Dynamo Brought IB and Rigor To All Students

Teacher Bernie Glaze saw the hidden potential in C students.
Teacher Bernie Glaze saw the hidden potential in C students. (Family Photo - Family Photo)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Jay Mathews
Monday, December 8, 2008

The first story Bernie Glaze ever told me was about Kevin and Duc, two basketball-crazed teens who felt her Theory of Knowledge class at Mount Vernon High School was not their thing. All that talk of Kant and Aristotle and other dead guys with no jump shot made their brains hurt, they told her.

But one day she heard them talking about an NBA playoff game. They were interpreting, predicting, differentiating and synthesizing. Ha! She had them. "Listen to yourselves," she said. "Your brains know what to do. Just treat Plato as though he were Michael Jordan."

Bernie died Nov. 20 of complications from lung cancer. She was 62. Some people might remember her as the talkative woman who unaccountably left the faculty of the celebrated Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, with its 7 percent annual bonus for all teachers, to help start an International Baccalaureate program at Mount Vernon High in Fairfax County, then considered one of the worst schools in Northern Virginia. I remember her as the dynamo who helped turn Fairfax, known for gifted education and science prodigies, into a national model for teachers, like her, who preferred to spend their days looking for the hidden potential in C students.

Bernadette Marie Mulholland grew up in New Jersey as the oldest of four children. At Bernie's memorial service last month, Bill Mulholland pointed out that she and he were "double cousins" -- their fathers were brothers, and their mothers were sisters. She loved family, and family stories.

That is not so surprising. Like other successful teachers I have met, Bernie had a talent for turning her classroom into a home. When Mount Vernon started IB, thought by some to have little chance of helping the school's many underperforming, impoverished students, Bernie talked the custodian into providing rugs, bookshelves, an old sofa, an easy chair and a table for the back of her classroom. Her History of the Americas students found a cozy nook with a coffeepot, a hot-water pot, hot chocolate, bread, peanut butter and jelly.

As they got to know Bernie, they grew more comfortable with the class and her persistent questions. But progress was slow, and it was very hard for her. She did not realize how much strain she was under until the afternoon when Principal Calanthia Tucker stopped Bernie, trudging to the school parking lot loaded with papers, to tell her "how blessed we are to have you here." Once Bernie got to her car, she burst into tears.

IB is all about writing, and that was Bernie's specialty. She taught writing education at George Mason University and was co-director of the Northern Virginia Writing Project. I said a few words at her memorial service, knowing she would shake her head at my repetitions and awkward phrases. She would have told me, as she told her students, to rewrite, and rewrite again. She got each student involved in reading classmates' stuff, as a close family would do.

As Mount Vernon's IB program grew and prospered, Bernie was persuaded to leave the classroom to coordinate all IB and Advanced Placement programs in the county. That forced her to deal with me and my high school ranking system, the Challenge Index, the latest version of which will appear Thursday in The Post's Extra sections. I measured schools by how many AP or IB tests they gave, not how good their scores were. That was controversial. Like many educators, Bernie was not sure she wanted each of the county's complex, diverse high schools summed up with one number. But she embraced the idea of moving away from judging schools by test score averages -- which really meant ranking them by parental income -- and instead calculating how much depth and rigor students were getting in courses.

She helped Fairfax become one of the first large districts in the country to open AP, IB and honors courses to any student who wanted to enroll. She amazed me by doing something I, the professional writer, had not been able to do. She summed up Fairfax's new policy, and the central idea of my list, in one declarative sentence: "It is better to get a C in a course that challenges you than an A in a course that doesn't."

Bernie's family understands that. Her husband, John Glaze, still teaches math at West Potomac High School. Their son, Chris, is a postdoctoral researcher in neuroscience, and their daughter-in-law, Violet, is a freelance writer and film critic. Grandson Linus, 18 months old, a lively presence at the memorial service reception, is on his way to a rich and challenging life.

Bernie was one of the most insightful and influential educators I have ever met. Henceforth, when I am asked what qualities my high school list measures, I have a good answer. Schools that rate high on the list have many administrators and teachers like Bernie Glaze. Schools that do not should try to get more like her.

E-mail: mathewsj@washpost.com

© 2008 The Washington Post Company