School's almost out for teaching couple Howard educators retiring; after more than 25 years


Dick and Sherry Wright remember when they thought Jim Rouse's dream for his planned community of Columbia had finally taken hold.

Dick Wright was teaching at Columbia's Wilde Lake High School 1980 and was in charge of picking a student to be the senior graduation speaker.

"One girl gave an angry speech saying Wilde Lake was not preparing students for the discrimination and prejudices they would face when they went out into the real world," he said. "At that moment, I knew all our efforts in Columbia were working."

The couple knew it took a unique place to make the student feel so sheltered, and a unique education to enable her to give such an analysis of her schooling.

The Wrights -- he is a research teacher at Long Reach High; she is a Centennial High English teacher -- are retiring after each has taught more than 25 years in Howard County public schools. Their careers gave them a firsthand look at the enormous changes in the county school system.

When they started, they say, their job was to teach. Over the years, it has evolved into something different. "Twenty years ago, [students] were supposed to adjust to your expectations. Now, it seems like it's the other way around," Mrs. Wright, 50, said.

"A teacher is a performer today," Mr. Wright, 52, said. "The hardest part is you're going to put on your show, and if the show isn't entertaining enough, then you are doing something wrong."

The couple met while both attended the University of Maryland. They married in 1968, the year Mr. Wright graduated.

Mr. Wright got a job with Baltimore County public schools, while Mrs. Wright transferred to then-Towson State University, from which she graduated in 1970.

In 1972, after three years at a private school, Mr. Wright moved to Oakland Mills High School as a science teacher. One year later, Mrs. Wright began teaching English at the old Waterloo Middle School.

Since then, they have been with the county system, and though both have taught mostly in high schools, they have never worked at the same school. During their tenure, Howard County public schools have added five new high schools and increased from 21,000 to 40,000 students.

The couple said that although the changes in the system have been dramatic, several themes are unchanged -- budget struggles, growing class sizes and students' high energy.

"The constant that I see is that teen-agers have an incredible amount of energy, and that's very exciting," Mrs. Wright said. "The energy. The creativity. That still amazes me."

Mr. Wright's colleagues say he works hard to channel his students' energy, constantly coming up with new ideas, such as bringing in speakers or fostering relationships between students and the business community.

"Dick wants students to become involved in things, so he's very innovative," said Long Reach Principal David A. Bruzga. "He's had a lot of interest in helping our students prepare for life outside of school."

L The possibility of education budget cuts worries Mr. Wright.

"Things that maybe politicians think are frills, we know in education are really important things, and they tend to disappear," he said.

The couple said the inevitable growth in the system and the budget restraints that accompany it threaten the integrity of the county's public education system.

"I don't think big can be better. All you have to do is look at Montgomery County, Anne Arundel County and Baltimore County and the problems they've had," Mr. Wright said. "There's no way managing 40,000 kids is anything like managing the [20,000] or so that were here when I came."

Mrs. Wright agrees: "There was a real close, intimate feel in the schools when we came. We don't have that anymore."

But what the Howard County schools do have, according to the Wrights, is a track record of success.

The Wrights say they gauge that success by the success of their 28-year-old son, Forrest.

"He graduated at the top of his class at UCLA and said it's because of the education he received at Wilde Lake High School," Mr. Wright said. He later added, "He is 28 and making more money than I am making after all these years."

The Wrights said that they think teachers are underpaid but that most would be glad to stay in the profession, whatever the pay, with one simple change.

"You can be with kids all year long and give them everything you have, and on the last day of school, one or two say, 'Thanks,' " Mr. Wright said. "If parents and kids really learned to say 'Thank you,' you couldn't drive people from this profession."

The couple said that having the same job has helped their marriage. "We understand the pressures each other goes through," said Mr. Wright. "Who would want the summers off if you couldn't share them with your spouse?"

After a quarter-century of teaching, they want to see what's around the next corner in their lives. "I'm always telling my students you just have to take a risk," Mrs. Wright said. "I better take some of my own advice."

Pub Date: 5/18/98

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