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In her classroom, no student is 'too cool for school' for long

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MABTON, Wash. -- Each school day Tamara Steen walks into class with two plans: A and B. Newcomers quickly learn that the "A" stands for "awesome" and the "B" stands for "boring." It's up to the class to determine by their attitude which will be the day's lesson.

Even so, 17-year-old Gilbert Uribe often enters class with his own plan: to have every eye and ear focused on him, not on the lesson of the day. But even with students whose attitudes can be disruptive, Steen, an English and art teacher at Mabton Jr./Sr. High School, believes every one of them has the ability to succeed.

Despite the "too-cool-for-school" attitude that some students present, Steen, 56, looks for the sparkle in each student's eye. For her, teaching is 50% relational and 50% instructional. "Without relationships, you can't teach your kids," she says.

Students such as Uribe appreciate Steen's understanding. She is one of the only teachers who hasn't tried to restrict his personality. That controlled freedom helped Uribe transform from a ninth-grader failing freshman English to a senior in Advanced Placement English.

"I had doubt in my mind about school. She encouraged me," Uribe says. "When it comes to school, I always have her to rely on as encouragement. She is more than a teacher; she is also a friend."

It's Steen's smile and high expectations that knock down the cool pose that often walks in her classroom on the backs of some of her students. When more than three-fourths of the students come from families of field workers and close to 40% of them are migrant, academics are often trumped by basic survival.

But not even an 88% poverty figure douses Steen's passion for enlightening young people. She will not let a student's family income determine his or her academic outcome.

"I'm here to make them successful," she says.

That success doesn't come without hard work. Steen has a reputation of demanding a lot of her students, yet somehow those academic demands are a draw for many students.

"It was really scary before I got into her class," says Mayra Diaz, 15, who is in Steen's AP English class. "But I needed a challenge. College is all about challenge."

When AP classes first began here four years ago, Steen's AP English class wasn't even offered every semester because not enough students were enrolling. Four years later, her AP English class is bulging at the seams with 37 students and others who are eager to step up. Soon they may have to start offering multiple sections to keep up with the demand.

Steen's enthusiasm has a lot to do with that. Her students, fellow teachers, even the principal notice her enthusiasm is contagious. "Go sit in Tamara's class and see if you don't get excited about it," says principal Keith Morris.

Some students demonstrate their excitement for Steen with a sign that hangs on her classroom wall, a Superman emblem. It's for her advisory class, a homeroom-like class aimed at helping students bond with an adult outside the traditional academic relationship.

It doesn't stand for Super Steen, although many believe that to be true. "We are just kind of awed by her dedication to her profession," says Diana Thomas, who also teaches English. "She sets the bar so high. She works so hard and truly cares about students."

It doesn't matter whether it is plan A or B that she is using for the lesson. Steen knows that she can make a difference in the life of some young person.

"What job could possibly be better than that?" she asks.

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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