John Dennis has retired from teaching after 23 years at a local elementary school and a total 54 years in education.
Serving as a Spanish instructor at Durant’s Washington Irving Elementary, he has been affectionately known by students as Señor Dennis. The school recently had a fiesta to celebrate his contribution, and colleagues went “all out” with sombreros and other themed decor and props.
“I was surprised when I saw what all they had done,” Dennis said.
Dennis spent three years of his education career in California and 27 in Texas. He had retired in Texas, but after substituting more than 100 days, he decided he wanted to continue teaching. He put in his application with Durant and other districts. Then, he landed an interview with WI’s then-principal Katy Stewart.
Dennis said he remembered some songs he had sung with his fifth- and sixth-grade students years ago when teaching all subjects to a self-contained classroom, including Spanish. He pulled out his ukulele, which he’d also used as a substitute teacher, to accompany himself on those songs for Stewart.
“That is probably how I got the job,” Dennis said.
His experience might have had something to do with it too.
Dennis said he’s been a student himself for probably 72 years now. He got his master’s degree when he decided to join some buddies in taking classes at a Texas university. He’s earned credit in 20 different institutions across several states. He started going to Mexico and Costa Rica in the summers and attended language schools in both. While in Costa Rica, he said he visited an elementary school and did the work along with students.
“I’ve just enjoyed learning,” Dennis said.
While in the Army, Dennis said he was studying to become and X-ray technician. Teaching appealed to him, he said, because he could get the summers off. When he got his first teaching job in 1961, the starting salary was $4,014. To put that figure in perspective, Dennis said he was able to buy a new Ford Falcon for $2,100.
But Dennis admitted he wasn’t particularly delighted with his first foray into the classroom. And when several teachers were lured to nearby Texas Instruments for better pay, he made up his mind to follow suit. But just when he went to apply, the company entered a hiring freeze. Sometime later, all those who had jumped ship were laid off. Dennis said that’s when he experienced an “attitude adjustment.”
“After that, I really enjoyed teaching,” he said.
Dennis has taught almost every grade level, from kindergarten up. He has been in situations in which he taught all subjects, instructed students in Spanish and worked with English-language learners, taught math and science to junior-high students, and he even coached seventh- and eighth-grade girls basketball one year and was an assistant junior-high football coach. During an eight-year stint as a high-school principal, he also taught a math fundamental class.
When asked what advice he would give aspiring or new teachers, he said, “Be consistent and have fun. The kids now are looking for boundaries.”
Dennis knows it can be more difficult for today’s teachers.
“We didn’t have computers, we had chalkboards,” he said. “There is so much more for teachers, and it’s much harder today than when I started.”
Now that he won’t be reporting to a classroom daily, Dennis said he doesn’t have any real plans other than to relax and do chores on his farm. He said people have been asking him what retirement is like.
“I’ll have to wait until August to know what it’s like,” Dennis said. “Right now, it’s just like any other summer.”
Contact Dan Pennington at (580) 634-2162 or [email protected] Contact Regina Phillips at (580) 634-2163 or on Twitter @NewspaperRegina.