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The final countdown: La Jollan Melinda Prietto looks back on 33 years of teaching

Melinda Prietto, who taught at La Jolla Elementary School for 13 of her 33 years as an educator, is retiring this month.
(Courtesy of Melinda Prietto)

Teacher and La Jolla resident Melinda Prietto jokes that she lives by countdowns in her job. She’s now at the end of her last countdown — the end of the school year and her impending retirement — and said she “can’t wait” to see what life is like when counting down is finished.

Prietto’s last day with students is Tuesday, June 15, after 33 years in the San Diego Unified School District. She has taught all grades from kindergarten through eighth grade, with experience at Ocean Beach Elementary, Pacific Beach Elementary and Crown Point Elementary schools.

Her longest tenure, however, was at La Jolla Elementary School, where she taught second and fifth grades for 13 years.

David Leyva was a fifth-grade student of Prietto’s in the late 1990s at La Jolla Elementary School and said Prietto “gave me so many opportunities just to be a great kid. She taught me so much and just such a loving person.”

Prietto is “a ray of sunshine in everybody’s life,” Leyva said. “Every day I came into school, I was just ecstatic to see [her].”

Ian Gardiner, a fifth-grader in Prietto’s La Jolla Elementary classroom in 2001-02, said Prietto “knew how to communicate” with her students after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks “and make us understand about life and family values.”

Prietto “never treated us like she was above us,” Gardiner said. “I wasn’t the easiest kid to deal with, and she was able to put herself on my level.”

Prietto has spent the past 18 years teaching English and Spanish at Standley Middle School in University City and spoke to the La Jolla Light from her classroom via Zoom as her seventh- and eighth-graders nodded along to mentions of her accolades, inserting comments that Prietto is a “stellar teacher,” “amazing” and “very fun.”

Her students, she said, are what drive her. “I love them. There’s never a dull moment; I’m always having fun.”

She said her “biggest compliment is when kids do well on an exam and they’re like, ‘I didn’t even study, I didn’t even know that I would do well on this.’ The way I teach, I feel like we’re having fun and they don’t even realize they’re learning.”

Prietto said she “hated school when I was a kid,” adding that that memory motivates her to think, “‘This is what I would do if I were a teacher; why don’t teachers do this?’ I had a little catalog in my head as to what I was going to do when I became a teacher.”

Prietto said this past year, with the coronavirus pandemic sending classrooms online from home, was the most challenging one of her career. “I didn’t like it,” she said, adding that when schools opened their doors in April, “I was so happy to have the kids back. We’re wearing masks, but it’s awesome, just the energy. … It just fed me to get them back.”

In 2018, Prietto was the La Jolla Golden Triangle Rotary club’s Educator of the Year and a finalist for SDUSD’s Teacher of the Year, distinctions she called “the highlight of my teaching career.”

“Teachers … don’t get awards,” she said. “My kids give me everything I need intrinsically; I love it and that’s my thank you, but we don’t get anything public, so it was really kind of a fun thing. I’m so proud.”

After her retirement is official, Prietto plans to “just hang out in La Jolla all summer. As the world opens up, I want to just not just travel go to New York and live there for a couple months, live in France for a couple months. Just see the world.”

Teaching “is always a countdown,” she said, whether it’s to a four-day weekend, the end of the school year or something else.

Prietto said that after the last day of school this month, “I will not have a countdown ever again. I’m just looking forward to that.” ◆