Teacher of the year's lesson goals include making a difference in students' lives

April 30, 1995|By Tanya Jones | Tanya Jones,Sun Staff Writer

J. Patrick Whitehurst has wanted to be a teacher ever since he stopped wanting to be a firefighter, and a year as a drugstore manager helped strengthen his resolve.

Thursday, the 37-year-old Bel Air High School social studies teacher was named the best teacher in Harford County.

Mr. Whitehurst has spent his entire teaching career in Harford County schools. He started teaching at Edgewood High School in 1980 but was laid off after his second year because of budget cuts. He spent the next year as assistant manager for a drugstore.

"That was a real impact on my life," he said. "Not being able to teach for a year made me realize how much I wanted to teach."

He was hired back at Edgewood the next school year, and in 1988 went to Bel Air, his alma mater. His father, James Whitehurst, taught there for 31 years. Mr. Whitehurst credits his father with helping to make him a successful teacher.

"My father basically taught me what it was like to be a teacher," Mr. Whitehurst said. "He instilled in me the love for kids, that it isn't the money, it's the making a difference."

And Mr. Whitehurst goes to creative lengths to make a difference.

He is known for dressing like a military dictator, complete with fatigues and fake weapons, and teaching class in character. County officials often recognize Mr. Whitehurst's students at council and board meetings, which he encourages and sometimes requires them to attend.

"I really believe that young people need to participate, to be actively involved," he said. "I honestly believe that what they read in the textbook, they are not going to remember."

The method works for Angie Neeper, an 18-year-old senior in Mr. Whitehurst's American Government class.

"Everyday it's something different," she said. "It's never dull or boring."

Ms. Neeper and her parents, both of whom are Harford County teachers, nominated Mr. Whitehurst for the award.

Though Mr. Whitehurst is known for some outrageous teaching methods, he seemed subdued and humbled by Thursday's award and the standing ovations and prizes that went with it.

"I'm a little overwhelmed," he said as he stepped to the podium in a banquet room at the Bayou Restaurant in Havre de Grace. "I guess I'm not all that good a teacher because I didn't have anything prepared."

But like a good teacher, he improvised.

"I think the other nine teachers in this room . . . are indications of the quality of the teachers we have in Harford County," he said in slow, measured words, referring to the nine other finalists. "I'm not trying to say the right things. I truly believe that."

Mr. Whitehurst is now entered in the Maryland Teacher of the Year competition. The winner will be announced in September.

In Harford County, a committee of students, current and former teachers and citizens selected and ranked 10 finalists from 26 teachers nominated for the award.

At Thursday's banquet, each of the 10 finalists were introduced by one of their students. For Mr. Whitehurst and the other finalists, having the students make the introductions was more important than being able to drive a new Buick for a year, or receiving any of the other prizes county businesses donated.

"To be considered by students to be a good teacher is all that I think any teacher ever really wants," he said. "All this other stuff is really nice, but that's not what makes a teacher good."

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