'Our passion and our ministry'

After retiring from Early ISD, Mike and Mona Tumlinson look back on careers

Steve Nash
Brownwood Bulletin
Mike and Mona Tumlinson relax in their home in Early as they reflect on their combined 75-year legacies as teachers.

EARLY — To many of their students, Early ISD teachers Mike and Mona Tumlinson were simply “Coach T” and “Miss T.”

The husband-and-wife duo retired from teaching at the end of the 2020-21 school year, leaving a sparkling education legacy that totaled 75 years — 39 for Mike, and 36 for Mona.

The Tumlinsons came to Early from San Antonio 27 years ago, and Mona finished her career as a seventh-grade reading teacher at Early Middle School.

Mike worked for 24 years in the Early ISD and three in Brownwood. His time in Early included working six years as an administrator, but that world wasn't for him. He finished his career teaching advanced biology, anatomy and physiology at Early High School.

'Trying to make a difference'

Speaking at their home in Early, the Tumlinsons reflected on their careers and on their hope of making a difference. Friendly and easy-spoken, it’s clear the two dote on their family and on their students —who, in a sense, are part of their family. 

“It’s been our passion and our ministry, I think, for years,” Mona said. “We’ve just loved being with the kids. It’s kept us young. We just loved interacting with them, trying to make a difference in their lives and make an impression on them.”

Mike added, “We hope we’ve made a difference. We’ve enjoyed looking at notes kids have written to us through the years. Mona gets to see them in middle school, then I see them in high school. There’s a lot of years there that they grow and change. Another thing we laugh at: we’re getting kids of kids. Here, you become part of their family, they become part of yours. You become like their second parents. That’s the blessed part of being in a small community.”

Grandchildren will be a priority

Now, it’s time for them to relax and “spend time with our kids,” Mona said.

Their own “kids” are son Matt, an artist who lives in San Antonio, and daughter Melissa, who teaches in Rankin near Midland. Melissa and her husband have four children, and for Mike and Mona, their grandchildren are their priority as they begin retirement.

Rough beginnings as teachers

Early on, both of their teaching careers nearly ended before they got started.

Mike, who is from Slaton, attended Texas Tech University as an education major. As a Tech student, Mike student-taught for a year. 

“My student teaching wasn’t the best,” Mike said. “I laugh at it now because I told my mentor at the time, ‘when I finish, I’m not going to become a teacher. I’m not doing this as a career.'"

But he didn't quit. "And now, 39 years later, here we go," Mike said. "I’ve enjoyed science. Plus, on my mom’s side of the family there are lots and lots of educators. I think it was a calling on that side of the family.”

Mike's first teaching job was in the Northeast ISD in San Antonio. That’s where he met Mona, also a teacher in the district.

A teacher's daughter, Mona had started out at Texas A&M University as an education major and switched to business. She hated it, changed back to education and got her first teaching job in a Northeast ISD middle school — where she nearly flamed out her first year.

“That first year was really hard — you’re not much older than the kids,” Mona said. “Oh man, it was hard. I really thought I’d made a mistake. I was used to the ‘littles.’ I think I student-taught fifth grade, and I had seventh and eighth graders. Some of them were 15 years old and I was 22. I wasn’t very good on discipline.”

Mike, whom she was dating at the time, and her roommate, also a teacher, plied her with encouragement, telling her to keep at it, assuring her it would get better.

“Sure enough, that second year — it was good,” Mona said.

Early ISD beckons

After marrying, the two taught for several more years in the Northeast ISD.

A man Mike had coached with there, Cliff Mitchell, took a job in Early in 1993.

“I always said  ‘if you ever move, I’d like to be on your staff,’” Mike recalled. “He called us the next year. That’s how we ended up in Early — never left. Our kids, we’ve raised them here through the system and it’s been a good home for us. The community’s been awful good to us and our kids. Hopefully we’ve given back.”

Principals are among their former students

Some of Mona’s former students went on to become teachers with her in the Early ISD. Mike’s former students include Judith Ozuna, who is now Early High School’s principal, and Chad Burleson, who is the middle school principal.

“So technically, my old students are our bosses,” Mike said.

Mona added, “And we taught their kids.”

'Top notch'

Mike said he and his wife were fortunate to work under good leadership.

“Your leadership can make a lot of difference on how you operate as a teacher,” Mike said.

“They give you the confidence to do what you do best. We’ve all worked for different people … they can bring out the best in you or they can do some damage to good teachers. We’ve been fortunate — the people we’ve worked for and with, they’re top notch.”

'It's not all about school and books'

Reflecting more on their legacies as educators, Mike said, “It is neat when the kids come back to you, and you get to see what they’ve become. It’s not all about school and books  either.

“You’re a parent, a counselor, a psychologist, you’re a brother … you’re all things. And I think the society expects you be all those things.”

Mona added, “Both of us tried to teach them about life — find something that you love, find a passion. It’s about being a good person. We tried to teach them values.”

'We had a purpose'

The Tumlinsons knew it was time  — but turning in their resignation letters was hard.

They don’t know exactly what retirement will look like. They're just getting started at it, after all, and it hasn’t quite sunk in.

“It’s normal right now,” Mike said. “You’re into your summer, and it’s like, OK, we’re doing what we’re typically doing in the summertime. We’ve been talking amongst ourselves. As you get into July, you’re already starting to think: in-services are coming, school’s going to be starting first of August … we don’t have to worry about that.”

In addition to their grandchildren, they’ll likely travel some, maybe get part time jobs somewhere or do some volunteering.

The Tumlinsons said they wouldn’t have changed anything about their careers.

“I can’t see that we would have enjoyed anything else,” Mona said. “You just don’t know how many people’s lives you’ve impacted. We had a purpose and that was it.”