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When ‘Welcome Back’ Takes on New Meaning

School is back in session this week, and Will Hoadley-Brill is back in familiar surroundings — only this week instead of being a student at South Pasadena High School, he’s in his first days as a regular teacher.

And I can’t get that theme song out of my head from the 1970s TV show “Welcome Back, Kotter.”

If you are of a certain age, you might remember how the character Mr. Kotter goes back to the high school he once attended in Brooklyn, New York, and finds himself teaching a group of students dubbed “The Sweathogs,” which included a young John Travolta.

The lyrics of the show’s theme song went something like this:

Welcome back
Your dreams were your ticket out
Welcome back
To that same old place that you laughed about …

Well, welcome back Mr. Hoadley-Brill, SPHS graduating class of 2018.

And I’m guessing there won’t be many so-called “sweathogs” in your Spanish class. That’s what he’s teaching — Spanish levels 1 and 2. And SPHS is a lot different looking than that TV school.

“I’m excited. It’s nerve-wracking. It’s all of the above,” he smiled. “There’s an overwhelming excitement about the prospect of working with students. I really just can’t wait to meet my students and get the year started.”

It’s hard for me to imagine swimming through those high school memories as you begin to help students make their own memories in the same backdrop where you went to school.

“The first time I went into my classroom this summer, it was surreal” he said. “And then to walk around campus where I first developed those kind of skills that made me want to be a teacher.”

He did not have a class in the classroom that he is now teaching in, nor does he recall spending much time in it.

“I have memories of many places on campus,” Hoadley-Brill said. “I probably have the most fond memories of the quad and the spots where my friends and I would eat brunch and lunch every day.”

Hoadley-Brill is a South Pasadena guy — and a product of South Pasadena schools. Both of his moms work in administrative jobs — one at the district office and the other at Arroyo Vista Elementary School.

“They are immersed in the community and they taught me that community is very important,” he said.

Some of his closest friends today are the same ones he had when he was in school in South Pasadena. He recalls having a very positive experience in high school and several of his colleagues in the Spanish department were teachers when he was a high school student.

He’s one of those lucky people who has mentors in place as he arrives — knowing that no matter how many people there are to answer his questions, he’s going to have to learn as he goes.

Hoadley-Brill went to George Washington University in Washington, D.C., but quickly discovered that his intended major in international relations wasn’t for him, so he switched over to Spanish, which he had taken in high school.

He also discovered that his passion was to be a teacher and he loved his experience doing internships and summer school teaching in South Pasadena. He applied to several districts and he’s glad that he and South Pasadena are back together again.

“It’s a very supportive staff and it’s a place where you can ask questions,” Hoadley-Brill said. “All of my colleagues have been very welcoming, including those I had as teachers when I was a student. They are excited to welcome me on the team and have me back on campus.

“I am still connected with many teachers at South Pasadena Middle School, given that I taught there last year, so much of the staff knows that I will be starting at the high school this year.”

One thing that Hoadley-Brill is going forward from his days as a student is his belief in peer mediation, which was focused on improving mental health and mental awareness, and efforts to shift school culture to prioritize mental health. He was the founder of a group which worked toward that goal while he is in high school, and now he’s co-adviser for the group in his first year as a teacher.

“We had a ‘zine’ where students could submit artwork, written work or articles on a specified theme,” said Hoadley-Brill. “We hosted wellness events regularly and we partnered with other students student and staff groups to put on events and workshops to educate the student body and staff.”

Hoadley-Brill knows that there will be a lot of learning going on this year for him as well as his students, but he’s got some definite ideas about what kind of teacher he wants to be.
“Most of teaching is about building relationships with students,” he said. “My experience working with students up to this point has demonstrated the importance of relevance and connection in education.

“Teachers are tasked with teaching the students who are in their classes without exception. That means that understanding your students as complete individuals is critical to ensure that you can foster intrinsic motivation and do your best to demonstrate the importance of what you do in the classroom, in their lives outside of school and whatever path they choose post high school.”

One of his challenges will be trying to provide a balance between academics and other aspects of high school life.

“There can be an unspoken pressure to overload on AP courses and extracurricular activities, but I hope to continue my work to shift that campus culture toward one that focuses on balance and holistic wellness,” he said.

So, welcome back, Will Hoadley-Brill.

Welcome back.

Editor’s note: School district officials estimate that about 4,670 students started school in elementary, middle and high school. About 1,500 students started high school — an increase over last year.

First published in the Aug. 18 issue of the South Pasadena Review

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