TOPICS > Education

Teacher of the Year

May 12, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Marilyn Whirry received the national teacher of the year award at the White House yesterday. She has taught English at Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach, California, since 1967. She is also adjunct professor of education at Loyola-Marymount University in Los Angeles, and is helping develop a California state high school graduation exam. The teacher of the year is chosen by a selection committee composed of representatives from fourteen national education organizations. Thank you very much for being with us.

MARILYN WHIRRY, National Teacher of the Year: Thank you very much for everything me here this evening.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Congratulations to you.


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I have read that you are very adventurous. You sought adventure as a young college student and didn’t want to be a teacher because it would be boring. What changed your mind?

MARILYN WHIRRY: Well, perhaps I didn’t have as exciting a teacher in my youth as I wish I had. But more than that, I wanted very much to do something exotic something that was new in my field, and of course what I loved was television journalism. I had a program on Saturday mornings with my local television channel as student body president and calls would come in and I found that delightful. However, when I went to get my masters degree, and it was a scholarship, I had to teach a class in literary criticism. At first I was grumpy about it. But once I started teaching something, something magnificent happened. It was like an epiphany. I found I could relate to people; I found I could excite them and give them some joy of learning. I found they responded to me. And fortunately for me, I never left the classroom again.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Tell us how you run your classroom. By all accounts, you’re anything but boring. What do you do?

MARILYN WHIRRY: Well, I try not, because we don’t want kids to be bored. We want them to be thrilled with what they learn. I run primarily a Socratic seminar-type class but a lot of small group discussions. I very early on got rid of my desk because they prevent good thinking; they prevent good discussion in a classroom. In doing so, I was able to get some tables and some beanbag chairs and put kids in clumps of people talking about ideas, analyzing, synthesizing, developing ideas. Then we come back and we talk about them. And I question them and they question me and they question each other. And I hope in this environment kids and students of all ages begin to love to learn.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Is that your main goal? Teaching the children to love to learn? Or do you have goals about their broader life, too, and if so, what are they?

MARILYN WHIRRY: Much so. Well, I have four ideals that I talk to my students about and try to portray in my own life. First of all I want my students to love to learn. I want them to leave my class with the idea that their learning is just beginning, and because it’s been so exciting, so wonderful, it will continue. But I also want my students in my classroom to develop a passion, a passion for learning which is so important, but a passion for living. And so frequently, in this time of and place, our students don’t have that passion for very much. And we have to help them develop it so they see the wonder of a new idea or the excitement of a new book, or the excitement of making a choice in life.

Then I want my students to be compassionate. I want them to understand through literature and through life that there is another world out there, a world of pain and suffering and we must be attuned to it and we must do our best all through our lives to help those less fortunate than we are. And finally, I would like to see my students become committed individuals, committed to the idea that I can make the world a better place in my lifetime and I will work every day to do so. If just some of my students gather together these ideas, I feel that I’ve succeeded.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You’ve had a bad brush with cancer and you, as I understand it, kept teaching right through it, lost your hair, got help from your students. Were you trying to teach them something important by staying at the job and letting them see what you went through?

MARILYN WHIRRY: I think I was trying to teach my students something about who I am and how I feel about life. I was also teaching myself something. I was also teaching myself that one needs to be strong, one needs to be committed, one needs to follow through. And in so doing, it made the process of recovery much, much easier.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Ms. Whirry, what is your favorite book or novel or poem to teach? You’re teaching advanced placement.

MARILYN WHIRRY: It’s usually the book I’m teaching that is my favorite. I just finished "Song of Solomon" by Toni Morrison. That’s a wonderful piece of literature to teach kids in their senior year because it talks about a young man who finds himself in a novel, understands his heritage, understands who he is and understands that he… Once he discovers this and can lead his life fully, he can fly. And I would like to teach each one of my students how to fly.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You’re freed from teaching responsibilities for a year as part of this award. As I understand it, you become an advocate for the teaching profession. What will you…what will your main message be?

MARILYN WHIRRY: Well, I’m still putting that all together. But I think my message is going to be one that is important to everybody. And that’s that each child can learn and develop and grow. We must teach each child equally and well. To do that we need wonderful new teachers in our classrooms. We need teachers who are well educated, teachers who are devoted to children. And then once we get them into our classroom, these bright, young energetic people, we need to work with them. We don’t want to lose them. We want to keep them through the first years of the education and we want to give them professional development. We want to mentor them and we want to hold on to them and treasure them because they’re our hope for the kids.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How do you do that? I was going to ask you exactly that so many young teachers in the community I live in stay for a couple of years that they just can’t make enough money and they leave.

MARILYN WHIRRY: That’s one thing we have to address, the monetary value of a teacher. If people don’t respect our profession, it’s primarily because we’re not paid well. I think we have to work for this. Secretary Riley has a wonderful idea about a year-round profession that would raise our salaries and give us time for professional development in the 11th month, and to continue work on curriculum. It would make us better teachers. And an idea like that could be very, very workable in our schools.


MARILYN WHIRRY: That’s okay.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What about teacher testing and accountability of teachers? What do you think should be done there?

MARILYN WHIRRY: I think I’m very accountable as a teacher. I should be accountable. I have those kids in front of me every day. If I don’t teach them to grow, to know, to read, to write, to become better people, I’m failing. I’m an AP teacher, so I am evaluated and accountable each your when my students take the final exam and try their best to do well. And if they didn’t do well, I’m sure would I not be teaching this class. So I think we need that accountability. How it’s done is going to be very, very important. For example, if you give a teacher’s students a pre-test in September and post-test in may, you have a good gauge as to whether that teacher has taught anything.

But just to give that final test alone doesn’t hold the teacher accountable because we don’t know where the children were to begin with. So there’s a difficult process to work out. Yes I think we should all be accountable for what we do. And as for testing, every other profession takes a test. I think we should be proud to take that test. And should a teacher be asked to pass a basic skills test? Yes. Of course we should.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Marilyn Whirry, congratulations and thanks for being with us.

MARILYN WHIRRY: Thank you so much for having me; it’s a pleasure