Escondido, CA

Escondido teacher Darwin Bree reflects on 50 years in education

Darwin Bree in the back yard of his Escondido home.

When former students of a certain age in Escondido—i.e. who graduated in the last thirty or forty years—are asked who was the most memorable teacher they ever had, often they will say, “Mister Bree.”

They are talking about Darwin Bree, a teacher who has devoted most of his 81 years to education. He has been a teacher and substitute teacher in Escondido’s high school district for 50 years—all of that at Orange Glen High School, and is beloved for and by the many lives he has touched over the decades.

Besides his devotion to high school students, he is also a devoted volunteer at the California Center for the Arts, Escondido, something he has done for a dozen years. He’s an enthusiastic ambassador for the Center. “Every community needs an art heart,” he says. “I really believe in the place. I love the arts center.

Born and raised in Bisbee, Arizona, Bree attended high school there and went to Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, where he obtained an MA in biology and math in 1965. He was married soon after and his wife was offered a job at Orange Glen High School in Escondido while he was offered one at Poway High School, so they packed up and moved to Escondido—where he has been ever since.

One of his prized possessions is an award he received from the Hidden Valley Escondido Kiwanis Club in 1968 for his work as the advisor of the OGHS Key Club “For his leadership and inspiration in the Orange Glen Key Club and especially the Community Narcotics Conference” which was held in Sylmar in the same year the federal government announced the “War on Drugs.”  The Key Club had submitted an anti-drug project for which it won an award.

Interacting with teens to warn them away from drugs has always been a specialty with Bree, who, even though he is entering his ninth decade, has the ability to achieve a unique rapport with this age group.

Around the time of the Kiwanis award, Bree won a National Defense Education Act scholarship to Indiana University at Bloomington that for two years exposed him to the world of adolescent psychology and earned him a degree in that field. “The two years at the university changed my life,” he says.

He started his career at Orange Glen HS in counseling and teaching educationally handicapped kids. He used that as an entree to leave counseling and to create the first psychology classes at OGHS. “I like to stir things up and create things. I have always been on the rim,” he says. “Sometime that gets me into trouble.”

Students who took the course remember that he put couches in the classroom and carpets on the floor to create a relaxed atmosphere. He had “great attendance,” as he recalls. “That was the most successful class I ever had.” One class blossomed into six sessions. Then the administration decided that six psychology classes was too many and cut the number to three.

Then he started a sociology class “and that was the most successful class that I ever had. So now I had a lot of the students for two years.”

Buoyed by that success, Bree decided that, based on his own experience as a counselor, that there was a need based on the high ratio of students for each counselor. So, he proposed to the school administration a peer counseling program that eventually became a model for the county, the state and the nation.

His training at Indian University had been in client-centered counseling and that informed his training of his students to be good listeners and then take what they had learned to the right people, rather than try to solve problems themselves. The idea of the peer counselors was “building a community within a community.” “Once I trained them I turned them loose,” he recalls.

The purpose of a peer counselor is to help other students with personal problems or situational stress and to provide some mentoring.

Word began to get around about his program. Professors at universities became interested and inquired about it and the program began being cited in master work and to be mentioned at health conferences.  It became a seed for similar programs in other school districts and even in other states. “People began to realize that kids could be a real force in helping kids,” he recalls.

A school in Long Island contacted them and invited the peer counselors out to New York to spend a week at their school, and later students from that school came out to Escondido to see the program in action. The peer counselors at Orange Glen HS became nationally famous and the program was copied in schools around San Diego county.

Bree trained 20 peer counselors semester, and since the program lasted for a dozen year he eventually trained an estimated 400 peer counselors. Many times over the years he has run into his former peer counselors and often learned that they gone on to open women’s crisis centers, or detox centers or other counseling related programs.

Using his tennis experience at Arizona University, where he had been a station champion, Bree also spent 11 years as a tennis coach, and for five of those years his tennis team went to the CIF playoffs. He also coached wrestling, girls’ basketball and girls’ volleyball.

“I really enjoyed coaching,” he recalls.

Several times Bree also organized trips to Europe and the Soviet Union (that’s what Russia was called before the end of the Cold War.) He also organized Mediterranean cruises for high students and took his peer counselors to New York City several times.

Bree has always been devoted to turning kids away from drug abuse, and when he was a regular staff member at Orange Glen he acquired a reputation as the “drug buster.”

“I busted about two hundred kids for drugs,” he recalls. “The kids would get really mad. But every one would come back eventually and say, ‘Thank you! You’re the only one who did something.’ ”

He adds, “My specialty has always been kids in crisis. That’s who I live for.”

He speaks what he describes as “Street Spanish,” and says, “I have fun with the kids. They are not afraid of me and they never know what I’m going to do next.”

Once a group of students noticed him approach and asked: “Do you dab?”

Dabbing is a form of dance where you push your face into the crook of your arm to indicate joy or triumph.

“Yes, I dab,” said Bree, who then assumed a dab dancing pose, much to their delight. Dabbing has been around for years, he says. “John Travolta in ‘Saturday Night Fever’ was dabbing.”

Over the years Bree has been twice named in the high school yearbook as “most inspirational teacher.” Once or twice students have gone onto Wikipedia and named him as the school’s mascot.

Eventually the program came to an end at OGHS and Darwin Bree briefly left teaching in 1998. But he couldn’t stay away. He went back to be a substitute teacher and has been substituting ever since. He averages about 18 days a month substitute teaching, he says, in spite of just turning 81.

Obviously being in his 50th year as a teacher at Orange Glen, even if it’s not as a regular member of the staff, is a milestone, but Darwin Bree is quiet about this achievement.  And he has no intention of stopping.

“Whenever something happens and throws me down. The kids are there to pick me up,” he says. “They are my passion.” He points to his head, “They are here,” and then points to his heart. “They are here.”

25 responses to “Escondido teacher Darwin Bree reflects on 50 years in education”

  1. Mr. Bree was by far, my favorite teacher. He we so kind and compassionate to his students. I was truly blessed to have been his student 1994-1996

  2. Jennifer Palmer says:

    Mr. Bree made a huge impact on my life and my two years as a peer counselor changed my life and led to tremendous growth. Thank you for writing this story, Mr. Bree is a true hero.

  3. Casey says:

    Mr. Bree introduced me to my life-long passion of studying human behavior. I now teach high school students with mental health needs. If there was a desk nearby me i woukd salute him by standing on it and shouting “Oh Captain, My Captain!” Thank you Mr. Bree!

    Casey Lyon class of 1994

  4. ken maculan says:

    I have been a friend for many years and when we go out, his former students always come up to him and talk. They all LOVE him! It shows what a great teacher he is! Congratulations on your teaching career!!

  5. Gina Ybarra Kerbein says:

    The day I got my letter of acceptance to be a peer counselor when I was a sophomore was the highlight of my high school years! Great memories and also a great social experience.

  6. Valerie Hack Shields says:

    Mr. Bree was my psychology teacher in the 1970s. He was very inspirational to me and I ended up getting my psychology degree and going on to working in the field. He was one of my most memorable teachers with his unconventional classroom and way of teaching. Thank you Mr. Bree for your lasting impression.

  7. Mitchell Perdue says:

    Mr Bree Rocks! He had mastered the skill of allowing high school student to feel as if they were part of the discussion on an equal footing with the teacher. Which in turn allowed for a casual atmosphere and some very intense debate at times. The comment in the article about Mr Bree being the favorite teacher is spot on. When you look at companies like Google and Facebook with there relaxed dress codes and couches translating into higher creativity and production, Mr Bree was ahead of that concept by 30 years. Great article and it’s nice to drift back to those care free days of progressive talk and shag carpet!

  8. Alan says:

    Phenomenal man! Amazing dedication! He changed my life.

  9. Theone (Hawkinson ) Mansfield says:

    Oh Mr Bree was an inspiration to many. I went to OGHS while he and Mrs. Bree were teachers (1964-1968). I also had the pleasure for a couple of years babysitting their little babies. Congratulations Mr. Bree for an amazing 50 years plus career.

  10. Laurie (Nelson) Higbee, RN, BSN says:

    Great teacher! I can still picture the classroom, great sitting on those old couches. It felt like sitting in someone’s living room talking with friends. Thank you Mr. Bree for being a part of shaping my life, making me think for myself. Graduate class of 1978.

  11. BreAnn Battle says:

    I love Mr. Bree! Such an amazing person! 02-06..

  12. Jonathan G Hinchliff says:

    I met Mr. Bree for the first time as a 13 year old, about to graduate junior high school, and begin my freshman year at OGHS in 1968. He was assisting me in his role of guidance counselor in the choices of classes to take for those hoping to proceed to college or university following there 4 years at OGHS. I was also very fortunate to have taken one of the psychology classes he taught in 1969/1970. This great teacher was a man who earned all of the trust and respect from his students because he treated everyone as mature young adults, and we all felt lucky to have such an incredible opportunity to be in a classroom with a person like this! Later on in my lifetime I was blessed to have a son of my own who graduated OGHS Class of 2010 whom also had the pleasure of Mr.Bree’s insightful educational credentials as a substitute teacher. His inspiration continues as my son begins his own career as an educator for a great new high school here in North County. To Darwin Bree, on behalf of myself and ALL of the other young people who’s lives he has touched, Thank You for the beautiful job that you have done, all of the past 50 years, and wishing you another decade or more of the same! With Fondest Regards, Jonathan G Hinchliff OGHS Class of 1972.

  13. Taylor Malone says:

    Mr Bree is the kind of teacher that needs to have a movie made of him. He has inspired and touched the hearts of many hundreds if not thousands of students. I believe he is the golden standard for all of education.

  14. Jessica King (formerly Long) says:

    I am also a former student (Class of ’96). I had Mr. Bree for psychology and remember him as being an incredibly kind person.

  15. Wendy Wilks-Pool says:

    Mr. Bree was & is an amazing & wonderful person. I had him for sociology & psychology. He always made you feel like you were really important and that what you said really mattered. My favorite teacher of all time!

  16. Serina Ricchiuti says:

    This was that one teacher that I never forgot. Glad to see this. I think of you often Mr. Bree and wondered where you’ve been. You were there for me in such a fragile chaotic stage of life and you hold a special place in my heart. I can only imagine the lives you’ve changed and the hears that you’ve touched in your 50 years of teaching. ❤

  17. Abi Leaf says:

    I was never late to his class back in high school to get a seat on the couch! (Class of ’81). Now I work in the district and live in the community and I am always happy to see Mr. Bree at OG or at the Center for the Arts. He’s an Escondido Treasure. Those of us who had him as a teacher still remember him calmly trying to get our attention at the beginning of class. His gentle “Please listen” always did the trick!! Thank you for your dedication to the teens of this town.

  18. Edwin Rivera says:

    Mr. Bree was always a pleasure to have around. He would always walk with such joy and pride. He would also give us many life lessons, which were always greatly appreciated. I really enjoyed having Mr. Bree as a substitute.

  19. Jason Lucero says:

    Mr. Bree saw something in me that I didn’t know was there. He’s had profound and long-lasting effects on my life. Thank you, Mr. Bree.

  20. Marilyn Palmer says:

    Mr. Bree was an amazing teacher and inspiration.. You could talk to him about anything.. Congratulations,,I was at OGHS from 1965 to 1969..

  21. Pamela Kotsios Owens says:

    The most gentle soul EVER! Had him for Psych classes … he was a reason I started towards Social Work. Love Mr Bree, I was always so loud and hyper and he knew how to calm me right down! LOL. I see him often in town and he is always the same smiling, has-a-moment-for-you, attitude! #OGHS Class of ’86 YOU DEF ROCK MR BREE!

  22. Mike Null says:

    Mr. Bree has made a lifelong impact on me and I still think about his classes I took and being a peer counselor. It’s something I’ll always cherish. 92-96

  23. Brian says:

    Great article about a great teacher! Thanks

  24. Lori says:

    Mr. Bree always made time to talk to his students, and the parents. He has a God Given Gift to Listen and Care. I wish more teachers had it today.

  25. Joel A Warriner, Sr. says:

    Mr. Bree was the best HS teacher I ever had. He might even be the best teacher I ever had period.

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