Driven and devoted
By LOGAN D. MABE, Times Staff Writer
"Give me a minute to stretch," Gallego says, untwisting his athletic 6-foot-2 frame. "We've been meeting for 3 1/2 hours."
It's a week before school starts and Gallego and the rest of the faculty are midway through an all-day training session on "high expectations." It's a good session, but Gallego doesn't need much encouragement setting lofty goals for himself.
He has traveled from the Canary Islands in his native Spain so he can be a teacher in America. And not just any teacher.
"Growing up, my PE teachers were the biggest influence on my life," Gallego says. "All my coaches were like father figures to me."
Gallego's father left his family when he was a child. "When I say he left, I mean I have no idea where in the world he is," Gallego says. His mother remarried, but it was never the same.
He played semipro basketball for about seven years before he blew out a knee. That's when his dreams drifted to teaching. "I came here in 1995 and I didn't speak any English, so that was tough," he says. It took him an extra year, but Gallego graduated with his education degree from the University of South Florida last spring and found his first teaching job at Bellamy.
"You ask me the two things I live my life for, and it's PE and helping kids with disabilities," said Gallego, 29.
'You're my first class'
Dressed in khaki cargo pants, a blue Bellamy T-shirt and sneakers, Gallego sits at some covered tables with a class on this first day of school.
"Good morning," he says cheerfully. "I'm just going to tell you a little bit about myself. I was born in Spain. Does anyone know where Spain is? You guys are really special to me because you're my first class."
Gallego launches into a fun, getting-to-know-you game. He tosses a large ball to each student. "Whoever is holding the ball gets to talk," Gallego says, tossing the ball to a little girl.
Everyone gets to talk and tell his or her favorite sport. It's a clever way of taking roll while breaking the ice with his budding sports stars.
"I'm loving it," Gallego says a week later. "Everything is a lot better than I even expected. They've made me feel really good, really comfortable since Day One. I feel like part of the team already."
Each week, Gallego teaches about 325 students, so learning everyone's name can be a challenge. It helps, though, that his other duties at school -- tutoring slow readers, monitoring the lunchroom and manning the parent pickup area -- let him spend more time talking with kids.
During lunch duty a steady stream of students chirp, "Hi, Coach!" as they line up for trays. Those that don't hug him get one of Gallego's hearty high-fives. "The kids seem to do better when I'm here," he says.
Right now, Gallego is deep into a unit on kicking, all kinds of kicking. Punting footballs, dribbling soccer balls, playing kickball, everything related to kicking. Though it sounds like all fun and games, Gallego points out that his job is more than just playing.
"Yeah, that's a misconception," Gallego says. "It's not all that easy. Kids are cooped up in class all day, and then when they come out for PE they want to be wild. But you're trying to teach skills. And you have all different characters and personalities and ability levels to work with. Plus, you're teaching all the grades. It's a lot more complex than it looks."
Gallego says the pay is good. Like all beginning teachers, he earns $30,000 a year.
"It's good for somebody just coming out of college," said Gallego, whose girlfriend is also an elementary school PE teacher. "But I'm not teaching for the pay. You can't do it for the money."
Just then, another little kid grabs his leg in a growling bear hug.
"That's the pay," he says. "Right there."
-- Logan D. Mabe can be reached at 269-5304 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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