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‘I love being a mentor’ | After tragedy, a Santa Fe firefighter quit to lead students

Jonathan Burns spent over a decade running into burning buildings. But when tragedy struck his small town in May 2018, he chose to pursue a new calling.

SANTA FE, Texas — To watch Jonathan Burns coaching students at the Santa Fe High School gym is to watch a man who’s perfectly at ease with his career, even though he hasn’t been teaching long.

Just two years ago, you would have found Burns in a fire station helping save lives instead of inside a high school mentoring students.

“I love being a mentor to these kids,” said Burns, who coaches football, basketball, and teaches principles of health science. “Every kid wishes growing up they would have that one teacher that really made a difference. And that’s what I want to do.”

Burns felt it was time to make a career change in May 2018 when tragedy struck the small town that sits 45 minutes south of Houston. A student gunman walked into the high school and killed 10 people — eight students and two teachers — and injured 13 others.

“My sister, she was a senior that year, and I knew a lot of kids here,” Burns said, fighting back tears, “because I’ve coached for a very long time: Little League, select ball. Fortunately, as far as my sister, she wasn’t here that day. Her alarm didn’t go off. And so she missed school.”

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Burns isn’t one to shy away from difficult moments. He followed his father, who joined the Santa Fe Fire Department as a volunteer. For over a decade, Burns spent time fighting fires in different cities, he also was trained and worked as an EMT.

The day of the high school shooting, Burns was off work and at home with his 10-day-old son, Weston. He responded to the school, ready to help anyway he could.

His desire to help and make a difference didn’t end that day.

Before May 18, 2018, Burns had already been thinking of becoming a teacher. The events of that day made it clear to him that he had to become a teacher, and it had to be at Santa Fe High School. He applied for a job at the high school, calling every day until he got an interview. He was hired in time to start the next school year.

Although he’s left his firefighting career behind, he still uses those skills to teach his students valuable skills like CPR. He also started the Santa Fe Fire Safety Club, where students work on fire safety with local schools and churches. It also gives seniors a chance to earn a scholarship.

“I love teaching. I love the kids. I love my job,” he said.

The feeling is mutual among his students and players.

“One time during an away tournament, I fainted and he brought me back to life—basically he kind of saved me life,” senior Macy Gregory said. “Gotta give him credit for that.”

Other students like to give him a hard time, like one who warned him to keep his chin held high so when the news cameras were rolling, he would avoid a double chin. Burns laughed.

For other students, they’re happy to have a teacher around like Burns who can “bring a joke out of nowhere to make us laugh about something,” sophomore Kloee Vanier said, even when they’re having a bad day.

Credit: KHOU
Santa Fe High School coach Jonathan Burns with players from his junior varsity girls basketball team during a practice in the gym.

“Whenever he says my name, it brings me joy,” senior Myracle Montemayor said. “I love coach Burns.”

Burns said he has no intentions to leave the city he calls home, where he’s raising a family of his own, and where he hopes to make a lasting impact on students’ lives for years to come.

“I want to make a difference,” he said. “I want to be that person for that student they can say that I helped them in life.”

IN THEIR OWN WORDS: Students share their favorite memories of Santa Fe HS coach Jonathan Burns

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