PEABODY — Lawrie Bertram, 52, has always traveled a bit off the beaten track. She got a late start in the education game. She wanted to teach, but after graduating from college she discovered there was a glut of English teachers.
For a while she bided her time as a legal secretary in Salem. It wasn’t until she was 40 years old that she got an offer from Peabody High School.
She thinks then-Principal Joe Patuleia saw her initially as something of a bargain, a low-cost novice teacher with a veteran’s sense of how to bring a roomful of kids to order.
“I didn’t get any guff,” she says. “I just don’t tolerate it.” An orderly class, she’s always believed, benefits the students. “Kids want and deserve consistency. Kids respond really well to my consistent nature.”
So has Mass Insight Education, which named Bertram a winner of the state’s Partners in Excellence Teacher Award. She is one of 15 educators to share the honor this year.
Advanced Placement classes are the concern of the Mass Math and Science Initiative, which, despite the name, also involves English. It’s Bertram’s work in this program that has brought her the honor.
She’s the lead teacher, supervising clusters of classes in Peabody, Danvers, Salem and the Salem Academy Charter School. It’s an effort so successful that not only have scores and participation risen, but it’s even managed to get some kids to come voluntarily to Saturday study sessions.
The whole notion of Advanced Placement has had a reworking during this period, and Bertram admits entertaining doubts about that at first.
“It used to be only the elite … only the smart kids got in,” she says.
Now, just wanting in can be enough. And, Bertram says, the surprise is that the change has not only brought bigger classes and higher scores, but other teachers have noticed the improvement.
“They come to us and say the student’s writing is different. … Instead of just spitting out the essay, they’re playing with it. They’re having fun with it.”
Like ballplayers promoted to the Big Leagues, the kids began “playing up,” says Bertram, working harder to match the so-called elites. “Kids want to be challenged.”
She adds, “I could not have done what I’m doing in this program without the help of the English teachers in the program.”
Meanwhile, Bertram’s work hasn’t stopped with the program. “I still maintain my position as an English teacher,” she says, citing four classes of juniors and one Advanced Placement class at Peabody High.
Add to that, she’s currently pursuing a master’s degree at Salem State. “I’m loving it,” she says, “but it’s grueling.”
Her late start isn’t the only unusual thing about her career.
A lifelong Beverly resident, she graduated from Beverly High and UMass Amherst with a degree in anthropology and a minor in American literature. For graduate studies, however, she went a little farther afield, to St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, where she mastered in Celtic studies. She also learned to play the bagpipes.
In terms of finding employment, neither was a big help, she concedes. “As a Celtic scholar there wasn’t any work.”
Married, with stepchildren, Bertram and her husband, also a teacher, summer in Nova Scotia at a cottage blissfully lacking television or any other electronics.
“We do outdated things like reading books,” she laughs. “Or we do jigsaw puzzles or we talk to each other.”
It was a late marriage, Bertram explains. “Some of us are late bloomers. What can I say?”
The Partners in Excellence award goes to teachers in each of several districts across the state, with a top math, science and English teacher from each cited.
Private donations have helped keep the program going.