Sierra Views: Marge Jones, educator par excellence
Brenna Swift, The Union Democrat /
The Mother Lode is full of retired teachers with long-range perspectives on education - perhaps none more than Marjorie "Marge" Jones of Sonora.
Jones, who just turned 84, built up 37 years of experience as a public school teacher and principal before retiring.
She then taught General Educational Development, or GED, classes at Columbia College and spent 14 years as a member of the Curtis Creek Elementary School Board of Trustees.
Today, she devotes her time to the California Retired Teachers Association's local chapter and other volunteer efforts like a women's fire department auxiliary, since she has found civic engagement rewarding throughout her life.
"The more you put in, the more you get out," said Jones, who has a sharp wit and warm smile. "I've done a lot of volunteering over the years, and so much comes back from it."
Her philosophy as an educator was similar. She thinks students do best when teachers care about them, rather than approaching their jobs as a task that ends when class is over.
That approach did not go unnoticed. Jones was one of four nominees for California Teacher of the Year in 1974. She's kept the letters of recommendation that were written for her and still reads them from time to time.
One was a testimonial by a student in Redondo Beach, where she taught junior high schoolers struggling with reading. The boy, who became a successful businessman, thanked Jones for helping him.
"When I first went into her class I couldn't read at all, but by the time I went into high school I could really hold my own," he wrote in neat cursive.
Jones was raised in a Toledo, Ohio, suburb by lower-middle-class parents who didn't finish high school themselves and were "anxious" that she have greater opportunity.
She attended Toledo public schools, where her seventh-grade teacher inspired her to become an educator herself by pointing out her talents and encouraging her.
"From that year forward, I never considered any other career," Jones said in an autobiographical sketch she wrote for the Teacher of the Year nomination.
She went on to the University of Toledo and met her future husband, Wendell, at a sorority dance. The couple moved to California in 1957 and bought a house in Redondo Beach, where Jones settled in as a seventh- and eighth-grade teacher.
Junior high school students are "misunderstood" and sometimes written off by educators, Jones said. She loved them from day one, eventually choosing to focus on students who needed extra academic help.
It's the students she remembers best, especially humorous moments in the classroom.
Her class of academically gifted eighth-graders in Redondo Beach studied practice tests to prepare for a standard test on the U.S. Constitution. When the real test came, it was exactly the same as the practice test.
"The kids just looked at me and I looked at them and we said, 'Oh, well,'" Jones recalled. "They were as shocked as I was."
Students can be tough critics. In one lesson on the Constitution, Jones's class decided whether or not to "impeach" the school principal in the same way they'd impeach a U.S. president.
After deliberating on the pros and cons, they graciously allowed the principal to stay.
Jones didn't end up winning the state Teacher of the Year award, but she's inclined to see the glass as half full. The interviews for the award gave her and her husband a "wonderful" paid trip to Sacramento, she said.
She later became the principal at Modesto's Stockard Coffee Elementary School - the first female principal for the school district - and Gustine Elementary School.
"For all I know about Marge, she was an excellent school administrator," said Lenore Shively, president of the California Retired Teachers Association's local chapter. "She says it like it is."
Jones continued substitute teaching after retiring in the Mother Lode with her husband, who worked as a bail agent and died in 2010. They were married almost 58 years. One of their two sons, Jeffrey, lives in Sonora.
Having experienced public school from the perspective of a student, teacher and principal, Jones ultimately saw it as a school board member at Curtis Creek - where her grandson was enrolled.
She lost the school board election in November last year, to the relief of her family. She estimates that over the course of 14 years, she missed only one board meeting due to a sprained ankle. That means more than 150 regular school board meetings, plus many more special meetings.
Jones said the hardest part of her tenure was deciding on student suspensions and expulsions.
"I think, what are we doing to these kids?" she said. "I don't know that there's an alternative, except I would like to see them still be in school."
Her experience as an educator has taught her that the solution to students' problems is often clear-cut. The student who wrote her letter of recommendation was "scared silly" of high school, so Jones simply went there with him and helped him sign up for classes.
"She was much more than a teacher, she was my friend," he wrote.
Her colleagues still marvel at her dedication.
"Her desire to make a difference didn't stop with retirement," said Tuolumne County Deputy Superintendent of Schools Margie Bulkin, who worked with Jones as superintendent of the Curtis Creek School District.
"She's unstoppable, and thank goodness," Bulkin said. "Because we need people like her who have the historical perspective of where education has been and where it's going."