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Teacher of the Year Philip Bigler


The 1998 Teacher of the Year, Philip Bigler, began considering a teaching career while in college. But he had been profoundly influenced by one of his earlier teachers, whom he celebrates in Education World's Q&A session with him.

Philip Bigler
"It is imperative that we raise the prestige of the profession. That means that teachers need to be treated as professionals and to be seen as uniquely skilled individuals. Not everybody has the ability to teach. I have seen high-profile and very wealthy lawyers turn to Jell-O in front of a group of 15-year-olds."
       ---- Philip Bigler, Teacher of the Year

For almost 20 years, Philip Bigler has made history engaging and relevant for his students at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Virginia. For his commitment to teaching, last April, Bigler was named 1998 Teacher of the Year by President Bill Clinton in a White House ceremony that also celebrated the 1998 State Teachers of the Year. Now in its 47th year, the National Teacher of the Year Award is the oldest and most prestigious awards program to focus on excellence in education.

Bigler with President Clinton Historical simulations and other interactive lessons are a major component of Bigler's history courses. His students, for example, have been members of a Greek polis, debating important issues of the day. They have argued constitutional law before a mock Supreme Court.

And while studying Islamic history, they have made a sacred pilgrimage to Mecca.

A highly literate and enthusiastic educator, Bigler recently agreed to respond to a few questions from Education World. Here, he reflects on his career choice, on his year as Teacher of the Year, and on the future of American education.

Education World: What's been the most exciting part of your tenure as Teacher of the Year?

Philip Bigler: My appearance on David Letterman was truly the highlight. It was a real validation of our profession, and Dave couldn't have been nicer. I had the opportunity to meet Sally Field, who was also appearing that night, and she was a strong advocate of teachers. After I completed my interview and had actually left the stage, Letterman told Paul Shaffer, the band director, on the air, "Wouldn't it be nice to know that when you went to work every day, you were making a tangible difference in the future of the world?" That was a wonderful tribute to teachers everywhere. I am a big David Letterman fan.

EW: Is there one teacher who had a profound influence on you?

Bigler: My eighth-grade teacher, Sister Mary Josephine at Sacred Heart School in Jacksonville, Florida, was a caring, compassionate teacher. She taught me how important it is to listen to students and to care about them. The day before the announcement about my selection as National Teacher was made, I wrote Sister Josephine a letter to thank her for all that she had done for me. Incredibly, our local television station interviewed her on one of the segments of the news, and I was pulled out of a meeting with the Secretary of Education, Richard Riley, to see it. It was a very special moment for me. I have always said, "Teachers sow seeds of harvest unseen," and I know how important it is for a student to say "Thank you."

Bigler with StudentsEW: What do you think is the most important quality a teacher needs to be effective?

Bigler: I have met literally hundreds of outstanding, talented teachers from throughout the United States. They come from different backgrounds, teach in different environments, work with all types of students. The common characteristic of all of them is that they have passion for what they are doing. They believe in their students and love their work.

EW: What is the toughest thing about teaching, and how do you deal with it?

Bigler: Probably the hardest thing to deal with is the shortened attention span. Television inundates students with a blur of images, and computer games provide incredible visual stimulation. I still maintain that the greatest source of knowledge is books, and although I love the new technology and respect its power, nothing can replace the process of reading. And, quite frankly, it takes discipline to sit down and read Homer or to understand Shakespeare. But the wisdom of the ages is its own great reward.

EW: How can school systems ensure that they have the most qualified teachers?

Bigler: It is imperative that we raise the prestige of the profession. That means that teachers need to be treated as professionals and to be seen as uniquely skilled individuals. Not everybody has the ability to teach. I have seen high-profile and very wealthy lawyers turn to Jell-O in front of a group of 15-year-olds. We also must have a support and mentoring system for new teachers. Too often, they are abandoned when they begin their careers, and we must nurture them and offer them help. It also must be safe for a teacher to seek help and to say the courage words "I don't know." Salaries will also have to be raised to attract the best and the brightest to our profession. In his annual back to school address this year, Secretary of Education Riley produced statistics showing that a new teacher makes less than beginning clerical workers and laborers. That is inexcusable especially as teachers are asked to do more and more.

EW: In reflecting back on your year as Teacher of the Year, how has the experience changed or enhanced your philosophy of teaching?

Bigler: I see the broader scope of education now. Teachers have to become leaders within their communities and policy makers within their states. Moreover, I believe that schools must be based upon teamwork and that we should all celebrate each other's efforts.

EW: Is there anything you would change about the teaching profession if you could? Why?

Bigler: We need to lower class sizes and reduce the teachers' workload. Right now, teachers are being worked to death with the constant stress of too many papers and too much grading. The greatest asset a teacher has is time and there is never enough of it. There is a great scene in the film Mr. Holland's Opus when Mr. Holland tells an experienced teacher that he is going to write his great symphony during his spare time while teaching. Every teacher who sees this movie laughs knowingly at the statement.

EW: What is your plan for the year ahead? Will you teach, write, or pursue some other goal?

Bigler: My tenure as National Teacher ends on May 31. Although I will continue to speak to groups around the nation, I am looking forward to returning to my classroom in the fall. I miss the interaction with kids and the excitement of teaching history. It has been an incredible honor to have had this year, but I am still a teacher and I need to be back at Thomas Jefferson.

The National Teacher of the Year Program began in 1952 and continues as the oldest, most prestigious national honors program that focuses public attention on excellence in teaching. A national selection committee representing the major national education organizations chooses the National Teacher of the Year from among the State Teachers of the Year. Each April, the president of the United States introduces the National Teacher of the Year to the American people. The National Teacher of the Year is released from classroom duties during the year of recognition to travel nationally and internationally as a spokesperson for the teaching profession. All activities of the National Teacher, and projects involving the State Teachers of the Year, are coordinated through the National Teacher of the Year Program. The program is sponsored by the The Council of Chief State School Officers and Scholastic Inc.

Article by Sharon Cromwell
Education World®
Copyright © 2005 Education World

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