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Gwinnett's longest-tenured teachers share humor, passion for kids

SNELLVILLE — On one hand, John Fulgham and John LaMattina don’t appear to have much in common.

There’s no mistaking Fulgham’s Southern accent being from Montgomery, Ala. And LaMattina is openly proud of his Italian heritage growing up on Long Island, N.Y. where his uncle used to come over and watch ballgames on Sundays.

“I’m a Yankees fan,” LaMattina said, “but a Braves supporter.”

They often eat lunch together, only long enough for Fulgham to groan at LaMattina’s tired jokes and puns. And while they live about a mile apart, they wouldn’t dare socialize.

“He wouldn’t want to spend any time with me,” LaMattina said, laughing. “He’s an intellectual; he’s a math teacher, a professor. I play drums. There’s no way that he could relate to me.”

Fulgham didn’t dispute that.

“It’s more than a mile away,” he said after LaMattina called them neighbors. “And I’m too tired to drive another mile.”

While they’ve worked together about eight years, the needling is an easy give and take.

“We like to kid one another,” LaMattina said. “I always tell everybody that John’s one of the two people in America older than I am. So he doesn’t necessarily like that. Then he tells people that he has more hair than I do, and there’s quite a few people in that category.”

On the other hand, Fulgham and LaMattina each have more than 40 years in the education industry and are the longest tenured teachers in Gwinnett County Public Schools. In January, Fulgham, 68, will reach his 46th year, while LaMattina, 65, is in his 45th year, which he noted recently when he added that students from his first year are now 58-years-old.

“It used to be I was like their brother, now it’s like I’m their grandfather,” LaMattina said of his students. “I’m like a grandfather to some of the teachers.”

Fulgham and LaMattina each teach at Norton Elementary, the same level of school that attracted them to education to start their careers. Both men saw a need for more male teachers and role models on the elementary level.

“In my opinion, it is quite rare to find teachers on the elementary level with 40-plus years of experience still in the classroom,” Norton Principal Terry Watlington said. “Most teachers decide to retire after they have reached their 30-year tenure. Teachers like John LaMattina and John Fulgham are few and far between.”

As a math specialist and coach, Fulgham plans and trains staff about teaching strategies, and helps students with stages of learning. He also uses formative tests to diagnose student needs and discusses them with colleagues.

LaMattina is a parent coordinator who manages materials and training for parents, and discusses Title I, state and federal requirements for the school and student tests and improvements. He also works as a community liaison for parent involvement and helps coordinate the fifth-grade play each year.

LaMattina, who has taught drum lessons for 50 years, began his career in journalism to be a sportswriter, but opted out after he learned that all sportswriters smoke cigars. Since he didn’t, LaMattina earned a Master’s degree in elementary education, got married and began his career all in the same year. His starting salary? $6,000. And it was more than Fulgham made.

Fulgham said he holds the distinction of being the first man to graduate from Huntington College in Montgomery, Ala. with a degree in elementary education.

“It was hard, in that I had to try and keep up with all those females, keep my grades up and show them I was better than they were,” he said with a laugh.

Fulgham went on to be an adjunct instructor in science and math methods at the Montgomery campus of Auburn University for 24 years. Eleven years ago, Fulgham served on a blue ribbon committee for the Alabama Math Science Technology Initiative that still exists today, he said.

Fulgham has also served as a principal at an elementary school, and taught middle school math and science.

As a social studies teacher, LaMattina used to mix baseball and jazz, starting around 1900 with Ty Cobb and Louie Armstrong.

It’s that kind of long-term project that he’s not sure could be applied using today’s curriculum standards.

“I think we had in the old days more chance to get our work done, especially if you were a veteran, to get it done in whatever order you wanted as long as you got it done,” LaMattina said. “I always had fun in the classroom, I would joke around with the kids, and tell them some very terrible puns and say the same thing every day, and they would moan at my jokes.”

Today’s generation of students is also on par with students he taught years ago, LaMattina said, and are more savvy with technology. When he taught in a Catholic school, there was one encyclopedia in the library that couldn’t be touched. Now, kids have encyclopedias on their cell phones.

LaMattina also recently noticed a class of students learning about the 1920s, and a teacher used a video of Babe Ruth from YouTube.

“So in that way it’s an exciting time to be in education,” he said. “They talk about kids are not as good as they used to be. I couldn’t agree less.”

Fulgham plans to retire after next year when he may learn how to play the piano, or go fishing with a friend. In about three years, when he plans to retire, LaMattina and his wife may move to Los Angeles to be closer to their children.

But even decades into their career, neither counts down to retirement, or dreads coming to work.

“I don’t work; I play,” LaMattina said. “I never figured we worked. We taught. Teaching is not necessarily working. You work hard, but you’re teaching. Musicians are the same way; they’ll play anytime anywhere.”