It doesn’t take an understanding of Common Core math to calculate that Jan Whitlach nurtured, inspired, and instructed more than 1000 first-grade students during her 40 years as a classroom teacher in the San Jose Unified School District.
And if that weren’t enough, she has impacted at least another 1000 with her expertise and devotion during her additional 12 years (and counting) as a substitute teacher.
Then there are the parents of these 2000+ children who continue to stand in awe and gratitude over her incomparable commitment to children and teaching, even when their sons and daughters left her care a decade or more ago.
Even my old-school math allows me to see that this totals 52 years and thousands of people who can testify to the treasure that Jan Whitlach is to our community.
As someone who wasn’t yet even an apple in her parents’ eyes when Jan started teaching in 1965, I can tell you – as a former teacher myself – that this is a staggering amount of time to spend in a profession that requires the energy exchange between one vigorous, bright-eyed adult and somewhere between 20-35 squirrely six-year olds for six hours a day… only to spend another 3-5 hours daily in preparation to do it all again the next day.
To put it in the words of an elementary school student, “I can’t EVEN.”
While sitting down with Jan – the former teacher of both my daughters – two immediate questions come to mind: How? Why?
“I grew up in a family of seven children. We played school together and I was always the teacher—it’s what girls did in the 50’s. But I have never stopped loving it. I am possessed by the idea of helping kids learn and teaching them kindness,” Jan explains.
To facilitate this kind of enrichment that traditional school-day rigors don’t allow for, Jan has founded and sustained programs that she shares school wide. These programs make for a more caring and connected campus, help kids with individualized instruction, and add a little fun in a time when academic pressures take center stage.
One of Jan’s proudest accomplishments was designing the Early Literacy Reading Lab in 1994 that is still thriving at Los Alamitos today, some 22 years later. She created this program, which serves first and second graders and is staffed by a community of volunteers, alongside her friend and colleague, Bea Macina. Jan continues to support the program by organizing a yearly fundraiser called Jan’s Cans that raises thousands of dollars through the recycling of cans and bottles by Los Alamitos families all year long.
Another program near and dear to Jan’s heart is the Lifeskills program that she brought to Los Alamitos with fellow teacher Ann Moro in 1998. With the goal of helping the community raise students who were responsible, respectable, and resilient, the movement became so widely accepted that many families (like my own) still refer to the Lifeskills fifteen years later. (While I wish the one we cited most was the Lifeskill of Sense of Humor, it seems that Flexibility is the one that gets called to action most often.)
Movin’ and Groovin’, now in its 22nd year, is another source of pride for Jan. It is a motor perception movement and music program that she teaches once a week to first graders. It is such a highlight for kids that she has been keeping it going as a volunteer for the past 12 years. Heck! Just start singing, “Skidder -merinky -dinky-dink, skidded, merinky, do… I love you” and you will see who has been affected/infected by the contagiousness of the program.
Thankfully, Jan’s passion and dedication hasn’t gone unnoticed. She has been honored as Teacher of the Year at Randol and Los Alamitos, was awarded Santa Clara County Teacher of the Year, and has even been in the running for California Teacher of the Year. She has also been nominated by the National PTA as Teacher of the Year, featured in the Mercury News, and nominated as a Walt Disney Outstanding Educator.
Another career highlight for Jan was writing the Los Alamitos application to be recognized as a National Blue Ribbon School in 2001. She was thrilled to accept the award in Washington D.C. alongside Bea Macina and former principal Devon Blizzard.
Other highlights have come without awards. Jan is proud to work during the summers as a tutor to children who are below grade level. Watching them grow by leaps and bounds to catch up with their peers in subsequent grade levels is extremely gratifying.
At times, this tutoring is volunteer work. “When I would go to the homes of some of these students who were behind, I saw the hardships they faced. Sometimes, I would wind up teaching their mothers to read in English while I was tutoring the kids,” Jan explains.
Jan also finds satisfaction in being able to be a sub that teachers can depend on. “Teachers today are pulled out for so many different trainings. I love giving them the peace of mind that I can draw from my idea closet on campus and jump in to ensure days of rich instruction when they are called away,” she adds.
Another source of gratification for Jan is watching the success of her former students. Some of the standouts are: Cherie Pope, one of her very first students, who became a teacher and principal; Jeff Pew who stars on Broadway with the Rockettes; and Sandra Soe who competed in the 2016 Olympic trials and currently swims for UCLA.
With all the time and energy Jan devotes to her students, it is no surprise to hear that her family supports her. They playfully call her a “compulsive teacher” and swear that the book My Teacher Sleeps at School was written about her.
Jan is particularly appreciative of her husband Bob who long ago made peace with the fact that her teaching “curfew” is 8:15 PM. “When I was a classroom teacher, Bob was always my best helper. He spent many football Sundays in my classroom doing jobs to make my life easier,” Jan says with gratitude. “Bob and I like to explain our work to people by saying that I gently open the book of life by teaching first graders and he gently closes that sacred book through his continued work as a funeral director with Lima Family Mortuaries.”
That’s my kind of power couple.
While reflecting on my time with Jan, I discovered that it’s a funny thing, selflessness. It is a word that implies sacrifice, but when talking with Jan about her 50+ years of giving to her community with this profound sense of purpose, it is clear that her “self” is overflowing with the rich reward of giving.
In doing all of this giving with such good will and great energy, Jan Whitlach is an inspiration of a teacher, colleague, friend, and neighbor who makes us all proud to call the Bay Area home.