1,200 students later | June 6, 2008 | Danville Express | DanvilleSanRamon.com |


Danville Express

Newsfront - June 6, 2008

1,200 students later

Classic John Baldwin Elementary teacher is pedaling off into the sunset

by Meghan Neal

Mr. Savatgy paused a moment, searching for the best way to describe what he loves about kids.

Then he held up a makeshift cell phone that one of his fifth-grade students had made for him earlier that day out of notebook paper and red pen.

"Like, this cell phone," he said, looking at it with amusement and setting it back down on his desk in the corner of the colorful classroom.

George Savatgy, an icon at John Baldwin Elementary School, is retiring this month after 40 years of teaching - 36 of them at the Danville school.

"I really enjoy being around kids and I always have," he said after school let out last Thursday. "Ten- and 11-year-olds are so much fun."

And the kids adore him, too. He's spirited, funny, and fit as a fiddle at 61.

"He was amazing. He is amazing. I'm so glad that he chose to teach," said Stephen Pramme, a former student. Pramme, 25, has since graduated from Savatgy's own alma mater, UCLA.

He said it's the little things that make Savatgy stand out. For example, about two weeks ago the teacher rode his bike to work from his home in Pleasant Hill for the 1,700th day in a row - nine-and-a-half years without missing a single day come rain or shine.

"School is a good bike ride interrupted," Savatgy joked, mimicking the famous Mark Twain quote, "Golf is a good walk spoiled."

In the classroom he makes a point to challenge his students. Though he said the curriculum has devolved from "an inch deep and a mile wide to a half inch deep and two miles wide," he integrates reading, writing and social studies to make sure no subject falls by the wayside.

At the end of every year he requires each student to write a 5,000-word story. They'll moan about it at first but once they start writing they get hooked, he said. "It's a big accomplishment for them when they see they wrote this big, fat, 20-page story."

And it doesn't stop there. He also teaches all his students to play chess; he feels the game can be a huge ego boost for kids who struggle academically but shine on the chessboard.

"Kids that can't concentrate for 10 minutes in class can sit and concentrate on a 40-minute chess game without looking up," he said. "Every kid is good at something, if you can find it."

Ironically, Savatgy despised school growing up. He never intended to be a teacher, but joined the National Teacher Corps as a youth eager to make a difference. At 21 he was sent to an inner city school in South Central Los Angeles and a few years later moved north and started at John Baldwin.

He's seen a lot of change since that first teaching gig in '68, when girls wore skirts to school and bullies were more prone to throw sharp punches than sharp words.

Back then the cool-guy teacher with the long ponytail helped introduce soccer and capture the flag to the school, and remembers infuriating some parents by suggesting the girls try wearing pants so they could play sports.

The kids have changed over the years, too. For one thing, their time is much more structured, he noticed.

"They have organized sports, organized Scouts, organized church groups," he said. "They really don't have time to be by themselves."

He fears it leaves little room for imagination. "I think kids don't have enough free time these days where they get to be creative and do what they want."

Today's generation, growing up in the fast-paced, high-tech world of TV and videogames, is harder to reach, he said. And it's harder to hold their attention once you get it.

"You have to be a comedian. You have to put on a show and make them watch it," he said.

This is something he believes is one of his strengths as a teacher. And Pramme agreed, remembering that Savatgy's "ability to connect to the students" always made his class entertaining.

"He was interested in learning and interested in the kids learning, and never lost that passion. And because of that the kids connected with him and wanted to know what he knew," said Brad Wilson, a former student from 35 years ago whose own children now go to John Baldwin.

"Some teachers, you think that they should have retired years ago because it seems like the passion's gone," Wilson said. "And that certainly wasn't him."

About 1,200 kids have passed through Savatgy's classroom over the years and he remembers nearly every one of them. It's easy to get attached to the students, he said.

"You have this family of kids and one day they're gone. You give them report cards and they disappear," he sighed. "And that's always hard. So June is a real bittersweet time."

This year especially. Having taught at John Baldwin for two-thirds of his life, he knows it won't be easy to say goodbye.

Savatgy plans to spend his free time adventure backpacking and checking out the sights in the spring, fall and winter for a change. He said he'd like to somehow stay involved with education after retiring, too.

"I'm really gonna miss a lot of things about teaching," he said. "The most rewarding thing is just day to day being with the kids ... It's been a wonderful career."

District teachers retiring this year

Atwater, Pat - Los Cerros Middle

Bell, Donna - Green Valley Elementary

Bench, Gayle - Venture

Caplier, Sylvie - San Ramon Valley High

Debus, Linda - Walt Disney Elementary

Diamond, Joan - Venture

Fitch, Jeanette - Green Valley Elementary

Foster, Leanne - Monte Vista High

Heeb, Stanley - Monte Vista High

Hodge, Mary Beth - Pine Valley Middle

Johnson, Eileen - John Baldwin Elementary

Johnson, Richard - Venture

Kellner, Valerie - Green Valley Elementary

Mc Clure, Mary - Stone Valley Middle

Orman, Nancy - Greenbrook Elementary

Quinn, Mary - Windemere Ranch Middle

Ransdell, Kathryn - Vista Grande Elementary

Ritts, Craig - San Ramon Valley High

Rix, Susan (Penny) - Alamo Elementary

Rotner, Gayle - John Baldwin Elementary

Saupe, Rebecca - Country Club Elementary

Savatgy, George - John Baldwin Elementary

Simms, Susan - Greenbrook Elementary

Snow, Allen - Charlotte Wood Middle

Tingley, Danvil - Country Club Elementary

Williams, Paula - Greenbrook Elementary

Willing, Mavis - Special Ed.

Woodhouse, Elizabeth - Pine Valley Middle

Yamashita, Kathleen - Cal High

Yokomizo, Donna - Hidden Hills Elementary


Like this comment
Posted by Patty Lawrence
a resident of Danville
on Mar 1, 2010 at 2:31 am

Mr. Savatgy - I've been wanting to get in touch with him for years. I am 28 years old, he was my teacher, gosh, 18 years ago. And one of my favorites, and most influential. I remember the chess, I remember learning from him that it's okay to be different, and I remember one hard day where there was a class discussion about someone who had been picked on, and I was one of the culprits. Sure, we say "kids can be so mean," but we are not opposed to learning, and that day I learned a lot. Thanks, George! You and Jan MacDougal have caused some good grown-ups in this world!

Like this comment
Posted by Deborah
a resident of John Baldwin Elementary School
on Aug 30, 2010 at 9:34 pm

Mr. Savatgy was a horrible teacher and 5th grade was one of the worst years of my life- I'm glad he's out of the system. He liked only the kids who were easy to like. He put me to sleep in class and I was a kid who always loved to learn.