During the first week of my first year of teaching, I met the influential mentor who changed my career and my life.
I was winging it with an emergency teaching credential in a Los Angeles classroom that needed and deserved the most qualified teachers to educate and empower the Kindergarten through Fifth graders that were schooled on it’s gated, concrete campus, not the least qualified. I would categorize my qualifications under the latter. I didn’t have a background in education and I wasn’t even sure I wanted to be a teacher.
Following college graduation the year before, I took my degree in World Arts & Cultures to Peru to study Spanish at an immersion school in hopes I would strengthen my language skills and thereby my chances at being accepted on a Fulbright Scholarship to study Flamenco dance in Spain. It didn’t work out. I’ll always have Peru.
So I took the California Basic Education Skills Test (CBEST) and applied to substitute teach in the South LA region of the expansive Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). Six months later I was offered a full time position at Normandie Avenue School, where I had been long term subbing for a 3rd grade Special Day Class.
I thought I couldn’t accept the job because it was a “D track” assignment on the year-round calendar, which started at the beginning of July. I already committed to tour Indonesia that summer with a local dance festival as a guest choreographer. My friend and classmate – a renowned master Javanese dancer – had invited me to perform at the international festival, where he was headlining. He then had to back out to go on tour with Madonna. I decided to go anyway.
I had priorities and teaching school wasn’t one of them
Indonesia meant I would have missed 5 weeks of school, so I declined the offer of a full time job with salary and benefits (yeah). But the principal replied to this news cheerfully and said, that’s okay, we’ll get you a sub! The district needed teachers. Bad.
Once summer was over, and I was back in my classroom, I dove head first into the demands of teaching. It was hard. I had a 4th and 5th grade combination class, and for reading, we switched around all of the upper grade kids to group them by reading level and I was assigned the lowest performing group.
I was given a curriculum that, according to rumor, was delivered to illiterate inmates. It was a colorless, rote phonics curriculum. Let’s just say that it was a “sink or swim” year. I was knee-deep in standards that I was unfamiliar with, curriculum I wasn’t trained to teach, very little experience to rely on, and a wavering heart.
My passion for public education grew over time and ultimately became the career path that I fell in love with. But in those initial days and weeks of stumbling and failing (forward), it was the support of my colleagues that kept me afloat. Particularly that of Mr. Flores.
My first memory of Mr. Flores was when he visited my classroom after school during my first week and brought me a simple, yet impactful gift. It was a package of adhesive tabs. He explained that he stocks up on them so I could keep the whole box and should I need other supplies, to let him know.
He was always looking out for others.
I came to discover that those little sticky squares were the only thing that adhered to the concrete walls of my classroom. Anything I had posted up until that point fell off the crumbling walls, to my dismay, but the tabs actually worked. I was beyond grateful (I worked hard making those charts!). It was a small, symbolic gesture of Mr. Flores’ generosity. He was always looking out for others. He became a fast friend and support system for me.
It was clear that Mr. Flores was committed to his students and making the school community stronger. He was the kind of teacher that had groups of kids in his classroom getting extra help at lunch because they wanted to and he was either on, or leading, every major committee on campus, supporting other teachers along the way.
Most admirable was Mr. Flores’ adoration and devotion to his family. He had four sisters he was close to and he loved his wife more than anything in the world. They had a baby girl, that he talked about and shared photos of with everyone he encountered, and would come to have three more children, all boys. He praised God for his family openly and often.
On campus, Mr. Flores’ “cool” was exemplary. It seemed like nothing could get to him. When staff members were stressing out over report cards, deadlines, or new initiatives, Mr. Flores was seeking ways to help. He didn’t sweat.
You see, teaching was not Mr. Flores’ first career. He had served in the U.S. Army Special Forces. He was a Ranger. He was also a Green Beret. He had survived life-threatening missions in Somalia (Black Hawk Down), the Middle East, and Colombia. He was a soldier to the core and he was grateful for everything he had. Teaching was fun for him.
After the Army, Mr. Flores wanted to give back, follow in his parents’ footsteps, slow down and start a family. Some days he would show up to work after “pulling an all-nighter,” keeping his body trained to function with little to no sleep. If you asked him what he did over the weekend, he might have told you he ran a marathon.
I left Normandie after five years, relocating to San Jose. But I kept in touch and continued to be inspired by Mr. Flores’ ambition. After receiving Teacher of the Year Award from LAUSD as well as the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors, Mr. Flores completed his administrative credential and became the Principal of a dual language charter school within LAUSD.
From there, he went on to law school and became an advocate for students and families in low income communities, organizing to demand better conditions for learning. He did not cease to amaze.
Through all of his major life changes and lofty career moves, Mr. Flores proved that his relationships were a priority. As we kept in touch over the years he would drop me a line just to offer me praise and encouragement. He was truly happy for me and reached out just to say so.
A year ago this month I got a message from Mr. Flores saying that he had gone back to the classroom to teach and was “the happiest he’d ever been.” A few days later he unexpectedly passed. Sadly, the world lost a gem and it’s something I’ll never understand.
Those first years of teaching were difficult and exhausting, and special. They were life-altering and I couldn’t have gotten through them without my friend and most influential mentor, Mr. Flores.
Alfonso Flores was the greatest example of leadership I have seen in my professional career and his life will always be an inspiration to me.
Now I’ve begun my twentieth year in education. I’m a principal and a leader and I love what I do. I aim to have the best year yet, despite the conditions created by COVID-19. In gratitude, I dedicate year 20 to you, Alfonso. Gracias, mi amigo. Te adoro y te extraño mucho. Thank you for helping me get here.
As colleagues and leaders, we become better when we support and elevate those around us. To whom will you dedicate your year? Who will you intentionally lift up and support this year? (Leave a comment!)