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CLASS ACTS : Jim Grissom: After 22 Years, 'I Really Love This Place'

September 02, 1989|HERMAN WONG | Times Staff Writer

After more than a decade of mass layoffs, tight budgets and plunging morale, teaching is making a comeback. Education majors are on the increase. Pay is improving, respect reviving. In some areas, enrollment again is booming and teachers are in short supply--nowhere more than in Santa Ana, Orange County's biggest, most diverse, fastest-growing district. Here are two Santa Ana teachers--a promising rookie and an award-winning veteran. Both see teaching as a unique job--and mission.

Room 51 at Santa Ana's Saddleback High School this late-August morning was silent and ghostly.

It was easy to see why: Summer break was not quite over and the returning swarms of students were still a few days away.

Their absence underscored the bleakness of the schoolroom, a claustrophobic, brick-lined enclosure with Formica tables and metal chairs, chemical-element charts on the wall next to the flag, a clock, a pencil sharpener and a green chalkboard.

But chemistry teacher Jim Grissom saw beyond the 30 empty seats and the stereotypical sameness.

Looking about the premises with undisguised affection and anticipation, he was there to set up the lecture room and laboratory unit for his next round of students.

The room has always been Grissom's home away from home. "I really love this place. It's the human dimensions in a classroom that make it come alive. The students are great, and this is something I never get tired of doing," he said grinning, exuding the energy of an eager new teacher.

But Grissom, 47, is hardly a newcomer. The Tucson native has been a professional teacher since 1965, when he joined the Santa Ana Unified School District fresh out of the University of Arizona's education and science schools.

And his longevity has a twist. He has taught chemistry at this same high school--in this same room--for the past 22 years. On Tuesday, the day classes resume, he begins his 23rd.

Grissom has earned his share of outstanding-teacher awards, including honors from the state Department of Education, California School Boards Assn. and American Chemical Society.

His colleagues said such accolades are well deserved. Grissom's professional skills, combined with his personal enthusiasm and passion for the sciences, make him an unusually effective teacher, they said.

"He's dynamic, a truly caring teacher with a wonderful sense of humor," said one longtime colleague, Nancy O'Connor, the district's assistant superintendent for secondary schools. "He's the kind of teacher we wish we could clone."

Said Saddleback High Principal Bob Nelson: "Jim is not only exceptionally knowledgeable, but he knows how to put the subjects across. His classes are rigorous, but he also makes the content pragmatic and relevant."

Grissom begins many classroom discussions with media accounts of such controversies as oil spills and toxic waste dumps, then holds brainstorming sessions on the political, economic and social impacts.

To further demystify chemistry for his five daily classes, he uses kitchen cleansers and other chemical-related household staples to illustrate "the everyday presence of chemistry in our lives."

Humor also plays a key role. "We have to be able to laugh at ourselves. I try to do that in this classroom. I try to have some fun--and make it fun for students."

One of his students put it this way: "You worry because chemistry seems so difficult," said Tracy Reines, an honors senior who took Grissom's class last spring. "But he really makes it clear and meaningful. He relates it to our lives."

Equally important is Grissom's classroom zest. "He's so lively and has this terrific humor," she added. "He's enjoying the class--so we are, too."

But Grissom's overall goals are serious: "I try to treat students like adults. I expect a high level of maturity from them. My attitude is that if you respect them, they will respect you. You can't pigeonhole any student. You have to give each student the feeling that you are expecting more of them--that each can aspire, can reach higher."

Grissom certainly doesn't underestimate the weightiness of his job. "You have to always be aware of your responsibility as a teacher. It's the sense that what you're saying and doing is so crucial," he said.

"For this short period each day, you're in charge of their minds. That's a little awesome but also part of the excitement of this job."

The ultimate criterion? "I know it may sound trite, but you have to truly love students, to care about them as individuals, to take a personal interest in their futures," he said.

"You can't help but become involved. It's why so many of us go into teaching--and why we stay."

At one time, though, Grissom almost quit.

It was in the mid-'70s, when education in California--after years of spectacular growth, unswerving fiscal support and high esteem--became battered by sweeping cutbacks, dwindling budgets and plunging morale.

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