A Tale of Two Teachers

August 01, 1990 23 min read

No bell announces the start of class. About 8:20, Stro- bridge pulls a wooden chair into the circle where the 10 sophomores have gathered. With a soft voice, she asks them to open their journals and write how the assigned story, Grace Paley’s “Anxiety,’' is like or unlike other stories they have read this year.

During the next 10 minutes, Strobridge takes attendance on a required form, slips it outside her door, and then participates in the assigned activity, scribbling away in her own journal. The only sound is the scratching of the pens.

“OK, what did anybody say?’' Strobridge asks as she closes her own notebook. One by one, students offer their observations. Parallels are drawn between the story’s characters and those in Eudora Welty’s “Warm Path’’ and the Bible. From time to time, Strobridge scrawls on the board a key phrase from one of their thoughts.

The group is so small that students do not need to raise their hands. Inevitably, several pupils begin talking at the same time. Strobridge calls names (changed for this article) in the order that they will speak: “Jordan, Sally, then Tom.’' Immediately, Jordan speaks and then passes the ball to Sally and so on. It always seems to work.

The size of the group also makes it easy to spot the shy; in this class, it’s a fair, quick-to-blush girl. Strobridge makes sure to direct a few questions specifically to her.

When the discussion gets stuck on character analysis, the teacher gives it a nudge in a different direction. “Nobody has mentioned ‘irony.’ Where is the irony in this story?’' she asks. The students pull out their texts and reread passages aloud, struggling to identify the story’s ironic twist. Several offer tentative answers. They are on the right track, but unable to fully express themselves. Instead of interpreting their meaning and rephrasing their thoughts in words that the class can understand, Strobridge challenges other students to do so: “Bonnie, tell me what Darrell just said.’'

Bonnie clears through a section of the literary underbrush, but it takes a few more student responses before the irony is uprooted and understood. Strobridge doesn’t bulldoze a straight path to the answer. She has the luxury of allowing her students to discover it themselves because today is Tuesday, a “long block day,’' which means the class period stretches to 80 minutes. On other days, this class will meet for the standard 50 minutes.

Strobridge closes by asking a volunteer for a generalization: “So what are the writers of our time saying about our time?’'

A boy, sporting a T-shirt and shorts on this chilly spring day, offers this: “There are dangers: pollution, people conspiring to destroy us all. But there is always a little kid who is like a film that is unbroken. And there is always someone watching over that kid, making sure that the film doesn’t get broken.’' Freckle-faced Bonnie leans over, pats him on the back, and puts her hand to her heart, affectionately mocking awe.

The class laughs, and what ensues is a natural break. The discussion has lasted almost an hour. Although Strobridge hasn’t said anything, everyone stands and stretches. A few students wander out to pick up their workbooks or get a drink. In several minutes, everyone is sitting in the circle again.

Strobridge apologizes for the next assignment but says that they are making a lot of mistakes conjugating verbs. “It makes me feel bad when I run across them in your papers,’' she admits.

As students work in their books on the assigned grammar exercise, they chat with and help one another. Strobridge saunters around and around the circle, checking their accuracy from time to time. After a few minutes, she announces the names of several students who have perfect papers and asks all others to check their own work by using the perfect papers as “answer sheets.’'

She finishes class with a round-robin session of verbal sentence combining. Ten minutes is ample time to give every class member the opportunity to participate. Throughout the 80-minute class, Strobridge has not passed out or collected any papers.

As the class is leaving, one of the boys stops at her desk and says: “I heard that the other class is writing poetry. I thought it would be fun if we could do that.’' Most teachers would think that they hadn’t heard correctly, but Strobridge is often treated to such enthusiasm. At the academy, intellectual pursuits are cultivated, so most students think it’s “cool’’ to be smart.

It is now 9:45, and Strobridge is finishing her first class.

BY THIS SAME TIME, DEBBIE BAKER IS in the middle of teaching her third class at Bear Creek High School, two miles down the road from Colorado Academy. Already, she has passed out 297 pieces of paper to 72 students.

Baker’s first class of the day begins at 7:30, a time when many other professionals are still swatting the snooze button on their alarm clocks. Since it takes her 30 minutes to drive to work, she usually doesn’t arrive until about 7:15. That means she has little time in the morning for preparation.

Today she swings by the teachers’ lounge to fill up her coffee mug and has just enough time to write the agenda for her first class on the board before a bell--as loud as a fire alarm--announces that students should report to class.

Students stream into Baker’s room, known as the “newspaper room’’ because Baker is the adviser for the monthly student paper, Bear Facts. The space is large enough to accommodate 32 students and the necessities of journalistic production: four file cabinets, a light table, three computers, a printer, and a telephone.

This morning, several students stop to ask about assignments they have missed. She explains the previous day’s work while passing out papers and noting who is and isn’t walking through the door. A minute later, another aural cue--two high-pitched bings-- signals that class should begin. They sound exactly like the tones that airliners use to remind passengers to fasten their seatbelts.

Baker dives in. Her first class is 10th grade English. Like Strobridge, she begins with a journal assignment. But instead of asking students to write about a class-related subject, she uses this moment to inspire personal reflection. Today’s topic: “What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishment?’'

Like a choreographer urging her dancers to soar, Baker paces the room, calling out: “Move those brain cells! Make those hands fly across the page!’' Unlike Strobridge, who praised but did not verbally motivate her students, Baker feels the need to stimulate and encourage her students to work.

After five minutes, Baker begins talking about parallel sentence structure. She passes out a selfmade ditto of exercises. Like Strobridge, she apologizes for it but assures them that practice will improve their writing. (Baker would like to use grammar workbooks or at least have access to grammar textbooks. But, because her principal believes that students learn the rules of grammar best by reading and writing, the English department was not allowed to order any.)

While using an overhead transparency, Baker leads the class through each sentence. With 28 students and only 15 minutes set aside for the activity, not every student is able to participate verbally. Students raise their hands to show how to correct the poorly structured sentences that glow on Baker’s screen. “They arrived by train, by plane, by bus, and by walking,’' reads one student. “It should be ‘by foot.’'

Baker gives them a few minutes to complete the exercises in writing. “Hang on to these papers,’' she says after they are finished. Then, she explains the next activity, a peer-editing exercise in which they will have the chance to play teacher and edit the essays of other students. Several students smile broadly, obviously enjoying the prospect.

Baker milks the moment. She opens a box and pulls out a pen as dramatically as a fencer brandishes a foil. “That’s right! You get to use the Green Pen!’' (Baker switched from the traditional red to green after having a recurring nightmare: While facing a mound of essays to grade, her red pen would suddenly take on a power of its own and impale her. It’s no wonder. Right now, the huge stacks of papers that cover her desk are enough to make anyone feel besieged.)

While the students work in pairs, she confers with individuals about their essays. Every couple of weeks, she assigns a challenging, independent project, such as peer editing, for her students to do during class. This gives her time to see students one-on-one for at least a few minutes.

Although Baker has control of the class, keeping the noise level down is a constant battle. When students in Strobridge’s class work in pairs, the chatter isn’t disruptive--after all, there are only five pairs. But with 12 pairs of students talking quietly, the rap can easily turn into a muffled roar.

And with such a large class, it’s impossible to tell if Sara and Curt in the back are talking about a topic sentence or the latest box-office hit.

When students in Strobridge’s group-work session strayed from conjugating verbs into personal conversation, it seemed natural. But in Baker’s class, the result could be chaotic. Managing her small class, Strobridge can hear exactly what the groups are talking about and can redirect them if they stray too far. Baker can do that only with the first row. She knows that sometimes students deviate from the assignment, but that’s a small price to pay for having some one-on-one time.

She manages to concentrate on her conferences, but at one point, the noise does rise above her acceptance level. “Unless you want the paper due in 10 minutes, you will turn down the volume,’' she threatens.

The volume drops. Then, Bing! Bing! Class is over. Everyone, including Baker, jumps up.

In between classes, she is barraged by questions from outgoing and incoming students: “What was yesterday’s assignment?’' “Can I use a camera to take photos for the newspaper?’' “What do we need for class?’'

Besides being responsible for the daily academic progress of her students (a grand total of 125, compared with Strobridge’s 52), her duty as newspaper adviser multiplies the demands. Her English class has already been interrupted several times this morning by students who walked in to ask for help with newspaper problems. As a conductor can usher in the thunder of the timpani while steadying the tremolo of the violins, Baker lectures her class and dispenses cameras, film, and advice without missing a beat. Just watching her is exhausting.

Second period is a repeat of first; the names and faces change, but the lesson plan remains the same. Third period, however, is 9th grade English.

Bing! Bing! Class begins with a crackling as the public address system switches on. A disembodied voice disseminates the latest news about the track team, senior counseling, and an upcoming banquet and reminds that class will be dismissed early for a special, all-school assembly. Baker’s students aren’t listening. “You guys don’t want a quiz over the announcements, do you?’' she says with a just-try-me smile. They quiet down.

As soon as the announcements are over, the school’s jazz band fires up in the room next door. Bah-da da da, bah-da do wop, goes the snare drum.

The band sounds fantastic. Feet are tapping. Baker doesn’t seem bothered by the musical accompaniment. Maybe she is used to it. Raising her voice slightly, she talks about the importance of brainstorming before writing, reviews the writing process, and asks students to apply it by writing a composition comparing Romeo and Juliet to West Side Story.

Then, noise from the drafting room on the other side leaks through the accordion wall that separates the two rooms. The drafting students are supposed to be doing mechanical drawing, but it sounds as if they have decided to move heavy furniture instead. Meanwhile, the trombones are bopping and the trumpets blaring.

As Baker winds down her class in anticipation of the bell, there is an astonishing amount of activity in the halls outside her room. A photographer is taking photos and a group of students is performing short plays in one of the school’s theaters. From different rooms come the sounds of poetry being recited, sewing machines humming, the clank of automobiles being fixed. And there are smells to accompany the sounds--sausages cooking, wood being varnished, and the general organic odor of a chemistry lab. The corridor walls are plastered with campaign posters for the Bear Creek Senate.

It is in ambience that the contrast between Bear Creek and Colorado Academy is most dramatic. The academy’s upper school enrolls 160 students compared with Bear Creek’s 1,800. The academy’s 11 buildings are spread out, campus-style, over 75 acres; Bear Creek’s entire enterprise--including vocational programs, which the academy doesn’t offer--is squeezed into one building. Calm quiet pervades the academy, while Bear Creek pulses with energy--the kind of energy that P.T. Barnum created when he put three rings under one circus tent. Bear Creek seems self-contained. A student should be able to learn anything here.

When the Bing! Bing! sounds, the hallways suddenly fill with boisterous students on their way to assembly.

AN ASSEMBLY IS ALSO ON THE DAY’S schedule at Colorado Academy.

Following Strobridge’s first class is a half-hour session cryptically titled “SSR/advisee meetings.’' During this period, the whole school is supposed to read (SSR stands for Sustained Silent Reading). Teachers may also use the time to confer with their advisees. Each teacher oversees the long-term academic progress of 12 students.

Today Strobridge uses the time to grade papers. The several students reading quietly in her room need no supervision.

At 10:15, upper school students and faculty get a breath of fresh air as they stroll over to the auditorium. Each Tuesday, this half-hour is slotted for an upper school assembly. The program varies. Teachers--or students with a faculty sponsor--can “sign up’’ for a specific purpose. Next week, Strobridge’s 10th graders will take the podium to give oral presentations of their final term papers. Today, the science teacher has asked an archaeologist to give a slide presentation on 19th century expeditions into Utah’s canyonlands.

Once the program begins, the 160 students listen quietly. When the speaker finishes, Strobridge asks him a few questions.

After the speaker is thanked, the principal asks for “announcements.’' Instead of faculty advisers rising to speak, students do most of the talking. The activities, with the exception of athletics, seem to be student managed. Two girls stand and implore their fellow students to help with the upcoming talent show. Apparently, it can be hard to drum up enough warm bodies for the various activities when the student body itself is so small.

The assembly is as civilized as a chamber music concert; it’s hard to imagine these kids ever cutting loose. But then, the principal stands up and announces that he is concerned about student drivers speeding on campus. The faculty has been advised to turn in license numbers of speed-limit violators, he warns.

The assembly ends quietly.

BEAR CREEK’S ASSEMBLY, ON THE OTHER hand, is all rock ‘n’ roll. As students pour into the gym, their voices converge into one electric roar. Faculty members stalk the center of the court where a table of trophies and plaques gleams. The band is warming up. Bah-da da da, bah-da do wop. The Home of the Bears. With all the excitement, it seems as if Bear Creek were about to host the World Series.

Baker finds a seat in the bleachers and surveys the scene. One after another, awards are announced for everything from chess club to forensics to basketball. Throughout the entire program, even when teachers and administrators are talking into the microphone, the buzz and hum from the bleachers is constant. Silence is an impossibility.

Halfway through the program, a teacher announces the winners of the Special Olympics. The crowd cheers warmly as three mentally handicapped students run forward. Their T-shirts are plastered with ribbons, their faces with smiles. They wave triumphantly, momentarily transformed by the tremendous sound of applause. The incident gives meaning to the school’s motto: “Excellence for One and All.’'

A drum roll begins the grand finale. To the Chariots of Fire theme song, chosen athletes climb scaffolding and hang new, bright green and gold banners from the already festooned wall. Boys and Girls Track League Champs 1990. The audience screams. The banner-hangers beam.

The energy of 1,800 students cheering is infectious. Baker smiles and claps, too. “It’s amazing,’' she says, laughing.

It takes a critical mass of people to pull off such pageantry. Colorado Academy could never do it like this.

After the assembly, Baker has one more class before her first break of the day. “One thing you learn with my schedule,’' she says, “is bladder control.’'

The session is a carbon copy of her first two classes. (Strobridge teaches two sections of 10th grade English, but she doesn’t teach both classes on “long block’’ days. And on days when she does teach the two sections, her English classes are never the same because they are discussion-based.)

This class is made sweeter by a piece of cherry cheesecake that she finds on her desk; her fans often leave treats made in home economics class.

Before settling into the routine of her lesson plan, she confronts her students about their attitude. “This is how you greet me everyday’': She slumps and sighs pitifully while her students laugh at the caricature. “Today, I want you to take out your journals--and don’t complain!’' she says. LIKE BAKER, STROBRIDGE TEACHES ONE more class before lunch. Unlike her long morning class, this one lasts 50 minutes--and it’s French. Private school teachers typically teach more than one subject. Much more teacher-oriented and textbook-related, this class clips along with a test, a written assignment, and a game.

Lunch follows, and at Colorado Academy it’s on the house. Strobridge fills her tray from the salad bar and eats, as usual, in the cafeteria. At her table is the grounds supervisor with whom she strikes up a conversation about lawn care. Several houses on campus are available for faculty to rent at moderate rates. Strobridge, who is divorced and raising a 3-year-old boy, has one of them. Campus living makes her life easier (except that she has a lot of grass to mow). And she is looking forward to the time when her son is old enough to attend the academy’s preschool program.

Her break lasts from 12:10 to 1:35. During this time she drops in to see the art department’s annual exhibit and swings by the office to do some photocopying. Some days she uses this time to work one-on-one with students on specific projects. Today, as she completes paperwork in the solitude of her classroom, only a few of them pop in on her to ask brief questions.

After break, Strobridge teaches one more French class comprising only five juniors. (Six seniors are usually in the class as well, but at the academy, as in many private schools, the seniors are excused from classes during the last few weeks to work on intensive, independent projects.)

At the start, one student confesses that he doesn’t have his work. Strobridge leaves the class unattended and talks to the student out in the hall. Bits of the conversation drift into the classroom; she is concerned about his work habits. Obviously, she is not concerned about leaving her class. With only four in the room, they continue to work quietly.

The class is scheduled to last from 1:45 to 3:10. But, at 2:45, she reminds them about an upcoming quiz and lets them go. If teachers at the academy dismiss class early, the students are allowed to do whatever they want to do.

AT BEAR CREEK, BAKER’S LUNCH BREAK-- which lasts from 11:12 to 12:37--is cut short by hall duty. She rolls her eyes as she sets her stack of books on a trash can and takes her post at an intersection of hallways. Now and then, students walk by and wave pieces of paper authorizing their right of passage. “Are you official?’' she asks an emptyhanded boy.

After a while, one hallway begins to fill with students. The Bing! Bing! system is out of whack because of the assembly, and some teachers have dismissed their classes prematurely. Baker rushes to keep the growing mass from entering the main hallway until the bell rings. She puts her body in the middle of the corridor--a human barricade. A few students try to slip by her. “She can’t do anything if we all go at once,’' a tall boy with long black hair says. Although his remark is more of a tease than a threat, Baker’s color (and probably her blood pressure) rises.

The clock ticks away one slow second at a time, and still no bell. From the right and left, more students spill into the halls. “The bell should have rung by now,’' someone shouts. “Come on, Ms. Baker,’' another pleads. Just as she is about to give up, another teacher joins her. But she gives in anyway, dropping the “gate’’ her outstretched arms have made. Students rush past. “You can’t do anything about it,’' the other teacher commiserates.

Lunch is both a relief and release. Baker and several of her English department colleagues eat and crack jokes in the department workroom. Everything from Oedipus to Twinkies to exhusbands (Baker is happily married) pops up in their bright, irreverent, and sometimes hilarious banter.

After lunch, Baker is responsible for one more class. On her way back from the workroom, she picks up a form--a request for homework assignments-- that she must fill out for an absent student. Strobridge says absenteeism is rare at Colorado Academy, whereas Baker says that at least one if not two students miss each of her classes every day. Assigning, grading, and recording all the make-up work is another distracting demand on Baker’s time.

En route to her class, a student stops her to ask advice about what kind of photos he should shoot of the departing senior class. He is a special-education student who has an interest in photography. Although Baker does not have him for class, she agreed to take him on as a sort of freelance photographer for the Bear Facts. She meets with him about twice a week on his lunch hour. “That’s my lunch hour, too,’' Baker says, smiling.

By the time she gets to her room, students are already getting started. It’s her newspaper class, and like any newsroom, the place buzzes with activity. Here, Baker gets to be a facilitator. She changes hats faster than a magician could pull a rabbit out of one: photographer, editor, supplier, graphic designer, ethical adviser, judge.

A girl rushes in, waving her reporter’s notebook like a distress flag. “This is typical of the organization of this school,’' the girl complains. “There is an awards ceremony Tuesday night, but they’re not coming out with the list of people who need to be there to receive awards until Tuesday afternoon.’'

Baker just smiles and says, “This is the stuff editorials are made of.’'

Fortunately, Baker does not have to spend her time writing out hallway passes for the many students who need to come and go for interviewing and photography assignments. Her class members have laminated press passes, which they use at their discretion.

Although Baker describes this as her most tiring class, it seems to be her time to shine. When the Bing! Bing! sounds, no one jumps. Students hang around, finish their work, and chat with her about headlines and deadlines.

The room is a mess, and Baker looks tired. It’s 1:45. It feels more like 5.

BAKER HAS TAUGHT FIVE CLASSES TODAY; Strobridge three. After their last class, both teachers have the rest of the day “off.’' That means they plan for the next day, photocopy assignments, and grade papers. Today, Baker ekes out a little time to compose a letter of application for a summer journalism program she would like to attend.

Both teachers leave school as they arrived, with bags full of books and papers. Strobridge departs at 4 o’clock. Baker, who needs to drop off finished newspaper copy at a professional typesetter across town, leaves at 3:30.

LATER, AS A MERCILESSLY BRIGHT Denver sun sets, Baker and Strobridge meet for the first time to discuss their work. Both slightly embarrassed, they begin by confessing that, although they teach within two miles of each other, they have never seen the other’s school. They sound like twins, though, as they describe their reasons for teaching. Says Baker: “I truly love reading and writing. I love discussing books and abstract ideas with other people. And I thought teaching would be a wonderful way to do that.’'

But when the talk turns to the daily realities of their work, it becomes clear that they hold two very different jobs. Class size and teacher autonomy become the major themes. Strobridge sums up her situation: “The condition of my life as a teacher is so wonderful. I have four classes and an average of 12 students in each of those classes. I can do whatever I want, whenever I want. And the only question anybody asks me is: ‘How can I help you?’'

Baker sighs wistfully.

Most public school teachers believe that their private school colleagues pay the price for smaller classes in smaller paychecks. And in fact, this is often the case. But when it comes to salary, Strobridge again has the advantage over Baker. She earns $27,000 to Baker’s $24,500.

Would Strobridge ever consider teaching in a public school? Only under certain conditions, she says. The school would have to allow her the same autonomy she enjoys now--the freedom to choose textbooks, for instance--and not be “overwhelmed with bureaucracy,’' she says. “Nobody likes to do a job where the circumstances conspire to keep you from doing it the very best you can. Expecting a teacher to teach 35 kids in a composition class is as crazy as telling her to go to the North Pole and make meringues.’'

Baker admits that, from time to time, she is tempted to quit. “During the first semester, it was not uncommon to have 32 to 35 students in one class,’' she says. “There is not any way in the world to keep up with all the paperwork much less try to show that you are interested in each individual student. So you lose kids. They drop out. You know they are in trouble, but it’s impossible to reach them.’'

One of the students she is trying to reach this year is a bright 10th grader named Michael. A verbal, articulate, handsome boy, Michael has been failing classes ever since he started high school. Recently, Baker found out that his mother, a single parent, is no longer receiving child support from Michael’s father. Baker is worried that Michael will have to get a part-time job, that he’ll start cutting classes and eventually drop out.

Baker says that although her concerns about students like Michael don’t distract her while she is in class, she finds herself thinking about these kids a lot. The worries add up and rob her of energy. As she puts it: “I think about them as I’m walking down the hall. It’s something that haunts me. It makes me question my effectiveness and my purpose.’'

Strobridge doesn’t have to worry about students like Michael. “That’s not to say that we don’t have students who are struggling,’' she says. “But when a student starts cutting classes, it is a clear sign that he or she is overwhelmed or doesn’t like school.’' It is as though the child is saying, “Take me out,’' Strobridge explains. “And we always oblige.’'

Implicit in her remark is a major difference between the academy and Bear Creek. The private school chooses its students and doesn’t have to solve the problems of the Michaels. Bear Creek and Debbie Baker have no choice. They must accept and deal with the Michaels of the world. And at the same time, Baker is expected to teach literature, journalism, and parallel sentence structure to 124 other students. In the public school, the struggle to keep from losing the Michaels is sometimes so demanding that it results in the loss of the Debbie Bakers.

Baker didn’t choose her profession because she wanted to help troubled youth. Both she and Strobridge became English teachers because they love reading and writing and want to share that love with others. Clearly, circumstances make it easier for Strobridge to realize those dreams.

Has Baker ever thought about teaching in a private school? She hesitates and then says: “I’ve never thought about it before. No one I grew up with went to private schools. So I never considered it.’'

She looks at Strobridge and smiles. “But it’s sounding better and better,’' she says.

A version of this article appeared in the August 01, 1990 edition of Teacher as A Tale of Two Teachers