As a former teacher, Miss America prizes character education.
When Angela Perez Baraquio won the title of Miss America 2001 last fall, she impressed the judges with her talent (hula), her swimsuit (a yellow bikini), and, not least of all, the articulate way she discussed her platform, the cause she would promote if she won the pageant. It’s no wonder: Baraquio didn’t just support the idea of “Character in the Classroom: Teaching Values, Valuing Teachers”—she’d lived it. The 24-year-old had led her own 2nd grade classroom while earning a bachelor’s degree in elementary education at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, then worked as a phys ed teacher and the athletic director at Holy Family Catholic Academy in Honolulu.
Baraquio, the first teacher ever to win the Miss America pageant, now travels approximately 20,000 miles a month, speaking to schools, associations, and policymakers about character education and teacher empowerment.
We recently spoke with Baraquio about her vision for the nation’s schools and what she plans to do after she passes the torch—uh, crown—to the next Miss America on September 22.
Q: What inspired you to become a teacher?
A: I think the first time I ever thought about becoming a teacher was when I was in 2nd grade. I had a teacher named Miss Rudin, and I thought she was my best friend. I come from a big family—nine brothers and sisters—and I guess when you’re always fighting for attention at home and your teacher pays you all this attention—to me, she treated me so special. As a senior in high school, I volunteered [teaching sports] at several different schools, and I realized that teaching was my passion.
Q: Your platform promotes “teaching values” in schools. What kinds of values?
A: Concepts that are universal and transcend religious differences, gender, socioeconomic status, political affiliation. So, for instance: respect, integrity, perseverance, courage, honesty.
Q: How do you respond to those who argue that teachers should teach skills and content and leave character education to parents?
A: I think teachers are already doing it. What we need to do is have a formal approach. I don’t know any parent who would say, “How dare you teach my kid about respect and integrity.” If the students are not getting lessons about respect and responsibility and character at home, then they should be getting it at school. If they are getting it at home, then it should be reinforced.
Q: Are there any particular character education programs you endorse?
A: I don’t condone just one. I say whatever is good for your local community because it has to be the values that you deem important. But for me personally, I like a program called Tribes that I was trained in when I was getting my education degree. [In a Tribes classroom] there are four community agreements. The first one is mutual respect—you respect yourself, others, and the world around you. The second one is attentive listening—we listen with our eyes, ears, heart, and our whole body. The third one is the right to pass. You don’t have the right to pass on tests and homework, but you do have the right to pass on emotional questions like, “How are you feeling today?” or “Do you want to talk about it?” The last one is no put-downs. Character education is not just saying, “OK, ‘respect’ is the word of the month.” It has to be an everyday process, where, number one, the kids feel included and respected.
Q: What’s your message about “valuing teachers”?
A: My bone to pick is that we say teachers are so important. We say education is important. It’s at the forefront of our president’s agenda. But we’re trying to provide for our children’s education on the cheap. We’re not really putting our money where our hearts are. Teachers need more support, more respect, more money. [An audience in] North Dakota asked me, “Miss America, would you like to be a teacher here?” and I had to very shyly say, “No.” They said, “Why?” And I said, “Your 8th graders are ranked number one in mathematics, and your teachers are one of the lowest-paid in the nation.” Starting pay is just horrendous. Their teachers could cross the border, make $11,000 more, but they stay because of the kids.
Q: Why do you think teachers are so undervalued?
A: I’ve talked to cops; I’ve talked to governors. People don’t understand what teachers do. When I taught [2nd grade], I had just 18 students. They affected me, no matter where I was, all the time, especially the kids who had problems at home. You take your work home with you every day.
Q: You’ve visited schools all across the United States in your travels this year. Have you found you’ve had much in common with teachers in other parts of the country?
A: What I find is the kids are all the same, and teachers go into the profession for one reason— to make a difference in the lives of children. I do see a lot of burnout of teachers. You probably know the statistics that a new teacher will probably leave in the first three years because the rewards just don’t outweigh the challenges. So there are a lot of good similarities, and there are a lot of negative similarities.
Q: As Miss America, are you taken seriously when you talk about important issues?
A: When I come to appearances, I always wear a business suit. I never wear the crown. What separates us from other pageants is the fact that we are a scholarship program, the largest scholarship provider for women in the world. You don’t win furs and jewels and cars. I won $50,000 in cash grants, and I can only use it toward education, otherwise I can’t use it at all. So when people hear about that, and they hear about my background as a teacher, there are a lot of stereotypes I’m able to overcome. But then after I get all through the serious issues, they’ll say, “So, tell us about the crown.”
Q: Will you go back into teaching after your year as Miss America is over?
A: People always ask me, “Do you miss teaching?” I say: “What do you mean? I’m still teaching! I just have a bigger classroom now.” I want to continue speaking on the motivational speaking circuit until the offers and the opportunities stop. After that, going back into the classroom—I would love to teach. I just don’t want to do it for [so little] money. I want to get my master’s in education administration and become a superintendent one day.
Q: Would you say that teaching was good preparation for serving as Miss America?
A: I don’t know how anyone can do this without having teaching experience. It prepares you for anything in life.