Class Acts : These 2 Get Their Students to ‘Go for the Gold'--That’s Why They’re Up for Teacher of the Year

Times Staff Writer

Katherine Emiko Okinaka Schymick paces up and down the aisles of her seventh-grade reading class at Lexington Junior High School in Cypress, pausing occasionally to tell a joke.

Shirley Bebereia plays the pop music record “Who Put the Bomp (in the Bomp Ba Bomp Ba Bomp)” to her class of limited-English-speaking teen-agers at Valley High School in Santa Ana to help them pronounce vowels.

These two Orange County teachers share more than the energy, enthusiasm and sense of theater they bring to their jobs. They are among eight semifinalists for 1989 California Teacher of the Year. They were named last week by the state Department of Education, which will watch the finalists in their classrooms in the days ahead and announce the winner Nov. 14.

So how did they do it? Patricia Savage, principal at Lexington Junior High, offers this answer:


“Katherine (Schymick) knows that junior high students get bored and wiggly very quickly. (So she) uses humor wisely. She also knows how to change pace quickly; it’s almost like switching TV channels. She will change the tone of her voice, move about the room quickly, do things to keep the students alert. She constantly keeps her students up for what is being taught.”

Bob Nelson, an assistant principal at Valley High in Santa Ana Unified School District, said Bebereia is equally adept at holding her students’ attention.

“Shirley is a unique individual who could be in drama or theater as much as in a class. She keeps everything moving at a very fast pace, and she is skilled at making use of music to teach English in her classes.”

Schymick knows how to mix a dry sense of humor into her fast-paced lectures.

Last week, when her “power reading” students applauded her announcement about being a semifinalist, Schymick wryly offered: “We’re going to go for the gold here!”

She runs a tight ship. The discussion about the teacher-of-the-year semifinals took less than two minutes. She quickly brought her morning class back to the business at hand: learning a clutch of new words and how to use them in everyday talk.

The words under study on this morning were divination, dour, duplicity, edification, efficacy, embroil, eminent, engender, esoteric and evanescent. She put each word on the blackboard, then gave a sentence to show how the word is used. She also used the words in situations that the students would understand.

In discussing the word edification, for instance, Schymick said it generally means “something for your own good.” With a smile, she added: “Next time your parents tell you you’re on restriction, say: ‘Are you doing this for my edification?’ It will blow their minds.”


When she came to the word evanescent, Schymick found the perfect example. “The ghost was evanescent,” she said. “That means that the ghost was vanishing--becoming invisible. Many of you have seen the ghosts at Disneyland. They’re evanescent.”

Later, Schymick divided the class into groups and gave each group cards printed with various words. Schymick told the students she would read a few poems aloud. After each poem, she asked each cluster of students to compose a sentence using one or more of the new words under study. The cluster arrangement made the assignment a game.

The clustering is part of a teaching technique that Schymick calls “collaborative learning.” She said: “By encouraging this kind of interdependence, I teach my students to care about one another and to care about the lessons.”

Schymick, 45, has been a teacher for 24 years. Born on the island of Maui, in Hawaii, she is a third-generation Japanese-American. She and her husband, an architect, have a daughter, Jennifer, 8, and live in Tustin.


“I like teaching because I like working with students,” Schymick said. “There’s a lot of feedback--immediate feedback--in teaching that you don’t get in many professions. You can see results immediately.”

Said Principal Savage: “Katherine Schymick is a teacher who expects a lot from her students, and she gets it.”

In Santa Ana, Judith Duesterberg, principal of Valley High, said that Shirley Bebereia also gets superior results from her students. “Shirley Bebereia is dynamite,” Duesterberg said.

Bebereia teaches English to high school-age students who are new immigrants.


“The students range in age from 14 to 17, and none has been in this country longer than 6 weeks,” Bebereia said as she prepared to teach her Wednesday morning class. “They know very little English.” She said she tries to teach basics: things students need to talk about or ask about in everyday life.

Bebereia is fluent in Spanish, which is the dominant language for most of her students. She also knows some Vietnamese. “I have a foster son who is Vietnamese, and I’ve learned from talking to him,” she said.

But despite being multilingual, Bebereia seldom uses anything but English in teaching her students. She prefers the “immersion” technique of language learning.

“I soak them in English,” she said.


Bebereia’s Wednesday morning class consisted of a United Nations-like array of students from Asia and Central and South America. The energetic woman with intense brown eyes quickly put the students to work.

“May I borrow a dictionary, please?” the students chanted in unison.

There was then a quick anti-drug lesson. Bebereia put a record on a small record-player, and the students sang along to “No to Drugs!” Following this record, Bebereia divided the class into three teams. In relays, each team would send a student to the blackboard to write an English sentence that Bebereia dictated. The team that wrote the most correct sentences would get candy prizes.

“Your teammates may help you, but they may only coach in English,” Bebereia said. “No Spanish. No Vietnamese.”


They agonized in suspense as they watched teammates write such sentences as “I live in California.” They cheered when a team scored points. They coached fellow students who had stumbled on an English word or two while at the blackboard.

Bebereia said she has found that instruction improves through “cooperative learning groups” such as these teams.

“Assigning work projects together helps students learn cooperation and also stimulates creative thinking, both of which are important job skills in today’s world,” she said.

Later in the morning, Bebereia asked the students to practice pronouncing English vowels. Bebereia put on another record. This time it was a vintage rock ‘n’ roll song: “Who Put the Bomp (in the Bomp Ba Bomp Ba Bomp).” The teen-agers sang the lyrics, smiling and tapping their feet. Said Bebereia: “You’ll notice that every vowel sound is clearly represented in this song.”


A widow and a resident of Buena Park, Bebereia, 47, has three grown children and a 24-year-old Vietnamese foster son, Dzung Tham. She has been a teacher for 10 years.

Bebereia said she believes love is the catalyst of education: “Any parent can attest to the fact that first comes love, which is followed closely by trust and confidence; then comes learning and growth.”