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Dear Teacher: Here's what I really think of what you do

[Times photo: Janel Schroeder]
Samantha Cook's personal teacher of the year is Bruce Blubaum, because of the way he guided her through her math travails. "Mr. Blubaum did something to math that no other teacher in the school can do. He made it interesting and easy for me," she wrote.

An English assignment for seniors asks them to write about favorite teachers, with some touching and inspiring results.

By MICHELE MILLER

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 3, 2000


For Samantha Cook, math was a subject to be contended with throughout her four years in high school. "I was really, really bad at math," said the Ridgewood senior, "I just couldn't grasp the concepts."

Even so, the man who taught her Algebra II and helped her land a coveted "C" in precalculus has earned the honor of being named her favorite teacher.

"Math is not only my worst subject but it is by far my least favorite," wrote Samantha in a recent letter to her teacher. "But Mr. Blubaum did something to math that no other teacher in the school can do. He made it interesting and easy for me."

It was an English assignment that had Samantha and some 200 other graduating seniors writing to or about their favorite teachers. English department head Bob Selfe said he started the letter-writing tradition at Ridgewood 10 years ago as a way to get some insight into just who he should cast his vote for as Teacher of the Year.

"Every year we're (the teachers) supposed to vote for who we think is the Teacher of the Year," Selfe said. "But how are we supposed to know who the best teacher is if we've never sat in their class?"

Selfe said he decided to go to those who would know best and came upon the idea of an end-of-year letter, a parting shot that now serves a dual purpose.

Last week Selfe collected and tallied all the letters to find out who he would be voting for.

This week, after final grades have been posted (to avoid any "last minute kissing up," Selfe said) roughly 80 teachers will have a chance to read for themselves just how they affected some of their students.

The letters go a long way in building teachers' self-esteem, Selfe said.

"It's the end of the year, and teachers are often wondering, "Why am I doing this? Nobody appreciates me; nobody listens,' " he said.

"Then they get this letter and they say, "Somebody did listen.' It makes it worthwhile. Only one teacher can be voted Teacher of the Year by their peers, but to some kid in the school you were their teacher of the year for four years."

So what does it take to earn favored status?

As expected, for some it was a class that provided an easy A or a party-like atmosphere.

But for Melissa Campos it was having a teacher like Mrs. Mary Turino -- "a second mom" who was willing to lend a few bucks, provide a ride to a fundraising event along with some good guidance in her diversified occupations class.

Language arts teacher Mrs. Marlyn Bavetta was tough, but senior Marissa DiFruscio said she came away knowing that she had truly learned something.

"She treated us like we were in college," Marissa said of the teacher who refused to accept late assignments. "She really pushed you to your limits."

Those who were willing to set limits also received high marks from their students.

"In my entire life I have never been reprimanded by any other teacher as much as you, but if it wasn't for you I wouldn't be where I am today," Manny Simone II wrote to his music teacher, James Urbanski.

Manny, who hopes to one day become a teacher in theater and music, said he has been truly inspired by Urbanski, who has taught him for six years -- first at Bayonet Point Middle, then at Ridgewood High.

"He knows what your potential is and won't accept anything less."

Undoubtedly it was the extra time, such as early-morning tutoring classes math teacher Bruce Blubaum offered to struggling students, along with some much-needed comedy relief (pulling a photograph of Brad Pitt out of his desk drawer and asking the class, "Don't you think we look alike?") that helped the math teacher earn Samantha Cook's vote.

But Blubaum is quick to point out that when it comes to the classroom, admiration is often a two-way street.

"Samantha is such a neat kid. She probably helped me teach better than any (teacher's) aide could," Blubaum said. "She made sure you taught it to her -- she demanded it. She was one of the students that was here for tutoring at 6:30 in the morning. She asked lots of questions, and if she didn't understand it, she'd say, "Show me another way.' That helped the other students, the students who wouldn't ask the questions even when they were having trouble."

Blubaum said he will add Samantha's letter to those stashed away in a special file folder from years gone by. The letters are all a real honor, said Blubaum, a way to finish the year on a high note.

"Sometimes you get one or two," Blubaum said. "Sometimes if you're real lucky you get a bunch."

"It gets hard to put on that show day after day," Blubaum said. "As a teacher you don't always know if you're successful. We (teachers) often compare it to being a neurosurgeon. As soon as the operation is over, you know whether it's been a success or not.

"But we often don't know if we're successful until years down the road. Then all of a sudden you get something like this from a kid -- and then you know."

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