Mr. Bigler's Big Adventure

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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.

Vol. 10, Issue 3, Pages 30-35

Published in Print: September 1, 1998, as Mr. Bigler's Big Adventure
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