Newspaper article from the AJC, January 2, 2003...

Star Teacher Photo (Rawlins is on far left)
Tough teachers inspire fear, tears, gratitude

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Kimberly Smith and John Spink/AJC Marie Bidegain and Dan Rawlins

Inside Dan Rawlins' classroom hangs a small sign posted by a former student:

"Beware of his smile, for it spells doom."

Rawlins, a former Emory University professor now teaching biology at Gwinnett County's Brookwood High School, is so ruthless in his grading, so unyielding to cries for mercy, students who have never gotten a grade lower than an A-minus struggle just to pass.

Inside Rawlins' classroom, the bendable rules that have carried so many students through 10 years of schooling no longer apply.

"I don't give them any credit for trying," Rawlins said. "I grade them on whether they get the right answer."

Tough teachers are scattered around metro Atlanta, their reputations looming large as a high school football stadium. Some spark fear for the volume of work they assign, others for refusing to accept papers turned in 15 minutes -- or seconds -- too late.

Despite political pressure to raise standards for all students, truly tough teachers are generally the exception rather than the norm in Georgia classrooms.

Often seen as eccentrics, legendary tough teachers may be ostracized by parents, principals and even other teachers, because so much is at stake. The HOPE scholarship promises a free college education to students with a B average, making every C a cause for panic. Parents, well-meaning but often guilt-ridden because they work long hours, want to make life easy for their children, teachers and principals say. They pressure tough teachers to soften their standards and even to change grades.

Tim Callahan of the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, the state's largest teacher organization, is well acquainted with the problem.

"What a teacher has to do is be fair and upfront about the requirements of the course," he said. "You've got to ask for parent participation as well."

In some cases where a tough teacher stands firm against a parent, lawyers have to get involved, Callahan said. The outcome of the case often rests on how clearly the teacher spelled out expectations to the student.

Earned reputations

Marie Bidegain, a French teacher at Marietta High School, assures her students on the first day that the stories are true about how hard her course is. A teacher in the school's rigorous International Baccalaureate program, Bidegain rarely gives a grade higher than 95.

"No one is perfect," she said. "Since French is my native language, I think I've mastered it. But for a student to master it, it's unlikely."

Bidegain assigns hours of homework and packs her 90-minute class period with instruction. In her advanced class, she teaches a novel written in French by a Belgian author set in Japan. Not without a fun side, Bidegain sometimes serves sushi at 7:30 a.m. Her 2001 graduating seniors brought her roses on the last day of school.

Like Rawlins, Bidegain refuses to issue grades that her students haven't earned.

"Teachers will avoid conflict to make children feel good. We want to make people happy so we pass those kids," she said. "This is wrong."

At Tri-Cities High School in south Fulton County, Karen Morgan's students don't budge when the bell rings. They wait for Morgan to dismiss them. Seemingly small things can set Morgan off: students arriving to class without pencil and paper, misspelled words, papers with frayed edges and whining.

"I'm old school," Morgan said. "The only difference between me and a witch is I don't have a broom. I drive a Camaro."

Stacey Hall, 18, said Morgan's workload seemed unreasonable until she got to Georgia Perimeter College.

"She teaches like a college professor," said Hall, who is studying computer science. "We were required to have a notebook with dividers, to take notes, to know definitions and how to spell. She piled the work on us. . . . Ms. Morgan is what you call a teacher who gives tough love."

Morgan said the students who think she is stern often have no rules or boundaries at home. The very students who claim to dread her class are the ones who return to her classroom to hang out after the last bell rings.

Hall said Morgan's tough demeanor is offset by the concern she shows for her students, especially those who don't think they are college material.

"If it wasn't for her," Hall said, "I wouldn't have made it through high school."

For Rawlins, the Brookwood High School teacher, resistance from students and parents is not a big deal.

"If you're going to have a challenging course, you're going to have conflict," said Rawlins, who has a doctorate in microbiology and applies his teaching principles in his other role as feared and respected soccer coach.

To a class of ninth-graders who are designated as "gifted," Rawlins gives fill-in-the-blank tests without a list of words to choose from. "Your word bank is up here," he says, pointing to his temple.

"We're not special enough to get a word bank," a freshman groans. Rawlins flashes his trademark smile of doom.

Nor does Rawlins mind that at Brookwood's annual charity event, where students pay 10 bucks to throw a pie in a teacher's face, he is the most popular target.

Rawlins' affirmation comes from students who appreciate him once they get to college.

Truly college prep

Christen Pirkle, 18, says she hasn't had to pull an all-nighter yet at Emory University, because Rawlins prepared her so well. "I took the hardest classes at Brookwood you could possibly take," Pirkle said. "I was pushed so much more in his class than any other."

At first, Rawlins' demands frustrated Pirkle. In tears, she stopped by his class after school and asked why he was so hard on her. "He told me in college I would be pushed," said Pirkle, who is studying pre-med. "He needed to show me how hard I would need to work."

Sarah Ford, a freshman at the University of South Florida, sent Rawlins an e-mail recently. "I have taken two bio tests and found out my scores. All I can say is, THANK YOU!!!"

She added: "You were the most intellectually influential teacher of my life."