Thank a Teacher

STRAW_CoverWoody’s new book STRAWBERRIES IN WINTERTIME: Essays on Life, Love, and Laughter is available for Pre-Order HERE NOW! In time for the holidays!

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Never Too Late to Thank a Teacher

Some things never change. I have been out of school for three decades, but once more I am turning in an assignment late. California’s 17th annual Retired Teachers Week was last week.

Um, my dog deleted my laptop doc.

Seriously, even belatedly is a good time to reach out by letter, email, phone or Facebook to let your own favorite teachers – retired or not – know the impact they had on you.1teach

If, sadly, they have passed away, then honor them by mentoring someone else – for, as John Wooden said: “Mentoring is your true legacy. It is the greatest inheritance you can give to others.”

Like most of us, I was blessed with some terrific teachers including a select few true life-changers. One such benefactor was my sixth-grade teacher, Mrs. Hutchings, who challenged me to be a leader with my voice not just my actions.

“I would like to see Woody be less of an independent entity in the classroom and more inclined to lead his fellow man,” she wrote on my report card in 1972. Part of my difficulty was that for the first time ever neither of my two best friends, Jim Hendrix and Dan Means, was in my class.

Kindly, Mrs. Hutchings also offered written praise: “Woody has a delightful sense of humor and a sense of fair play that is very unusual for his age.”

According to that report card, math was my strong suit while English was my shortcoming: “Woody does an outstanding job on reports but his vocabulary words and spelling limit his grades.”

Despite these deficiencies, Mrs. Hutchings encouraged me to be the editor of the “newspaper” she helped our class publish that spring. Perhaps this was also her way of nurturing my leadership growth.

Perhaps, too, her mentorship is responsible for you reading these words today.

Long after I last left her classroom, I received a letter out of the blue from Mrs. Hutchings, by then retired. She had seen my long-form feature “The Toughest Miler Ever” about American Olympian, World War II hero and POW survivor, Louie Zamperini, that appeared in The Best American Sports Writing 2001. She complimented the piece and said she was pleased and proud to learn I had become a writer.

I wrote back and told her, much too belatedly, that she had been a special teacher in my life. I also shared the words Coach Wooden had sent to me in response to the first of many columns I would write about him: “Although it is often used without true feeling, when it is used with sincerity, no collection or words can be more expressive or meaningful than the very simple word – Thanks!”

In middle school, Harold McFadden was another life-changing teacher. I had “Coach Mac” for Physical Education in five of my six semesters at Balboa Junior High. More than sports, he taught me about goal setting, believing and achieving.

12teachAs often happens, even with our dearest mentors, we fall out of touch and such was the case with Coach Mac. It saddens me that I did not stop by my old school to see him during my visits home to Ventura after I went off to college and beyond. Now, curses to cancer, it is too late.

For the most part, the names of my teachers at Balboa, Buena High and UC Santa Barbara have faded from memory. Three – one from each school – who remain indelible for their lasting impact are Mr. Howell, an inspiring metal shop teacher; Joe Vaughan, a role model in all ways; and John Ridland, an English professor who broke down the poetry of Robert Frost and more importantly built up my confidence as a writer.

My Favorite Teacher Ever, however, the one who in the words of Frost truly “made all the difference,” was in my post-graduate studies “Life 101” class taught by Professor John Robert Wooden.

Wooden preferred to be thought of as a “teacher” not a “coach.” By either title, none taught me more – or more-important things – than he. I am thankful I told him so before it was too late.

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Wooden&Me_cover_PRWoody Woodburn writes a weekly column for The Ventura County Star and can be contacted at

Check out my new memoir WOODEN & ME: Life Lessons from My Two-Decade Friendship with the Legendary Coach and Humanitarian to Help “Make Each Day Your Masterpiece”

Back-to-School Good Samaritan

 Woody’s acclaimed memoir

WOODEN & ME is available HERE at Amazon

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Back-to-School Good Samaritan

Too often a story becomes news because someone is in the wrong place at the wrong time.

David Pichon is the flip side of the coin.

“I just happened to be in the right place, at the right time,” David shares, adding an all-important third element, “in the right frame of mind.”1schoolsupplies

The right place was Walmart in Camarillo. The right time was mid-afternoon two Mondays past. The right frame of mind is something David, now 50, learned as a boy from his father: “If you can, you should.”

So when David, who stands 6-foot-4, was milling around waiting for a cashier’s check to be printed so he could pay his rent, saw 5-foot-2 Maya Geisler struggling to reach notebooks on the top shelf, he stepped in to help.

Realizing Maya had forgotten to get a shopping cart, David next went to retrieve one while she counted out notebooks for her incoming class of 24 second-graders at Somis Elementary School.

“I thought that was so nice,” Maya recalls.

The kindness was only beginning.

If you can, you should. On his way to see if his cashier’s check was ready, David asked a store clerk to let him know when Maya got in line for the register.

When she did, David appeared. Doing some second-grade math in his head, he quickly figured there weren’t enough supplies for a full classroom of students. He rushed back to the back-to-school aisle and loaded up a second shopping cart with more sets of crayons, pencils, and a full box of notebooks.

He then paid for the entire bounty.

“I just couldn’t believe how generous this stranger was,” Maya rejoins. “I started crying a bit.”

More tears flowed when David pushed the cart to her car and helped load the largess into the trunk.

“You’re never going to miss a few dollars spent helping someone else,” David says, understating his generosity. “Really, what I did wasn’t a big deal.”

Maya disagrees. A single mother with two boys, she admits money is “super tight.” To her, David’s deed was a very big deal.

Knowing only the first name of the Back-To-School Good Samaritan, Maya posted a brief summary of the random act of kindness on her Facebook page and mentioned the business van David drove off in: Sound Doctor 911. Sure enough, someone recognized her hero as the owner of the Camarillo store that installs automotive stereo systems.

Maya’s heartfelt 164-word message on Facebook struck a chord and quickly went viral. In just days it was shared 7,000 times.

“Teachers are contacting me full of love and genuine thanks,” David allows, noting he has received more than 2,000 emails. “I’ve heard from people in Australia, Thailand, Africa, and all across the U.S. The beautiful part is the way others are responding by paying it forward because they were inspired by me.”

David pauses for a moment, collecting his thoughts, and adds sincerely: “The attention I’m getting is really undeserved. I didn’t pull someone from a burning building.”

No, but he did step forward to help a teacher during these times of burning school budgets.

Maya, now in her 11th year as an educator after previously working in banking and nursing, estimates she spends about $600 out of her own pocket each year on supplies for her students and classroom.

“We do it because we love our jobs and our students,” says Maya.

She is the norm, not the exception.

His act of kindness for Maya was not the exception for David, either. He is a loyal supporter of Casa Pacifica and the Boys & Girls Club, and also donates blood regularly.

To be sure, he has a remarkable heart – all the more so when you learn that this father of four, and grandfather of one, has survived two heart attacks in the past 22 months.

“I think I’m still here so I can do more,” David allows. “None of us can fix the world, but we can all help fix our own neighborhood. Like I said, my father taught me, ‘If you can, you should.’ ”

He could, he did.

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Woody Woodburn writes a weekly column for The Ventura County Star and can be contacted at

Wooden-&-Me-cover-mock-upCheck out my new memoir WOODEN & ME: Life Lessons from My Two-Decade Friendship with the Legendary Coach and Humanitarian to Help “Make Each Day Your Masterpiece”


Column: Tragic Loss of “Artist”

Teaching Fraternity Loses an “Artist”


“There are two kinds of teachers,” the great poet Robert Frost said. “The kind that fill you with so much quail shot you can’t move, and the kind that just give you a little prod behind and you jump to the skies.”


Like many, I was fortunate to have a handful that prodded me. Miss James, Mr. Ridland, Ms. Hutchings and Mr. McFadden meant the sky to me.

Chris Prewitt

Chris Prewitt


And not to me alone, for as Andy Rooney observed: “Teachers have thousands of people who remember them for the rest of their lives.”


            That figure seems on the low side for Chris Prewitt.


Indeed, he seems to have gently prodded so many earthbound young people to jump for the skies during his far-too-brief teaching career that a memorial service this morning at 10 a.m. is being held in the Buena High School football stadium.


            Prewitt was tragically killed at age 38 last Sunday morning when he was hit by a car during a 16-mile run training for a marathon. The driver, 23-year-old Shante Chappell, is accused of the heinous crime of driving under the influence of drugs.


Making the senseless heartbreak further unbearable is that Prewitt leaves behind his wife, Erin, and 7-year-old daughter, Isabella, with a road of missed milestones laying ahead – from elementary school plays to proms to graduations and marriage and more.


(People interested can contribute to a college fund for Isabella at and search for “Chris Prewitt.”)


It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes you hear or read about a person and you not only wish you knew them – you feel at a loss because you don’t. Or didn’t. This is how I feel about Prewitt.


In a way, however, I feel like I did know this remarkable man because the outpouring of heartfelt words reminds me of how widely beloved one of my own favorite teachers was, the late Harold McFadden.


            Moreover, that Prewitt made such a profound impression on a number of people I know and revere – such as Trudy Tuttle Arriaga and Joe Vaughan – makes his loss resonate deeper.


Arriaga, superintendant of the Ventura Unified School District, told The Star: “He had a unique way of spreading his love of life.”


That passion spread to Emily Park, Foothill Tech’s 2013 valedictorian who now attends Wellesley College in Boston. Her most beautiful of eulogies, titled “A Recommendation For Mr. Prewitt To Enter Heaven” for, includes this line: “My dream is to have the work ethic, the positivity, the pure kindness, the leadership skills, and the effect on people that Mr. Prewitt had while he was living.”


Without question, Mr. Prewitt prodded Emily to jump for the skies.


“One looks back with appreciation to the brilliant teachers, but with gratitude to those who touched our human feelings,” Carl Jung wrote. “The curriculum is so much necessary raw material, but warmth is the vital element for the growing plant and for the soul of the child.”


It has become far too fashionable to blame teachers for the shortcomings in our educational system. While Prewitt was by all accounts exceptional, he still was not the exception. I guarantee you DeAnza Academy of Technology and Arts, where Prewitt was the assistant principal, has other brilliant teachers. Same for Foothill Tech, where Prewitt taught previously; and Buena High, where he coached water polo.


And every other school in Ventura County.


Because of one driver who didn’t belong on the road future classrooms will be diminished by not experiencing Prewitt’s vital warmth. This diminishes the future for all of us.


 “I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and that there are as few as there are any other great artists,” the word artist John Steinbeck said. “Teaching might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit.”


We have lost a great artist.


Chris Prewitt’s work, however, will live on in his former students – surely some who will become teachers and great “artists” themselves giving their students a little prod to jump for the skies.




Woody Woodburn writes a weekly column for The Ventura County Star and can be contacted at


Check out my new memoir WOODEN & ME: Life Lessons from My Two-Decade Friendship with the Legendary Coach and Humanitarian to Help “Make Each Day Your Masterpiece”



Columns: Teachers Speak Out

Some Teachers at End of Their Rope


“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view,” Atticus Finch wisely says in the great novel To Kill a Mockingbird. “. . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
            A handful of emails from local teachers allowed me to climb into their skin and walk around in it – and better understand why a growing number feel at the end of their rope.


To begin, consider this actual classroom exchange one local high school teacher, who I’ll call “Ms. C” to respect her privacy, recounted:Apple1


Student: ‘Ms. C, Do you allow make up tests? I didn’t read the book.’


“(Keep in mind that we read the first two chapters together. They had to read one chapter on their own – 12 pages.)


Me: ‘Um, no. In the future I suggest you do the reading.’


Student: ‘Wow. That’s harsh.’
Really? *sigh*”




            My recent column about the mini-documentary “Black Out”, which focuses on the great lengths students in Guinea go to in order to study under public lights at gas stations and parking lots because they do not have electricity at home, brought a number of sighs from teachers who wished they saw more of this attitude in their classrooms.


            “Powerful column today,” wrote S.K. “I especially applaud the paragraph which reads, ‘More simply, I wish every classroom in America would require its students – and parents – . . .’


“Including parents is huge! My 30-something niece called me this morning. She told of her daughter, my grandniece, in the fifth grade, not performing well on a test. My niece and her husband – who is a Special Education teacher – contacted the teacher to see what they could do to help. I applauded their pro-active stance and willingness to play an active role in their daughter’s education.


“If more parents were pro-active in the education of their children, if more parents placed more value on education, perhaps we would not see our test scores declining.”




From S.Z., this heavy sigh:


My daughter is a math teacher at (area high school) and the excuses she gets are as stupid as ‘the dog ate . . .’ Or no excuse and no homework assignment done either.


“Parents often aren’t much better. They don’t require their kids to even go to school, much less attend class, and wonder why their little darling is failing which, by the way, is now not allowed – no more failing kids.


“The same was true when I taught. A kid in English – ninth through 12th grades – would come to school every day with no homework. He took no tests; just sat there. At 18 he was sent on his way functionally illiterate.”




And this from J.G.:


I retired from Ventura Unified after 36 years of public school teaching. Due to something beyond our control I’m back doing some sub work at a couple of schools.


“I have always enjoyed being with kids so for the most part find it enjoyable even at my age. But boy have things changed. The kids (not all be any stretch of the imagination, but enough) are very hard to handle, are unresponsive, and downright disrespectful.


“There’s plenty of blame to go around, but from my vantage point I believe parents have done their kids a disservice by indulging them in so many things. Middle school kids carry iPhones, have plenty of money, wear a new $40 baseball cap every other week, etc. I really believe that we have hurt our kids.


“I think your column got my attention also because part of our family is living, studying, and teaching in Kenya at this time. Their dad, our middle son, was serving in missions in Africa when he contacted encephalitisand perished last February. They feel out of place in the U.S. and prefer living among people who don’t have everything.


My hat is off to the kids you described . . . ”




            Indeed, hats off to kids who study – and also to their parents who demand it and teachers who inspire it. 




Woody Woodburn writes a weekly column for the Star and can be contacted at His new memoir WOODEN & ME is available at and