MANHATTAN BEACH, Calif. -- Marilyn Jachetti Whirry, a teacher of Advanced Placement English who today was named National Teacher of the Year, never intended to spend her life in front of a classroom. A more exotic line of work, she felt, would better suit her adventurous spirit.
''I saw teachers as boring people,'' the 65-year-old dynamo said recently in her classroom at Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach, south of Los Angeles. ''I had no desire to be like them.''
In the four decades since she grudgingly entered a classroom and was bowled over by the experience, her boundless energy, infectious enthusiasm and tireless devotion to improving instruction have ensured that no one would label her a yawn-inducing pedagogue.
Whirry embodies the sort of passionate, knowledgeable instructor for whom schools are hungering as the public clamors for improved achievement.
''I wish she could be cloned,'' said Diane Ravitch, an education historian who serves with Whirry on the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for national tests in reading, math and other subjects.
''She's a throwback to the type of teacher people wish there were more of,'' Ravitch added. ''She loves teaching, she loves kids, she loves literature.''
At an age when many teachers would happily retire, this grandmother of four maintains a punishing pace. A night person, she reluctantly agreed to teach back-to-back 7 and 8 a.m. AP classes this year at Mira Costa.
After teaching, she spends an hour grading papers and planning lessons. As head of the 20-person English department at Mira Costa, she also oversees 90 sections of English instruction and mentors other teachers.
She works three hours a day for the Manhattan Beach Unified School District, coordinating the development of standards and assessments in several subjects. She also teaches at nearby Loyola Marymount University .
While a graduate student at the former Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles in the 1950s, Whirry was less than thrilled to learn that teaching a college class would be a condition of her scholarship.
Though she planned for the assignment unenthusiastically, it took but one meeting with students in Literary Criticism I to realize that she had found her calling.
''It was my epiphany,'' she wrote in the application for the National Teacher of the Year contest, co-sponsored by the Council of Chief State School Officers and Scholastic Inc.
After receiving her doctorate in contemporary literature from International College in Los Angeles, she dived into high school teaching in Massachusetts. She earned her California teaching credential and, in 1967, began teaching English at Mira Costa.
By her estimate, she has taught more than 4,000 students and been a mentor to countless other teachers. She is outspoken in her view that teachers should get more involved in matters that affect them, notably standards, assessment and accountability -- even if that means missing an occasional day or two of school.
The year ahead promises to be a whirlwind, beginning with a round of splashy media events in Washington. At a Thursday reception, President Clinton will present her with a crystal apple.
Whirry is expected to speak at 150 events small and huge. She will spend 10 days in Japan talking with educators there.
''I preach passion in life,'' Whirry said. ''Some of these kids are passionless at 17. Can you imagine what they're going to be like when they're 50? It scares me.''
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