Teachers keep things relative in Sonoma Valley schools
By DIANNE REBER HART / Sonoma Valley Correspondent
Patty and Gary Griffith knew the rules: no applause until every new teacher was introduced at the Sonoma Valley Unified School District back-to-school meeting.
This teaching couple couldn’t help themselves, though. They gave a shout out when Maggie Pat was called before her peers, joining her mother and step-father as teachers in the local school district.
“I was so proud,” Patty Griffith said. “When they called out Maggie’s name we gave up a big cheer.”
Those moments aren’t rare in this small town, where colleagues sometimes are spouses or siblings, in-laws or cousins or parents and their grown kids. At nearly every school in the district, someone is related.
For Pat, now in her eighth year of teaching, the connection is significant. Although her mother retired a year ago, Pat and her step-father both teach fourth grade, Pat at Sassarini Elementary and Gary Griffith at Prestwood Elementary.
They often share ideas or information, with Pat known for her high-tech knowledge and Griffith a master at team-building.
“We don’t always see things eye-to-eye,” said Pat, “but we’ve really been able to bounce things off each other.”
Pat’s fourth-grade colleague at Sassarini, Curtis Duff, also knows about family connections. His wife Linda Duff is a teacher and department chair at Sonoma Valley High School.
And at the high school, look no further than the English department where three family members served as instructors until one retired this year. Mike Lyons isn’t heading back to the classroom this month but his wife Leslie McLean and his brother Don Lyons continue the family tradition.
Mike Lyons joined the high school faculty in 1986, with his younger brother following. McLean didn’t join the family until she switched from Prestwood to the high school, her alma mater.
“We met and fell in love and got married,” said McLean. “It was from being in the same department.”
There was some concern, though, when she announced to her students that she and Mr. Lyons were engaged. One teen, unaware there was a second Mr. Lyons, retorted, “The man has a wife and two sons!”
McLean cleared the confusion but still laughs at the memory more than a decade later.
The Lyons brothers have their own stories but say much confusion was thwarted because Don Lyons is the school’s head varsity baseball coach.
“He was Coach Lyons and I was Mr. Lyons,” Mike Lyons said.
Still, a few unknowing students thought they were repeating the same English teacher as they advanced from lower classmen. Don Lyons teaches freshman and sophomore English “and I’m the sequel,” Mike Lyons said.
Students who had both couldn’t help but compare the two. Mike Lyons simply offered a compliment to his brother by telling students, “I hope I’m as good.”
McLean said it sometimes was tough keeping work and home life separate, especially since she and her husband worked in classrooms next door to each other.
“We had to set up boundaries about where and when we’d talk about work,” she said.
McLean comes from a family of teachers and even taught in the same fifth-grade classroom at Prestwood where her grandmother Marjorie Stevenson taught.
The connections continue: McLean’s cousin Dawn McIntyre is a kindergarten teacher at Dunbar Elementary. McLean said she and her cousin were inspired by their grandmother to become teachers.
In another family with multiple teachers, location comes to play. Andrew Ryan is a vice principal at the high school, located next to Adele Harrison Middle School. Ryan’s wife, social studies and math teacher Shellie Ryan, and his mother, language arts teacher Julie Ryan, work across the hall from one another at Adele.
“It’s been really wonderful,” Julie Ryan says of having her daughter-in-law as a colleague. “We get along just great.”
Julie Ryan became a teacher in her late 40s after raising three children and working as a dental assistant, becoming the last teacher – thus far – in her family. She’s careful to let “wide-eyed and scared” sixth graders know there are two Mrs. Ryans on campus.
There are other teachers in the Ryan family. Andrew Ryan’s cousin is retired Altimira Middle School P.E. teacher Nancy Garner. She taught her cousin before he returned to Altimira as a P.E. teacher and colleague before moving into administration.
And there’s more: Julie Ryan’s daughter and son-in-law also teach, Angela Ryan at Sonoma State University and Doug Stewart in Fairfield.
Adele isn’t just home to the Ryan family. There are two Hobans as well. Ollie Hoban teaches P.E. and his wife Laura Hoban teaches math.
Back at Prestwood, second-grade teacher Paula Lely has family connections as well. Her son-in-law Andy Gibson is chief of the history department at the high school and her niece Kristen Reighley is a first-grade teacher at Sassarini.
At one time, Reighley and Lely were colleagues at Prestwood. Reighley’s mother Barbara Reighley is Lely’s sister and a third-grade teacher in Santa Rosa, with the sisters often setting up pen-pal programs with their classes.
Lely, the older sister and a veteran teacher, said it’s been especially rewarding seeing family members join her in a profession she loves.
“I always knew I wanted to be a teacher. I had the chalkboard in the garage and the pull-down map and the stuffed animals lined up,” she said. “I feel I’ve been truly blessed.”
Although she tries not to dispense too much advice, Lely does call upon her experience to share a few words of wisdom: “You can say ‘no,’ ” she tells the teachers in her family.
The profession has changed and the demands on teachers are greater today, with more responsibilities and expectations, Lely said. She credits a former principal with letting her know it’s OK to say “no” on occasion, valuable advice she’s passed along.
At Sonoma Charter School, another set of sisters shares the same profession. Darice Dekker teaches a kindergarten and first-grade combination class and her sister Elizabeth Dekker is the school’s art teacher.
When younger sister Elizabeth Dekker moved to Sonoma Valley, she worked as an instructional assistant in her sister’s classroom. At another time, Darice Dekker’s husband Paul Bunting was a one-on-one instructional aide in his wife’s classroom.
Darice Dekker says there’s some juggling required when family members work together.
“You have to wear the right hat at the right time,” she said. But she’s found the benefits outweigh any minuses.
“It’s made going to work so much better,” she said.
She especially enjoys when students realize the women are sisters. It can take a while at the charter school, where students call teachers by their first names.
The moment of discovery is priceless, Darice Dekker said.
“They’ll go, ‘Hey Darice! Did you know Elizabeth is your sister?”
At El Verano Elementary, fifth-grade teacher Dave Neubacher has some bragging rights. Now starting his 38th year at the campus, he is proud to say his three adult daughters attended the school and that his two grandchildren are El Verano students.
His daughter Tarah Douglas is the school librarian, married to one of her father’s former students. Neubacher’s youngest daughter was a student in his class “and it worked out really well, actually,” Neubacher said.
Before long, 6-year-old Sovann Som or his 5-year-old sister Lekena Som just may end up in their Grandpa’s class.
“That’s the beauty of Sonoma,” said Leslie McLean, who loves all the coincidences and connections of living in a small, tight-knit community.