is like a disease, almost. I enjoy the kids and the teachers. It’s a fantastic profession and I will continue. Thankfully, I don’t have any health issues. I believe by being active and doing things, you’re going to do well.”
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.