The plan was to be an English teacher. Sometimes things don’t go according to plan – sometimes things work out even better.

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Hailing from Canada, his early years were a bit nomadic, he says. Every year found him enrolled in a different elementary school. Adopted by his step-dad when he was 12, his life suddenly grew roots. So Paul Turnbull, now Santa Ynez Valley Union High School District superintendent, went out for sports. But that was just the start of his journey.

A linebacker on his high school football team, Turnbull also played basketball and rugby, swam and was a member of the track and field team. “My rugby and track coaches tended not to be too happy with me,” he admits of his participating in overlapping sports. Turnbull was a thrower, so he’d go to rugby practice first and then throw. With a little prodding, he admits to earning a few school records. In his senior year, he says with a broad smile, his rugby team made it the OFSSA finals, which are Canada’s equivalent to CIF finals.

It was the first time Turnbull found himself confronted with playing against a girl – a member of the opposing team.

There was some pre-game talk of taking it easy on her, but in the end it was decided a game was a game and they had come to play their best. “It was a good thing we did, because she was really good,” he says, raising his eyebrows and lingering on the “really” as he recalls the dilemma.

There were two teachers/coaches Turnbull formed strong bonds with over his tenure at high school, John Horton and David Kay. From them, Turnbull learned the importance of making that teacher/student connection.

“John was all about work ethic,” says Turnbull. But it wasn’t all work. “He was the kind who was always playing practical jokes – he always seemed happy with his place.” With equally positive comments about Kay, Turnbull says it is from his relationship with those teachers that his determination to become a teacher grew. “I have two great loves in my life, education and family,” he says. “Pretty much everything revolves around them.”

In Canada, says Turnbull’s wife, Leslie, teachers are always called “Ms.” or “Sir.” “Teaching is a much sought-after profession. It is an extremely competitive process to get in.”

Get in Turnbull did, and because the rules are slightly different there, Turnbull was able to gain a spot on the football team as a grad student. Older than the rest of the team, he soon earned himself the nickname Geritol. He also earned teaching certificates for both English and physical education.

Turnbull laughs as he recalls his first teaching experiences – five different classes, five different classrooms. From IB English to P.E., he recalls fondly. “I get a charge out of teaching someone something new,” he says.

“There is something seductive – something wonderful – about seeing an epiphany happening,” he says.

Five years into his teaching career, came Turnbull’s first foray into administration. He was asked to take on the job of athletic director. But because he was still also teaching IB English, his district wanted him to go to a conference in New Mexico in July. New Mexico in July? It didn’t sound appealing.

Thousands of miles away in Costa Rica, Leslie was also teaching IB English. Her district too wanted her to go an International Baccalaureate conference in New Mexico in July. Really? she thought, that is the last place she wanted to go in July. But go she did. Sitting in a chair in the airport, she happened to glance up and see Paul. He saw her. “It took about five seconds,” he says, which is about five seconds longer than it took her. “I’m crazy in love with my husband,” Leslie says with a sigh.

“Yeah, I married up,” Turnbull says.

Because Leslie didn’t have a landline, and cell phone reception was dodgy at best, Turnbull – after securing Leslie’s father’s permission to court her – sent long letters (and an occasional email when his system was up long enough to allow him to). Long distance is tough.

It didn’t take long for the couple to develop a plan to meet in the middle. With Leslie’s family hailing from Santa Barbara that seemed as good a place as any to start their lives together. So they came, both intending to teach English. The only problem with the plan was neither could find a job in the field.

Turnbull wasn’t too surprised. “Our friends told us we were crazy. They said Paul wouldn’t be able to get a job because he was a foreigner and they don’t like foreigners here,” says Leslie.

Leslie moved into the field of development, now working for UCSB and loving every minute of it, she says. Turnbull made a course correction as well.

“It just became really evident to me that I could make a difference in kids’ lives, one class at a time, or by moving further from the classroom, make a larger difference,” he says. Besides, the only job he could find was in administration.

Describing her husband as a “plodder” – a description he admits to – Leslie says he began mapping out a way to positively impact as many students as possible. Turnbull both took “his dream job” in the Valley and continued his work toward his now complete PhD. “I just really love being around the kids,” he says.

And that includes his own children, two sons and a daughter. “He’s a good dad,” says Leslie. “He brings the objectivity of his teaching experience to the parenting table.” Slow to panic and long on thinking things through, Turnbull approaches the job with love and patience.

His 7-year-old daughter is his golfing buddy. Turnbull’s face lights up as he describes her as the perfect blend of both her brothers’ best traits. That the two boys are his stepsons makes little difference to Turnbull. He boasts of their strengths, of what fine men they are becoming.

But helping teens mature into their adult selves is something Turnbull has made his life’s work. Slow and steady, one step at a time, whether he is home with his family or home at his district, Turnbull does what he can to reach as many kids as he can. Family is family, Turnbull says.

“Paul is incredibly close to his parents,” says Leslie. He is close to his stepsons and even to their father. For Turnbull, family is key and always will be, he says. His definition of family is just a little more broad than most.

struax@syvjournal.com