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Making the Grade

A&S Alumni Lead the Way in K-12 Education in Washington

Story by
Nancy Joseph

You might say that David Quinn began his career as an educator at age six. After all, he was a regular on Sesame Street for three years, playing a small part in the education of millions of young television viewers. Later he co-hosted another educational television program, 3-2-1 Contact. But eventually Quinn sought a more direct connection with students. So he left television, came to the UW, and earned bachelor’s degrees in English and anthropology and a master’s degree in education.

Quinn now teaches high school English. He is among a talented and dedicated group of Arts and Sciences alumni making a difference in K-12 education. “My goal is to challenge my students—to make them really think,” says Quinn.

And who knows? As Quinn and other alumni educators instill a sense of curiosity in students, they may be shaping our region’s—and our nation’s—future leaders. Already they have enriched the lives of literally thousands of students.

Here, six alumni share their reasons for pursuing careers in education and offer their perspective on where K-12 education should be headed.

David Quinn: Relinquishing Power to Enhance Learning

David Quinn’s decision to switch to teaching came in his mid-20s. “I was working on a television segment about AIDS,” recalls Quinn, “and working closely with Ryan White, the teenager who brought national attention to AIDS. When Ryan passed away, I thought, ‘This 13-year-old boy changed the way we see AIDS. He changed the world. What will my contribution be?’ That’s when I decided to teach.”

David Quinn

David Quinn

Quinn (‘95, ‘97) moved to Seattle with his wife and enrolled at the University of Washington. After earning his B.A. and a master’s degree in education, he began teaching English at Edmonds-Woodway High School in Edmonds, Washington. His classes are immensely popular—and challenging. But if you visit, don’t expect to see Quinn lecturing at the front of the room.

“I used to think teaching was about the teacher telling students things,” Quinn admits. “And I, and others around me, thought I’d be a great teacher because I’d been such a great actor. What I came to understand at the UW was that teaching is not about being the center of the room, being the person who amuses everyone. My power was the first thing I had to give up.”

On the first day of class, Quinn explains to students that he won’t appear in front of the class again for at least a month. “At first they are puzzled,” he says. “Then they begin to ask questions. My class becomes a place for critical thinking on their part and reflective practitioning on my part, where power is decentralized.”

The material Quinn assigns encourages critical thinking as well. His class reads Shakespeare—and the Unabomber’s manifesto. And a slew of literature from diverse cultures. “I enjoy teaching English because it asks you to look at the human condition and begin to understand what’s going on in the lives of others,” says Quinn. “I present different voices and then encourage my students to ask the hard questions.”

Some class discussions have led to action. While teaching gay and lesbian literature, Quinn noticed that students were publicly disparaging of homosexuals, using slurs they would not dare use for other groups. He spoke with the students, but also joined colleagues to change policy toward gay and lesbians at the district level. “The number one cause of death in teenagers is suicide, and the number one cause of suicide is sexual orientation,” Quinn explains. “Our district had no policy to protect gay and lesbian teens from discrimination. Now the district has changed the wording in its discrimination policy to be inclusive of gays and lesbians.”

With the change in discrimination policy and the impact he has on his own students, Quinn feels he is making the contribution he’d hoped for when he left television. “You hear back from students and realize what you do matters,” he says. “I remember getting a letter from one student that said, ‘You made me think about things in a way I’d never thought about them before.’ Now that student wants to become a teacher. In fact, he came to my class to observe. That was a great moment.”

Peggy O’Neill Skinner: Science is a Verb, Not a Noun 

Like David Quinn, science teacher Peggy O’Neill Skinner (‘70, ‘74) is rarely in front of the classroom. Instead she encourages students to devise experiments to answer their own questions. Sometimes they balk, preferring to have answers handed to them, but their attitude usually changes after experiencing wonderful moments of scientific discovery.

Peggy O'Neill Skinner (standing) with students at the Bush School in Seattle.

Peggy O'Neill Skinner (standing) with students at the Bush School in Seattle.

“Science is a verb, not a noun,” says Skinner, who heads the science department at Seattle’s Bush School and teaches high school biology. “It’s so much more than what’s in a book or on a slide. That’s what I try to instill in my students.”

And that’s what Skinner’s own mentor, UW Professor Emeritus Ingrith Deyrup-Olson, tried to instill in Skinner when she was a biology major at the UW. “Ingrith showed me how science could be learned from a sense of curiosity, a sense of questioning,” explains Skinner. “She showed me that you can do real science by exploring in your own way. That’s something that I’ve tried to convey to students. She’s been incredibly important to how I teach.”

That’s saying a lot, given that Skinner received the Outstanding Biology Teaching Award from the National Association of Biology Teachers in 1996. Still, she’s had a few rough patches like every other teacher.

“My very first day of teaching, I thought I knew plenty,” Skinner recalls, chuckling at the memory. “So I said to my class, ‘Ask me any question.’ A boy asked, ‘Do fish sleep?’ and I couldn’t answer it. I was tremendously embarrassed.” How times have changed. “Now I love it when someone asks me something I don’t know,” she says. “It’s not threatening to me. Now I see myself as a conduit rather than the source.”

While Skinner challenges her students to answer their own questions, she asks the same of herself. She spends her summers at the UW, working in research laboratories. For the past two summers she has worked in the lab of Genetics Professor Carol Hopkins Sibley, studying drug resistance in malaria. “It’s a wonderful lab,” says Skinner. “In a very gentle way, the people there have helped prod an old brain to learn new stuff.”

Skinner does research because she has a natural curiosity, but also to serve as a role model to her students. “It’s good for my students to see that you are never too old to learn, that it’s an unending quest to know new things,” she says. “They see that science is not in a book.”

Skinner wishes more teachers would spend time in research laboratories, and she’s doing something about it. She’s been involved with the Science and Education Partnership out of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, which brings teachers into laboratories during the summer, and similar programs in the UW Depatment of Molecular Biology and the High School Human Genome Project. “There’s not a college that would have a football coach who hadn’t played the game, but many science teachers have never actually done science,” she says. “That really needs to change.”

Skinner is also making her mark as chair of the National Science Advisory Committee for the College Board—the first high school teacher in that position—where she works to ensure that current trends in education are reflected in national exams and curriculum materials. “If there’s ever been a place where I’ve had an influence, it’s been there,” she says. “Some of the things I believe in so strongly are now included in the exams. It’s so important to have the process of science become an integral part of science testing at a national level.”

Patty Ward: A Dedicated Teacher, A Master Calligrapher

While Peggy Skinner is fine-tuning the exams students take at the end of high school, Patty Ward (‘60) is focusing on students just starting their K-12 journey—kindergartners.

Patty Ward

Patty Ward

At the UW, Ward studied psychology in hopes of becoming a child psychologist. Then she married a schoolteacher and decided to become a teacher as well, so they could enjoy summers together. Her career has taken several surprising turns, with family commitments requiring her to leave teaching several times, but she has always returned to the classroom. She has taught on Lopez Island since 1989.

“When you teach on Lopez, you’ve known the kids since they were born,” Ward explains. “And they come back to you to visit. My commute to work is less than five minutes, and I pass maybe two or three cars on the way. That really appeals to me.”

The walls of Ward’s kindergarten classroom nearly always have some Chinese artwork on display. That just hints at Ward’s passion for Chinese calligraphy, which has been a driving force in her life for more than two decades and has led her to study with masters in Seattle, Japan, and China.

Ward first studied Chinese calligraphy in 1980, while taking a hiatus from teaching. She took classes through the UW’s Experimental College and, encouraged by her calligraphy teacher, also began translating Chinese poetry. That led her to attend several institutes at the UW on Chinese literature and the history of Chinese art.

“I was a lonely scholar,” she recalls. “I wanted to be with other people interested in the same things. That’s exactly what the UW institutes did. I found other people of like mind.”

Ward also began studying Chinese seal carving and discovered she had a natural talent for it. “I have a good strong hand because I’m a farm girl,” she explains with a shrug. Her talents recently earned her first prize in the foreign entries division of a prestigious international calligraphy competition in Japan. And she was the first non-Asian to have work shown in another major calligraphy exhibit in Tokyo.

Ward admits to being torn between her teaching and her artwork, but she also recognizes that her passion for calligraphy can only enrich her students’ lives. “I always teach Chinese art to the kindergartners,” she says. “When children are exposed to other cultures at an early age, they don’t see them as different from their own. The other cultures become part of them, incorporated into their world view. They don’t see things as ‘other’ until they are older.”

Ward has continued to expand her own world view as well. Since 1995, she has traveled to Japan once and China twice—once to study with a master painter and calligrapher and once, with a group of Washington state teachers, to learn more about Chinese culture. The second trip, which Ward describes as “just incredible,” was offered through the East Asia Center in the UW’s Jackson School of International Studies. Closer to home, Ward has led workshops for the East Asia Center on integrating Chinese art into K-12 curricula.

What’s next for Ward, who is nearing retirement? “For a while now, I’ve been running two careers,” she says. “My teaching career has taken much of my time, so my art career has been when I can squeeze it in. I guess I’m just looking forward to having more time for art.”

Marcus Tsutakawa: Making Music in Seattle—and Abroad

Marcus Tsutakawa (‘79, ‘85), another dedicated artist, needs musicians—lots of them—to realize his creations. And he’s found them at Garfield High School in Seattle.

Tsutakawa is a music conductor, and he’s been director of Garfield’s three orchestras for the past 15 years. “I’m like a painter with a paintbrush,” says Tsutakawa. “But a painter can paint alone in a studio. My art requires an orchestra.”

Marcus Tsutakawa conducting one of Garfield High School's orchestras.

Marcus Tsutakawa conducting one of Garfield High School's orchestras. 

Given his lineage, it’s no surprise that Tsutakawa chose a career in the arts. His father was renowned artist George Tsutakawa, a UW alumnus and UW professor of art for more than 30 years. His mother was trained in Japanese classical dance and the koto, or Japanese harp. “My parents never discouraged me and my siblings from going into the arts,” says Tsutakawa. “They supported us all along.”

As early as fifth grade, Tsutakawa was absorbed in music, first playing the piano and then string bass. In junior high he discovered his real talent—composing and arranging music. He earned a B.A. in music composition at the UW, followed by a B.A. in music education.

His first few years as a teacher were shaky. “I wasn’t sure it was for me,” he admits, recalling his first high school teaching job. “I liked composition and arranging. I wasn’t used to being a taskmaster and disciplinarian. As a teacher, it’s a balance between the art and being an administrator.”

When Tsutakawa was laid off as a result of school district budget cuts—and rehired on a part-time basis—he used his free time to earn a master’s in music education at the UW, with an emphasis on conducting. In 1985, he began his current job at Garfield High School. This time, he’d found his niche.

“It’s a wonderful job,” he says. “It’s a lot of work too, but I don’t mind. It’s worth it, seeing young people get so excited about music.”

After 15 years, Tsutakawa keeps his job fresh by regularly choosing pieces he’s never conducted before. “The Garfield Orchestra is so good, I can pick any piece and we’ll just learn it together,” he says. The schedule is daunting, with nearly a dozen concerts each year—including one at UW’s Meany Hall—plus a weekend retreat and participation in the Northwest Orchestra Festival, an annual competition for high school orchestras, where Garfield has placed first every year for the past ten years.

Tsutakawa also has planned several international tours with his orchestra, during which the students perform music and play tourist. The orchestra went to Vienna in 1997 and has travelled to Japan twice—once in 1993 and again this summer. The 2000 tour involved 76 Garfield students and 9 chaperones, plus Tsutakawa. “The really wonderful thing about this trip was that we got to do a joint concert with a 140-person choir from a Japanese high school,” says Tsutakawa. “There was tremendous mutual respect. It was great.”

As if he’s not busy enough, Tsutakawa recently signed on as director of the Seattle Youth Symphony’s Junior Symphony. “It’s another chance to conduct an orchestra,” Tsutakawa explains. “For a conductor, that’s our dream in life, to get up in front of an orchestra and conduct. I couldn’t pass it up.”

Tsutakawa just wishes more students could be reached with the arts. “There are so many kids with potential out there who are not given the chance to realize their talent,” he says. “Public education is missing the boat by not giving kids enough opportunities in the arts. The increased emphasis on academic testing overlooks the arts, which aren’t measurable like other subjects are measurable. “For some kids, the arts can be a tremendous motivator. They provide a balance in life. They help create a whole person.”