James Claffey

By Sigrid Toye   |   March 15, 2022
James Claffey, English teacher extraordinaire and instructor at SBHS’s Visual Arts and Design Academy

The iconic multilevel campus of the historic Santa Barbara High School was my destination to meet James Claffey, English teacher extraordinaire. An instructor at the Visual Arts and Design Academy (VADA) division of the school he was highly recommended by a most reliable source: one of his students! In an attempt to make a timely appearance for our after-school appointment I hadn’t realized how vast and complicated the campus actually is. After hiking up and down a few hills and steps a kindly 10th grader on his way home acted as my personal guide to the proper location.

As I entered the room, Mr. Claffey rose from his desk to greet me suggesting I sit where I felt most comfortable. The natural light of the sun illuminated the cozy corner classroom as I found one of the seats tucked carefully under the tables. Looking around it was obvious that the warm, welcoming atmosphere wasn’t limited to the sun’s rays: bookshelves ladened with a huge assortment of literary choices, potted plants (obviously cared for), artwork, and a selection of stickers randomly placed were framed by inspirational words along the perimeters of the room. The one that especially caught my eye was DREAM. Behind the desk sat a teacher in a hat with a lilt of an Irish brogue and a great big smile looking completely at home. “Where shall we start?” he asked.

The Visual Arts and Design Academy, I learned, is a small learning community at Santa Barbara High School with about 225 students in 9th through 12th grades, a school within a school. VADA integrates academic coursework with project-based, career-focused art and design instruction in a supportive environment. “VADA is at its heart a thematic program weaving academic subject areas into the visual and creative arts,” explained Claffey. The work created by his students has included drawing and painting, sculpture, multimedia work, some film and video, and computer graphics with the assistance of Adobe technology – all supported by lots of writing and reading. The core curriculum is reading and written expression and is assigned, as well as encouraged, in all forms. “By reading fiction, memoirs, and the newer genres of storytelling such as graphic novels, kids can discover who they are, develop a true sense of belonging and of self to go about the business of creating stories and graphic novels of their own.”

Claffey believes that a young person’s social and emotional well-being backed by a supportive community is as important as academics. The confusion and isolation of the Coronavirus pandemic are not yet understood and may take years to unpack. “This school year the 9th and 10th grades are the frontrunners at Santa Barbara High in defining the importance of a sense of community with the intent to meet each student where they are academically, socially, and creatively,” stated Claffey with pride. “Kids that are dealing with other than ideal circumstances and family obligations are supported, understood, and mentored by their teachers and fellow students. I understand, on a personal level, the importance of feeling included and understood in one’s community.”

James Claffey was born and grew up in Dublin, the capital and largest city in Ireland. Despite having come from less than prosperous circumstances his home was filled with books. “Lit and reading was important in our household. You might not have money for groceries, but you’ll buy a book,” he chuckled. “Households filled with books, well – we weren’t alone. Must be an Irish thing!” Education was important to the family, and something remembered – as Claffey was the first member of his family to graduate from college after coming to the United States. “I actually won my Green Card in a lottery, if you can imagine that,” Claffey recalled. “I sat on it for a while until finally deciding to cross the ocean to try my luck. Leaving Ireland and my family was a huge step.”

As a brand-new graduate of UCSD’s Master’s in Education program, Claffey’s first job was in San Diego’s inner city teaching English. “Nothing I learned in college prepared me for the actual classroom experience,” he remembers, shaking his head. “Beginning in a school that was so challenging was an eye-opening experience and book learnin’ went out the door. Instead, I found myself in a rich and vibrant community with a lot of heart!” During the four years he spent there he learned a lot, especially humility, and developed a real passion to work with marginalized students. “I understood prejudice from growing up during The Troubles in Ireland, so I had a strong reaction to my experience and wanted to show students that there are ways out of the most difficult of circumstances and how they can lead you to surprising places!”

During the course of his career, Claffey did go to surprising places; trips to far-away locations, positions at Goleta Valley Junior High and San Marcos High, earning a Master of Fine Arts degree in New Orleans – a city close to his heart – and eventually returning to settle permanently in Santa Barbara with his wife, Maureen, and family. “Although UCSB’s Design & Construction Services was my first job back after three years in Louisiana, eventually I got rehired by the district at Santa Barbara High when a teacher left and I temporarily filled her position. That was nine years ago!” Claffey doesn’t see his job as just teaching English. “My goal is to teach my students how to relate to the world and to take advantage of the opportunities they encounter. To be ready to accept believing in themselves, a feeling of community along with a sense of responsibility.” 

My conversation with James Claffey provided an opportunity to appreciate his rich life experiences and his hands-on relationship with students. My internal GPS had been recalibrated as I headed for my car and the walk gave me time to understand why he was a beloved teacher and so highly recommended. Oh, by the way – did I mention that the enthusiastic student who recommend him was my granddaughter? Thank you for sharing your story, Mr. Claffey, and thank you, Sabrina Toye!  

Sigrid Toye is an Educational and Behavior Therapist with a PhD in Clinical Psychology, a freelance writer, and a storyteller. She loves all things creative, including her two (adult) artist children.


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