By Cecilia Chan, GSN Managing Editor
Just how much impact a popular Gilbert High School teacher has had on his students became apparent last week.
James Bracken, who teaches government, criminal justice and economics, was informed that his contract wasn’t being renewed.
“They just said that ‘we don’t have enough periods to fill and we’ll try to find you a different position,’ that was it,” said Bracken, of the conversation he had with administration.
“It was Tuesday, Teacher’s Appreciation Day. It took five minutes for a 33-year career. I was in shock. It could have been handled better. That was my only contention,” he said.
Two days later, however, Bracken was notified he could stay.
Bracken doesn’t know why the change of heart — but he credited an online petition had a lot to do with saving his job.
GPS spokeswoman Dawn Antestenis said, “Staffing at the secondary school is always a fluid process and it is standard for teacher assignments to change frequently throughout the month, which can include teachers moving between schools.
“After reviewing staffing at Gilbert High School, it was decided that an additional teacher was in fact needed,” she added. “The school is ecstatic that we were able to keep such a dedicated teacher. Dr. Shane McCord, superintendent, is dedicated to attracting and retaining the very best talent for the students of Gilbert Public Schools.”
The petition on Change.org was started by Rachel Miller, a senior in Bracken’s government class.
Miller started the website petition a day after Bracken was told he would no longer teach at the high school.
Within 14 hours, the petition garnered over 4,000 signatures and continued to grow even after Miller announced that Bracken was keeping his job. She also cancelled a planned protest for this week.
Miller said she felt she had to take action.
“It was unfair to me and I wanted to change it and help him out,” the 18-year-old said. “Mr. Bracken is just a teacher everyone in our school loves whether you have him as a teacher or you don’t.
“He’s definitely the kind of person you can go and talk to if you’re having a bad day, a good day or just want an interesting conversation,” she added. “He lights up the room and engages students, he really cares about them.”
Miller’s sentiments were shared time and time again from people posting comments on the petition and on a Facebook page where it was shared.
“Mr. Bracken is a wonderful teacher who really connects with students and gives us the support we need,” wrote Julia Bielenberg, who graduated from Gilbert High in 2017 and now attends University of California, Santa Barbara.
Although it’s been 21 years since she graduated from the school, Jennifer (Millward) McAdams still had fond memories of her former teacher.
“Mr. Bracken was one of the most memorable teachers I’ve ever had,” she wrote. “He cares about students, relates to them and has a way of teaching that makes his lessons entertaining and memorable.”
Eric Stock agreed.
“He was one of the best teachers I’ve ever had and his teaching methods are some of the best I’ve ever seen,” he wrote. “Losing him as a teacher will do nothing but reduce the quality of the learning experience at Gilbert High.”
Parents like Jane Skinner also joined in their support.
“This was one of my son’s favorite teachers. He has always said that Mr. Bracken treated the seniors like adults,” Skinner said. “The students realized he did this to prepare them for college.”
Even Gilbert Councilwoman Brigette Peterson was monitoring the situation, posting an update on a Facebook page that announced Bracken was staying at the school.
“I was watching this because Mr. Bracken was my daughter’s favorite teacher at GHS years ago,” Peterson wrote.
Bracken was blown away by the support he’s received. He doesn’t have any social media accounts so his wife read the comments to him.
“When have you ever seen that?” he said. “Who does this for a teacher?”
Bracken said he had no hard feelings over what happened.
“Gilbert High School is a great school,” he said. “I’ve never butted heads with administration, which is why it was so weird. I have nothing in my file, no negative evaluations. I hope it wasn’t because I was older.”
Bracken, who is 63, teaches five full periods and coaches three sports — boys and girls cross country teams and girls basketball. The Gilbert resident comes to school every Sunday to prepare for the week ahead.
Bracken said he was offered a job teaching at a junior high school but was reluctant to leave.
“I have seniors, they are such good kids,” he said. “For me, I’ve been here so long. I’m really dedicated to this school.”
Bracken said he has no intentions of retiring anytime soon and will continue teaching until the day he doesn’t want to anymore.
Miller, who graduates on May 23, said one lesson in Bracken’s class definitely stuck with her.
“He teaches students life in general that you can take with you,” she said. “Like we learned about the civil rights movement and he said to stand up for what you believe and be heard. I took it to heart.”