By Adam Hocking
MARSHFIELD — The Marshfield Senior High School (MHS) has recently been ranked as one of the most challenging schools in the nation as well as the No. 2 most challenging school in Wisconsin by The Washington Post.
To get its rankings The Post divided the number of college-level tests a school administers by the amount of graduating seniors. While the establishment of a highly competitive, high-achieving school like MHS is a community effort between parents, teachers, students, and administration, at the base level the school must have excellent and dedicated educators.
Two such teachers are Bill Zuiker and Jim Bokern, who have more than 60 years of combined teaching experience, a majority of which have come at MHS. The pair team teaches two of the 28 Advanced Placement (AP) classes that MHS offers. AP classes are college-level courses where high school students can earn college credit.
Zuiker teaches AP English Language, Bokern handles AP U.S. History, and the two share an 86-minute block of time with their students. Establishing the team taught class was something both Zuiker and Bokern had proposed for years, and they gained approval in 2004 to begin the class. It is the only interdisciplinary, team taught course at MHS.
The structure of the class is, in general, 43 minutes for each teacher to go through their lesson, but both Zuiker and Bokern will chime in during the other’s time to add insight. The classes work in symmetry. Whatever time period Bokern is covering in the history portion of the class, Zuiker will complement with selected readings from that era.
“We have 86 minutes with the kids, and he and I can exchange that time any way we want,” Bokern said.
Bokern added that because they have similar goals and ideologies, he and Zuiker have been able to develop a level of consistency that aids their students’ development.
“We have not had a day without instruction in front of the team taught class in 11 years. It’s unprecedented. It’s the strength of it,” Bokern said.
Bokern added that because he and Zuiker share students and have them in one setting for a longer time than a typical class, stronger teacher-student relationships develop.
“We have kids back to back for two hours, and it (is) interdisciplinary, but we also develop an exponentially bigger relationship with those kids because we have them over break. We see them for both hours, and it really takes the relationship between the student and the teacher to a more advanced level.”
Bokern and Zuiker both said that their similar teaching philosophies add to their ability to work together and create a productive learning environment for students.
“Early on (in our careers at MHS) Bill and I were very like-minded instructors in the humanities, one in English and one in history,” Bokern said. Both teachers emphasize critical thinking and strong writing, skills that transcend the basic curriculum of any single course.
Zuiker said that his relationship with Bokern has been important in making the shared class successful.
“There (is) a good synergy between Jim and I. We’re the same age. He lives in Northern Wisconsin. I grew up in Northern Wisconsin. He went to college with several of my best high school friends. We met when we were like 19 years old, and then we met again basically when we started in this district,” Zuiker said.
Bokern and Zuiker equip students with skills that allow them to prepare successfully for the academic rigors of college. Both teachers said they have received thank you notes from past students remarking on how prepared they felt for college and how they excelled where other students struggled.
Bokern said that in particular the support of students and families has been beneficial to his success as a teacher and is something he has enjoyed about teaching in Marshfield.
“I have enjoyed the sense of community and the support of families and of students to be willing to take the risks, to try challenging and rigorous course work,” Bokern said. “What I really enjoy is when we all try to do something difficult and we succeed. That’s the real satisfaction.”
Zuiker added that Marshfield traditionally places high expectations on its schools and that he appreciates the community’s emphasis on setting lofty goals.
“I enjoy the fact that Marshfield has traditionally had expectations of its teachers and its students. I’m kind of a competitive person, and I like meeting expectations,” Zuiker said. “I really enjoy doing things that people either say that you can’t do or you won’t be successful at. … I just like setting a high bar and clearing it.”
In order to gain college credit from an AP course, students must pass a final exam and score a 3, 4, or 5 on the test. According to data collected by Zuiker, since starting the combined AP U.S. History – AP English Language course in 2004, students have taken 1,293 total exams, and 1,076—or 83.2 percent—of those students earned a passing grade and gained college credit.
According to this data analysis, students have saved approximately $1.4 million over the life of the class by earning college credit in high school and thus not having to take and pay for those equivalent courses at the college level.