Mr. Bigler’s Big Adventure

By David Hill — September 01, 1998 14 min read
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Armed with media savvy and a wrinkle-proof blazer, Philip Bigler is traveling the country and talking up education.

Last April, shortly after he was named national teacher of the year, Philip Bigler got a call from Jon Quam, who runs the prestigious award program for the Council of Chief State School Officers and Scholastic Inc. A producer for the Late Show With David Letterman had called Quam to see if Bigler would like to be on the program. Letterman, it seemed, had seen the 46-year-old high school history teacher on Good Morning America and was impressed. “That’s the kind of person I want on the show,” he reportedly told his staff. “Get in touch with him.”

Bigler, who teaches at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, a magnet school in Fairfax, Virginia, was already well-versed in the ways of the media. It all began on April 24, when he was honored by President Clinton at a White House ceremony. In quick succession, he was interviewed by CNN, National Public Radio, the Christian Science Monitor, and a handful of local radio and television stations, in addition to Good Morning America. “Being on television wasn’t a completely foreign experience for me,” says the teacher, who once appeared on Nightline, back when he took a two-year break from teaching to serve as historian at Arlington National Cemetery.

But this time, Bigler was wary. “Doing an entertainment show is different from doing a news show,” he says. Besides, this was David Letterman, who isn’t exactly known for his warmth and kindness. “I didn’t want to be made fun of,” Bigler says, “especially on national television. I mean, I have a sense of humor and all, but if you get made fun of as national teacher, it could reflect badly on the profession.”

“There was a certain apprehension,” admits Quam, a polished administrator who has run the national teacher of the year program for 10 years. “But the more I talked to Letterman’s people, the more comfortable I was.” The talk show host, Quam was told, liked teachers, and he had no intention of embarrassing Bigler.

So on the afternoon of May 6, Bigler and Quam took the Delta Shuttle from National Airport in Washington, D.C., to New York’s La Guardia, where they were greeted by a Late Show limousine. The driver took them to the Rihga Royal Hotel, a few blocks from the Ed Sullivan Theater, where the program is taped each afternoon for broadcast later that night. “They put us up in a suite for two hours,” Bigler recalls. “I remember thinking, Two weeks ago I could not get a ticket to this show if I had tried, and now I’m being wined and dined.”

The hotel room was nice, but Bigler-a passionate historian who has written four books-had other ideas. “I walked down to Central Park to look at the statue of William Tecumseh Sherman by Augustus Saint-Gaudens,” he says. “Then I came back to the hotel and sat around until it was time to go to the studio.” By limousine, of course. “We pulled up in front of the theater, and all these people were standing next to the barricades waiting for the limousines. And when we got there, everyone got excited. And then I got out, and they looked at me like, ‘Who’s this guy?’”

Once inside the studio, Bigler met the other guests, actress Sally Field and singer Lyle Lovett. Field, in particular, “couldn’t have been more charming,” Bigler reports. The teacher was slated to appear after the actress, so he waited nervously in his dressing room while she went on the air and gamely agreed to try a wacky version of “spin art” that involved spitting paint onto a revolving easel. “Then it was my turn,” Bigler says.

“Our next guest,” Letterman said by way of introduction, “has one of the hardest, most important jobs in the world. He is a high school teacher, and apparently quite a good one, since he was recently named the national teacher of the year. Please welcome Philip Bigler.”

The band struck up “To Sir, With Love,” and Bigler, wearing his best khaki slacks, blue blazer, and blue tie, made his way to Dave’s desk. Letterman put him at ease immediately. “I have a lot of admiration and a lot of respect for you,” he said. “It’s guys like you that make me just feel ridiculous, because you’re out there doing meaningful stuff. And here I am inviting people to spit.”

The national teacher of the year is expected to be a sort of roving ambassador for the teaching profession, and Bigler has fulfilled his duties without complaint.

Bigler, poised and articulate, told Letterman that he planned to spend the year “talking about the good news in education.” He defended the state of American education, saying, “We’re being defined by two or three wackos out there. To be a teacher, you have to be optimistic, and I think our country has a good future ahead of it.” He even cracked a few jokes, to the audience’s delight.

And then, before he knew it, it was all over. “And quite frankly, Letterman was tremendous,"Bigler says. “He was very nice and gracious.”

Bigler got back to Virginia in time to watch the program with his wife, Linda, who teaches Spanish at Thomas Jefferson. “After I had been on,” he says, “Letterman said something to Paul Shaffer that was so cool. And it wasn’t about me, but about teachers. Here’s David Letterman, who has wealth and fame, saying, ‘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.’ And I thought, That’s so true. And now I’m a big Letterman fan. It was fantastic for him to have said that. I’m really glad I did the show.”

Four months after his Late Show appearance, Philip Bigler is at National Airport again, this time to catch a flight to Birmingham, Alabama. He’s been asked to speak to the faculty of the Altamont School, a private academy, about using technology in the classroom, one of Bigler’s specialties. He’ll spend the night in a hotel, visit the school in the morning, and then return to Washington in the afternoon.

It’s been a busy summer. The national teacher of the year is expected to be a sort of roving ambassador for the teaching profession, and Bigler has fulfilled his duties without complaint. He braved stifling heat and humidity to speak to members of the National Education Association at their July conference in New Orleans. He traveled to Mississippi to meet with mid-career teachers in need of a recharge. He attended International Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama, with all the state teachers of the year. He’s already flown more than 30,000 miles, and with school just starting up again, his schedule is getting even more crowded.

“It’s been a whirlwind of activity,” says Bigler as he settles into his seat on a 50-passenger US Airways jet. “Time is really flying by.”

A short man with thinning hair, glasses, and round features, Bigler is wearing a blue wrinkle-proof blazer he bought shortly after he became the nation’s top teacher. “You can fold it and do all sorts of things with it and still have it come out looking nice,” he says. “And it’s done well so far.” His shirt is a button-down oxford cloth with blue and white pinstripes, and his tie is maroon silk decorated with American eagles. “I always wear historical ties,” he says. “This one has the Federalist eagle from the early days of the republic.”

Like all national teachers of the year since 1980, Bigler has been released-with pay-from his teaching duties. “That’s hard,” he says. “It’s the first time in 14 years that I haven’t been in the classroom, and I do miss my students. But I also believe that if you don’t miss the kids and you don’t miss what you’re doing, then you probably shouldn’t be in the position that you’re in anyway.”

Then there’s the travel. According to Jon Quam, the national teacher of the year attends an average of 150 events during a yearlong stint. Quam, who handles the scheduling from his office in Washington, D.C., tries to make sure the honoree doesn’t get overbooked. “We have to turn down two of every three requests,” he says. But the schedule is still pretty daunting. Sandra McBrayer, the 1994 winner, spent more than 300 days on the road.

“I like traveling,” Bigler insists. “My father was in the military when I was a kid, and we did a lot of traveling by car around the country, so I’m revisiting some places that I haven’t been to in a long time.” But he adds, “It does place a strain on your family because you’re away all the time. I’m fortunate to have a supportive spouse. And we don’t have any children, so that makes it easier for me.”

“It gets a little lonely,” says his wife, Linda. “The term ‘quality time’ has taken on new meaning. Phil’s mostly living out of a suitcase. He’s gone more often than he’s home. But it’s working out. E-mail has created a new kind of bond.” She adds: “I don’t mean to gush, but he really deserves this. He’s a great teacher.”

The competition is not, and has never been, a Miss America contest for teachers.

For Bigler, the ride actually began several years ago, when he was teaching history at McLean High School, in Fairfax County, just outside of Washington. The school, he says, was “a wonderful place with a wonderful mission.” Every year, the faculty votes on who will be the school’s teacher of the year, and in 1996, Bigler was tapped. “It was the highest honor that my peers had ever paid me,” he says. In addition, he was twice honored by the students as the school’s most influential teacher. “And I was pretty much content at that point. But then I found out that there was a county process, as well.”

Meanwhile, McLean’s principal, Elizabeth Lodal, retired, and Bigler decided to take a teaching position at Thomas Jefferson. Because of the job switch, he offered to withdraw from Fairfax County’s teacher of the year contest, but his new principal, Geoff Jones, wanted him to stay in. Good thing, too, because Bigler won that honor, and he went on to become Virginia’s 1998 teacher of the year, which automatically entered him in the national contest.

Bigler and three other finalists were selected by a committee of representatives from 14 leading education organizations, including the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, the National School Boards Association, and the National Association of Secondary School Principals. The finalists submit lengthy applications and then meet with the committee for what one of the members calls “the inquisition,” a two-day grilling that includes a mock televised press conference.

“The committee,” Quam says, “wants to get an idea of their public speaking abilities, their ability to communicate through the media, their ability to answer tough questions, their ability to sit through yet another chicken dinner and talk chit-chat and understand that it’s part of the job.” He adds: “What the committee is looking for is a national spokesperson, a representative for the media. What develops [during the selection process] is a consensus of what kind of person needs to be talking about education at this point in time. I firmly believe that you could take four finalists from any year and in another year, the final decision could be different.”

Unlike winners of some other teacher-recognition programs, such as the Milken National Educator Awards and Disney’s American Teacher Awards, the national teacher of the year receives no prize money. However, all travel expenses are paid for by the program, and the winner may accept honoraria for speaking engagements.

The contest, Quam says, was dreamed up in the late 1940s by the chairman of the Sears Foundation and the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers. “They didn’t think the teaching profession was perceived by the public as it should be,” he says. “And so they conceived of the idea of recognizing excellent teachers to demonstrate that this is what great people are doing in the classrooms every day, and you should know about it.” The award was first given out in 1952, to Geraldine Jones, a 28-year-old 1st grade teacher from Santa Barbara, California. She was honored at the White House, and a picture of her with President Truman appeared in the New York Times.

Quam insists that the competition is not, and has never been, a Miss America contest for teachers, although he doesn’t entirely dismiss the analogy. “I’m not saying Phil’s figure is bad,” he jokes, “but I don’t want to see him in a bathing suit. Seriously, look at what the program does. If it helps the vision of education, then it’s doing a good job. And I’d say the same thing about Miss America. I mean, you have a public figure who is talking on a national level about child abuse or AIDS or whatever, and it doesn’t matter that they started down a runway in a bathing suit. That’s only for the contest.”

The comparison to the Miss America contest gets made, Bigler says, “only because there’s a selection process. But it’s certainly not a beauty contest. The analogy doesn’t hold up when you look at the caliber of all the state teachers. They’re strong, dynamic, powerful, charismatic people. Besides, for most of us, it isn’t a solicited honor.”

Unlike winners of some other teacher-recognition programs the national teacher of the year receives no prize money.

Now that he’s got the job, however, he wants people to know that “it’s a celebration of the teaching profession, not a celebration of Phil Bigler. I’m the designated spokesman for our profession, and it’s a huge responsibility to be representing three and a half million teachers.”

A.t the airport in Birmingham, Bigler is greeted by Casey Adams, the Altamont School’s technology coordinator. He’s heard about Bigler’s enthusiasm for using technology in the classroom, and he’s hoping that some of it will rub off on the prep school’s teachers, some of whom view computers with suspicion. “What we were looking for,” he says, “was a motivational speaker who could give our teachers some new ideas.”

Adams, a 35-year-old native of Birmingham, loads Bigler’s bags into the back of his Ford Explorer and drives the teacher to a Courtyard by Marriott hotel on the outskirts of downtown. It’s 3 p.m. on a steamy September day. Adams promises to return in three hours to take Bigler out to dinner with several other faculty members. Bigler, gracious as ever, thanks his host for giving him the opportunity to come to Birmingham and then retreats to his room, where he plugs in his Dell Latitude laptop computer and logs onto America Online. There’s a message waiting from one of his students, a senior who has some questions about college recommendations. Bigler has a brief online conversation with the student and then spends some time going over the next day’s presentation. He also checks his upcoming schedule, which includes back-to-back trips to Germany and Japan.

At the appointed time, Adams, accompanied by his wife, Amy, returns for Bigler. It’s a short drive to the Highlands Bar and Grill, one of Birmingham’s best restaurants. There, Bigler, seated at the head of the table, nibbles at beef tenderloin and gamely answers questions from Adams and the other faculty members. What’s his school like? Why did he become a teacher? What was it like being a guest on the Letterman show? It’s clear that Bigler, a world-class conversationalist, enjoys this part of the job. Naturally curious, he asks as many questions as he answers.

After dinner, Adams gives Bigler a quick nighttime tour of Birmingham before dropping him off at the hotel.

The next morning, Adams picks up his guest and takes him to the Altamont School, which sits on a hilltop overlooking the city. Most of the school’s 35 faculty members are waiting in the library, eating bagels and drinking coffee, when Bigler arrives. Introductions are made, and several teachers gather around their guest and begin asking questions.

“Are you still teaching?” one teacher wants to know.

“Not in the classroom,” Bigler answers.

“But you’re teaching us now,” another faculty member interjects.

Someone asks him about his stint at Arlington Cemetery.

“It was a great job,” he says, “but I missed teaching.”

Eventually, Bigler begins his presentation, which lasts about 45 minutes. Using a computer and a projection screen, he paces back and forth while expounding on the power-and the limits-of using technology in the classroom. The pictures-a photograph of Bloody Lane at Antietam National Battlefield and a painting of Prometheus, among others-are interesting, but Bigler’s words are the main event. He’s a brilliant lecturer, moving effortlessly from one topic to another. People who know Bigler generally use the word “passionate” to describe him, and that passion comes through loud and clear this morning, whether he’s talking about the Civil War, the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, or H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds.

One of his-and his students'-favorite lessons is on the 1960 presidential election. For that, he uses a 1984 computer simulation game that has long been out of production. “It’s probably the most exciting thing I do in the classroom,” Bigler tells the teachers. “The game was never intended for classroom use, but you cannot imagine how excited the kids get when they do this.” He is waging a one-man campaign to get the software company, Strategic Simulations Inc., to either republish the game or sell the copyright to Scholastic.

A version of this article appeared in the August 01, 1998 edition of Teacher as Mr. Bigler’s Big Adventure


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