When Kevin Bartram first taught orchestra in public high schools, he was “obsessed” with the prestige of his program.
“I used to have a tremendous high school program. It was nationally recognized and I was pretty obsessed about that,” Bartram said.
Then he took 20 years off from K–12 education. During that gap, he taught music at the college level and completed a book he’d been working on since 2004—”Great Teachers: Exploring Excellence in Education.”
The book profiles eight of the country’s best teachers, including national teachers of the year across a variety of subjects and instructors who are no longer living, such as composer Leonard Bernstein and NASA Teacher in Space Christa McAuliffe.
Bartram went into the classrooms and into the heads of his subjects to determine how they applied the strategies that made them successful and inspirational educators.
“I can tell you, there’s a lot of great things happening in the public schools,” he said. “I want this book to open the classroom door to see what’s really going on.”
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After he finished writing the book, which was published this spring, Bartram returned to K–12 public education as an orchestra teacher at Walker-Grant Middle School and James Monroe High School in Fredericksburg—and he found that he was no longer focused on the prestige of his program.
“The obsession now is just in making contact with the kids and reaching them and making it about them and not me, and having fun, and laughing,” Bartram said.
“The kids are in real need of developing trust with adults,” he continued. “Perhaps because of [COVID-19], I’m not sure—but it became my central mission this year as a teacher, having written this book, to develop a bond and a trust with the kids. And once that’s established, we can get to work on teaching content.”
Bartram began research for the book in 2004 when he reached out to coach and special education teacher John Passarini, the 2003 Disney National Teacher of the Year.
“He sent me a whole series of tapes of him teaching,” Bartram said. “I sat down and I watched.”
Wherever possible, Bartram did similar first-person research for his subjects.
“It was months of research for just one teacher,” he said.
Each of the chapters was peer-reviewed by another educator, Bartram said. When he started, his goal was for the book to be a professional development tool for teachers and administrators, but it evolved into more than that.
“It became a call to arms for the education system,” he said.
“People have a misconception about teachers,” he continued. “We need to understand that teachers are degreed professionals doing a job that’s harder than the fates should allow, in a situation that is frankly hostile and steeped with mistrust from the public.”
Bartram—who in addition to teaching directs the semi-professional Fredericksburg Symphony, which just completed its inaugural year—said that in his one year back in public education, he witnessed his coworkers “doing heroic work.”
“It’s hard, hard work,” he said. “I can tell you that it’s harder—many degrees harder—than working at the college level was for me. And yet, it’s also more rewarding.”
Bartram hopes the book will energize educators and inspire them to advocate for themselves.
“Part of the problem is that teachers are too humble about what they do,” he said. “What’s really happening, if you want to be truly honest about it, is that these individuals in the classroom are making all the difference. And when they’re good, they have an ability to do more good with the kids than just about anybody else, especially at the public school level.”
“That needs to be recognized, and it needs to be recognized by teachers themselves,” Bartram continued.
Read more about “Great Teachers” and order at kevinpbartram.com.
Adele Uphaus-Conner: 540/735-1973