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1989 Teacher of the Year

Mary V. Bicouvaris
1989 National Teacher of the Year
Government / International Relations
Bethel High School, Hampton, Virginia

President George Bush, First Lady Barbara Bush, Mary Bicouvaris
The White House Rose Garden, April 5, 1989

WASHINGTON, D.C., April 5, 1989 -- A Virginia high school government-international relations instructor, who came to this country from her native Greece at the age of 21, has been bamed the 1989 National Teacher of the Year.  The award winner, Mary V. Bicouvaris, 49, who teaches at Bethel High School in Hampton, Va., was honored at a White House ceremony, at which President Bush will present her with a crystal apple, the traditional symbol of teaching.  The awards program, the oldest and most prestigious of its kind to focus public attention on excellence in teaching, is sponsored by the Council of Chief State School Officers, Encyclopaedia Britannica, and Good Housekeeping magazine.

Bicouvaris was chosen from among the nation's more than 2.5 million elementary and secondary public school teachers for the 38th in this series of annual awards, becoming the first Virginia teacher ever to win this award.  The 1989 National Teacher of the Year is married to James Bicouvaris, an insurance agent.  They have two children, Greg, 22, a senior at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., and Valerie, 21, a junior at Christopher Newport College in Newport News, Va.

"I consider my selection a great honor," Bicouvaris said.  "However, I consider myself only a  representative of the nation's many good teachers."  "As a naturalized citizen, I have an abiding love for my chosen country," she also said.  "It has been my goal to help young Americans understand and appreciate their country, its government, and its crucial role in international affairs."

Born in 1939 in then war-torn Greece, where her father was a civilian victim of the war, Bicouvaris developed the love for democracy that has become her teaching trademark.  She has also had a love for teaching as far back as she can remember.  "This was because of the influence of my parents who valued education not only for its own sake but also for the very practical reason that a teaching degree would be a good dowry for a woman living in Greece in the middle of the 20th century," she said.

After securing a teaching degree in elementary education in Greece in 1958, she came to the United States in 1960, and earned her bachelor's degree in secondary education from Ohio State University in 1963 and a master's degree from the College of William and Mary in 1970.  She began her teaching career in Hampton, Va., in 1963, even before she was an American citizen.  "It is of special significance to me that Hampton, waiving the requirement of citizenship, hired me to teach social studies, thus entrusting me with the citizenship education of its students.  I have been repaying that trust for 24 years."

What accounts for her success and distinguishes her from other teachers is this sense of dedication coupled with an ability to teach students of different learning abilities.  "She dangles that carrot out just far enough to get students to work," said Bethel Principal Tom Bailey.  Known affectionately to her students as Mrs. Bic, Bicouvaris says that what also helps her succeed is a positive approach to teaching.  "You can catch students doing right or you can catch them doing wrong,"  she says.  "I try to catch them doing right because we've got to build the egos of these kids so that  they will want to return to school." 

Other key factors in her selection for national honors were said to be her innovative teaching strategies with which she involves her students in participatory learning activities. 

During the last Presidential campaign, for example, her students received extra credit for working with the candidates of their choice.  Her insistence that her students participate left many of them shivering outside the polls on Election Day as they passed out campaign literature.  She said that such extracurricular activities are necessary to help students become concerned citizens.  "Participation in elections is to government what labs are to science," she said.  She is the founder and sponsor of her school's Model United Nations program, which imitates the international body by having students adopt the identity of different countries and argue their viewpoints.  At Bethel, she is always planning and sponsoring activities such as political debates, mock elections, Black History Week celebrations, and visits to local City Council meetings and foreign embassies, and last year she chaired Bethel's bicentennial celebration of the U.S. Constitution. 

In her role as National Teacher of the Year, she intends to communicate to the public and members of her profession her feelings about the importance of teaching as she travels across the country to speak before numerous educational and business groups and civic organizations.  "My message to America would be one of pride, hope and promise in the educational system of a nation that sent the first man to the moon and which has yet to reach its greatest potential," she says.  "I would speak of the need to reach a national consensus on what is good for America's children and what is needed for this country to maintain its position on the world stage. 

"I would speak, too, about the challenges we face in continuing to strive for excellence in education.  I would express the hope that all American children will be given the opportunity to become literate in their own culture and at the same time develop an international perspective that will enable them to work, lead, and thrive in a global community.  "Finally, I would assure the nation that American teachers are ready to help usher our nation into the 21st century and into another era of greatness."

The other finalists in the 1989 program were: Jenlane Gee, a third grade teacher at Christine Sipherd Elementary School in Modesto, Calif.; Gary L. Stringer, a science teacher at West Monroe High School, in West Monroe, La; and Leslie Jean Roche, an eighth grade social  studies teacher at Parkland Junior High School in Rockville, Md.

The National Teacher of the Year is chosen from among the Teachers of the Year in the 50 states, plus the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and American Samoa.  They in turn are selected on the basis of nominations by students, teachers, principals and school administrators in each district, city and county of the state or other entity.  The state and other winners are submitted to the Council of Chief State School Officers in Washington, where a blue-ribbon panel of representatives from a dozen leading national educational organizations reviews the voluminous data on each candidate in order to select the four finalists.  The panel then personally interviews each finalist before selecting the National Teacher. 

Mary V. Bicouvaris
Bethel High School
Hampton, Virginia

Awards for Excellence in Teaching
C-Span Video, October 24, 1989