Virginia History Teacher Named Teacher of the Year
AHA Staff, September 1998
Philip Bigler, a history teacher at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County, Virginia, was honored as the 1998 Teacher of the Year. In a ceremony at the White House on April 24, 1998, President Clinton presented Bigler with the award, cosponsored by the Council of Chief State School Officers and Scholastic magazine.
Bigler's success in the classroom, and his popularity with his students, stems from his use of dramatizations and other forms of interactive learning to drive home history lessons. Under his direction, Bigler's students have acted out everything from a pilgrimage to Mecca to a computer-simulated campaign of the 1960 presidential election. These exercises require a great deal of preparation by the students, who, in addition to textbooks, use many of the primary resources now available on the Internet. Bigler stresses research and reading in his curriculum; he emphasizes to his students that "books are to historians what test tubes are to scientists." The success of his teaching technique led President Clinton to declare his classroom "a virtual time machine."
Bigler's favorite period to teach is the Civil Rights era and Vietnam. He regrets that the post–World War II period is often lost in a chronology-based curriculum, and has thus reversed his curriculum so that his students study this period first. "We begin by analyzing Martin Luther King's Letter from a Birmingham Jail. It starts the class off in a very exciting way." He regularly invites guest speakers to visit his class; for the unit on Vietnam, Everett Alvarez Jr., the longest-held prisoner of the war, spoke to the class about his experiences. "My students are a full generation removed from the Vietnam War," said Bigler. "Speakers like this make it a very real and personal lesson for them."
As the Teacher of the Year, Bigler will spend the 1998–99 academic year traveling as an ambassador for the profession. On the road more than 200 days, he has stops planned across the country, as well as in Germany and Japan. His main agenda points are promoting technology in the classroom and the need to recruit new teachers for elementary and secondary education. "Two million teachers will leave or retire in the next ten years," he said. He stressed the need to recruit and train competent replacements.
Asked if he would recommend history as a college major for his students, Bigler responded with an enthusiastic and emphatic "absolutely." "There is no better major than history. It teaches you to be a better thinker, writer, and researcher—all of which are skills that any employer in any field will look for."
His only regret on his award is being away from the classroom for a year. "It was a very poignant last three weeks of school," he said, "especially for the students who will be seniors next year, who have been in my class for two years." Though he is looking forward to his experiences of the coming year, he is already anticipating his return to the classroom in fall 1999. "I love teaching, and I hate to be away from it."