Montpelier: James Madison University Magazine

School Master
1998 National Teacher of the Year Phil Bigler ('74) turns history into a human experience by making his students recreate events and think and feel like people from the past.

Story by Margie Shetterly ~ Photos by Tyler Mallory

Phil Bigler Phil Bigler ('74/M.Ed. '76) just can't stand still. As he talks, his arms wave around his body like a camper swatting at a flock of mosquitos. He rocks up on the balls of his feet, grins and rocks back. His hands clutch the sides of his classroom lecture podium, and soon both podium and teacher begin to rock in time to his history lesson. His energy and passion just cannot be contained when he's teaching.

Bigler's classroom style demonstrates a joy of teaching and for history that delight and fascinate his students at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County. His technique and success have impressed colleagues for years. And the academic rigor he demanded of his students this year captivated the layers of judges and selection committees who singled him out as the best in the country.

On April 24, Bigler received the 1998 National Teacher of the Year Award from President Bill Clinton in the White House Rose Garden. On hand were Secretary of Education Richard Riley and Sen. Chuck Robb and other dignitaries.

But even in the midst of the media whirlwind that landed Bigler in major newspapers across the country, on Good Morning, America and The Late Show with David Letterman, Bigler took a moment to write a note to Sister Mary Josephine, his eighth-grade teacher at Sacred Heart School in Jacksonville, Fla. "I wanted to be sure she was aware that she is the one responsible for me being in this position," Bigler told Paul Bradley of the Richmond Times-Dispatch. "She inspired me to love learning. To follow in her footsteps and help young people in the same way I was helped is both a privilege and an honor."

One of thousands of teachers that JMU has sent into the classroom, Bigler told the Daily News-Record that it was at Madison that "I was really inspired to teach." He in turn has sent some of his students back to JMU.

As the 1998 National Teacher of the Year, Bigler will spend the coming academic year on leave from Thomas Jefferson, a highly selective school that specializes in science and technoly. He will travel the country and speak to audiences about teaching and education.

"It really is an honor to represent the teaching profession," Bigler told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. "I think teachers are the most important people in our society. My message will be that there are a lot of good things going on in public schools."

Each stage of awards selection process put his personal and professional philosophies to the test. At one point, he was asked to choose the thing most important to him as a teacher.

"Intellectual rigor," he answered. "That's why I'm in it."

While Bigler praises public education as "the hope of this nation," he bemoans an attitude that he says is permeating society. "I think people are becoming lazy," Bigler says. "Today, communication has advanced to such a degree that people can be very passive and get a high degree of sensory stimulation" through countless hours of television, computer games and surfing the Internet. "There's no academic discipline. Watching TV doesn't replace reading a book."

To counteract that trend, Bigler demands that his students get involved in their own education. His is not a lecture course; it's a group effort in which students and teacher share their research, ideas and conclusions. Far from a dry roll call of disconnected facts, Bigler's natural storytelling brings to life the people, dates and places of history and etches them in the memories of his students.

His resources are whatever he can get his hands on -- from his own encyclopedic memory to multimedia technology, computer simulations, newspapers, the Internet, guest lecturers, field trips, and books, books and more books.

Phil Bigler and President Bill Clinton In the humanities class team-taught with fellow TJ teacher Sheri Maeda, Bigler's students have conducted mock election campaigns of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, complete with posters, slogans, chants and speeches. They've debated passionately for or against women's suffrage, held mock constitutional conventions, and argued the intricacies of Constitutional law in mock trials. In each of these simulations, students were forced to research their subjects so thoroughly that they could understand not only the issues but the passions and personalities of the past. "We had to be these people," says Thomas Jefferson junior Katelyn Shearer. "We had to think like these people would have thought."

The team of Maeda and Bigler weave history with literature, architecture, science and philosophy to create a tapestry of civilization. "Everything is always connected," Shearer says.

Students examined Martin Luther King's persuasive Letter from Birmingham Jail as part of their study of the Civil Rights Movement and listened to former Washington Post Managing Editor Ben Bradlee recall his newspaper's breaking of the Watergate story. Last spring, they learned about World War II by interviewing veterans at the Soldiers/Airmen Home in Washington, D.C., and then writing and performing fictional plays based on those interviews. In the process, students understand history through the experiences of individuals, Bigler says.

"I always hated history," admits Sarah Bowman, a junior in Bigler's Humanities II class. "It was all dates, places and people. But Mr. Bigler makes it seem so personable. He makes it seem so much more real to us."

Bigler recalls a mock trial of a Supreme Court case involving drug testing in public schools that students at McLean High School conducted. "The students all of the sudden became lawyers. They found out the importance of preparation. One of the things they learn is there is always more to learn about a topic ... more books to read, more research to do."

Through such active, hands-on approaches to education, "students eventually become responsible for their own learning. If they are doing the research, they have a vested interest in it," Bigler says. "They actually take ownership of a particular issue."

So much so that his students stood on their desks and screamed during a computer simulation of the Kennedy-Nixon presidential race of 1960.

"It was emotionally draining for the kids," he says. "But those kids know the electoral college system better than most Americans do." And they and others who have taken Bigler's classes aren't likely to forget what they've learned.

"I've had kids who will come up to me years later and be able to talk to me about ancient Greece -- or the alliance structure of World War I. Or Bosnia of 1914," he says. Those students have a real grasp of the centuries' old hatred and conflict that have fueled the ongoing strife in the Balkans. "In truth I wish some of the people making policy understood that. They just don't have that historical perspective."

Bigler's sense of the importance of historical perspective was shaped, in part, by the faculty of JMU's history department in the early 1970s. "It's amazing how dedicated and enlightened [the history department faculty] were," Bigler says. "These guys taught history as something vital to your humanity."

He carries on the tradition. "History is not a predictor of the future, but it gives you a better sense of where we're going," he says.

As a humanities teacher in a competitive school that pulls the most talented science and technology students from the Northern Virginia area, Bigler finds that the value of a historical perspective is a point he must continually sell. His students are the scientists of tomorrow. But Bigler believes that their scientific and technological expertise must be balanced.

"A lot of times people do things in the scientific communities because they can, but they never ask if they should," he says. "We try to show them that what humanities gives them is judgment."

History also does a great job of showing his students both the benefits and pitfalls of technology. While technology certainly can and does benefit mankind, it also "fueled the two world wars," Bigler notes. "I've told students that they are the inheritors of Aristotle, Plato, Aquinas."

He passionately believes that it's not just important that students know and understand the past that shapes our civilization today. They also must appreciate it. "I've always believed that civilization can disappear in a generation."

A veteran teacher with two decades in public education under his belt, Bigler also served as the historian for Arlington National Cemetery from 1983 to 1985. He has four books to his credit, including In Honored Glory: Arlington National Cemetery, the Final Post, a history of the nation's most prominent cemetery; Washington in Focus: A Photographic History of the Nation's Capital; and Failing Grades: A Teacher's Report Card on American Education.

His latest book, Hostile Fire: The Life and Death of Lt. Sharon A. Lane, does what Bigler does best -- it tells a story. In this case, it's the story of the only American servicewoman to be killed in Vietnam as a direct result of enemy fire.

Bigler earned a bachelor of arts degree in history from JMU in 1974 and a master of education degree with a concentration in secondary education/history two years later. He also has a master's degree in American studies from the College of William and Mary.

With philosophical humbleness, Bigler extends his recent accolades to the thousands of other teachers in America who believe that education should be more than test scores and grades; that, instead, it should be a foundation for life. "We don't take into consideration the miracles that happen every day in public education," Bigler says.

That's true, in part, because "unfortunately, the talented teacher who is working hard doesn't make the press. I think teachers now have to be public relations experts. The schools have to take an active interest in promoting what's going on in schools today."

Phil Bigler Bigler also believes that school systems need to go beyond the basics -- outstanding supplemental reading to take students far beyond textbooks, additional art in the schools, more field trips that promote hands-on learning, and the resources to provide and maintain innovative technology in the schools.

But perhaps most importantly, Bigler says, "teachers must believe that their subject matter is important. They must love what they're doing, believe in what they're doing." If they do, that enthusiasm and desire to learn rubs off on their students.

Bigler also is passionate about the notion that learning is a lifelong quest and that teachers can gain much from the insights, observations and research of their students and by breaking free from routines. "Every day I go to class, I expect to learn something" Bigler says. "I'm a teacher-learner, not just an imparter of information."

To stay fresh, Bigler does what he believes all who are serious about learning must do: Read. "I try to devote at least one hour per night to just reading. It increases my knowledge base and makes me a better teacher."

There's nothing more frustrating for Bigler than to see teachers who have stagnated. So he is not one to shy away from new technology and innovation. His classes are known for their multimedia components, and Bigler is convinced that technology, when used creatively, can and does enhance teaching -- even when his high-tech students at TJ must bail him out of mechanical mishaps. "I can't imagine doing the same lessons year in and year out. So I am always looking for new things to try."

"I am thankful I am not the same teacher that I was in 1975 when I began," Bigler says. "The long and short of it is that I am excited by my subject and by learning. I think that is why I still love teaching."

He also is excited and optimistic about the future of public education. He calls the strides public education has made in the last 150 years "remarkable," and is convinced that "kids today have greater academic potential than 25 years ago."

But he tempers his optimism with reality. "What we have to do is make education a virtue," Bigler says. "We need to glorify our students who excel academically as much as we glorify those who excel in athletics.

"Being a teacher is a noble profession," Bigler says. His students and colleagues will tell you that in a profession of largely unrecognized heroes, Phil Bigler is nobility indeed.

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