Henrico’s Top Teachers – Andrew Baker

When Andrew Baker got married a year ago, he and his wife were showered with lavish gifts from their large Greek families. But it was a wedding gift from a student that won a place of honor in Baker’s home.

A transfer from South Korea, the student rarely spoke in class, and although Baker did all he could to make her comfortable, he says he was never sure if she liked school or his class because she was so quiet.

“My wedding was over winter break,” he recalls, “and when I came back I was met with an amazing note and two wooden duck figures on my desk.”

The note revealed that Baker had had a tremendous impact on his Korean student, who admitted that she was quiet only because she was embarrassed about her accent. Baker learned from the note not only that she liked history, but that she appreciated (as he put it) “my horrible attempts at learning some Korean language and trying to make her feel welcome.”

The ducks were from Korea, she told Baker, where they are traditional gifts given to a bride and groom for good luck.

“I don’t imagine,” says Baker, “those two ducks leaving their spot on my dresser for as long as I live.”

Another student – one of several who wrote to nominate Baker as a top teacher – said that Baker excels at making all students feel welcome and cared for, no matter what their differences. As a high school freshman, the student wrote, Baker “made me feel accepted, because he talked about how everyone is equal and that nobody should act better than anybody else.”

A parent nominator also praised Baker’s “compassionate” way of teaching and of making each student feel important.

“I have a ‘C’ student who is excelling in his class,” wrote the parent. “My daughter is willing to study harder for this class [and participate] to make a better grade. This is something she has never done before.”

Students say that Baker keeps them engaged by planning fun activities, making students act out skits that help the material “stick,” and using analogies and examples that teens can relate to and understand.

For example, Baker described Louis XIV to his students as “that person you all know that always has the right outfit and can start trends easily,” said one student. “He once told us,” said another, “that World War I was boy fighting and the Cold War was [like high school] girl fighting.”

Baker credits a number of educators with cultivating his drive to become a teacher, including professors at Hampden-Sydney College and his “incredible” teachers at Godwin High School (where he was close to then-principal John McGinty).

“After such a great career as a student, I don’t know how I could have contained the desire to pass that love of learning on to others,” says Baker. 

From as far back as he can remember, says Baker, he has been an enthusiastic learner. The drive to share what he learns frequently prompts Baker, as a world history and psychology teacher, to push his students beyond the bounds of curriculum and broaden their understanding of other cultures. 

“Most high school students in America,” he says, “have a fairly narrow view of how people live worldwide.  Challenging this idea isn’t easy when confined by the four walls of the classroom.  I try to incorporate digital learning and online exploration . . . to show students scenes of everyday life in other countries, so that their worldview really grows while taking my class.”

Despite having rough days now and then, Baker calls being a teacher the best job he can imagine. “We are given a chance to be as creative as we want, interact with future generations and hopefully leave some sort of intellectual legacy that will make the community a better place.”

“The best part,” he adds, “is even if a year doesn’t go well, you get to hit the reset button each September and start fresh.”  

More than one member of those “future generations” wrote to attest that Baker has left his mark on their lives. One student nominator, in fact, said that taking Baker’s world history class completely turned her life around.

“[Before joining his class],” the student wrote, “I did not like history, or school for that matter, and I wasn’t a very moralistic kid. I was kind of a punk. But after going through Mr. Baker’s class, I realized how important (and cool) knowledge is. I love to read and learn now.”

Admitting that she had often cheated on her homework in other classes (“and did not think twice about it because ‘everyone was doing it’”), the student changed her ways after Baker helped her become passionate about learning and see the value in challenging herself.

It was because of Baker, she wrote, that she not only stopped cheating, but stopped using drugs and drinking. She acquired an interest in Russia, began teaching herself the language and began dreaming of traveling the world.

“He made us laugh, and think, and love to learn,” she said of Baker. “He was an incredible role model.

“Because of this man, I want to become a world history teacher . . . I want to do for other kids what he has done for me.”
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The Shady Grove Coffeehouse at the Unitarian Universalist Community Church, 11105 Cauthorne Rd., opens its 17th season with legendary blues guitarist, singer and storyteller Roy Book Binder at 8 p.m. Binder combines blues with hokum, dixie jazz and old timey acoustic hill country music. He is known to shift from open tunings to slide arrangements set to his original and sometimes quirky tongue-in-cheek compositions. Tickets are $20 in advance and $25 at the door; teens are admitted at half price and children age 12 and under are free. Net proceeds benefit UUCC. For details, call 323-4288 or visit http://www.shadygrovecoffeehouse.com. Full text

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