Taking students back in time

History teacher Bessie Alexander strays from traditional classroom setting

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A large collection of records on the walls and Elvis Presley posters bring life to what would otherwise be another dull, pale-colored U.S. history classroom, but it isn’t the vinyl and the Elvis paraphernalia, or the checkered, used-to-be Pizza Hut tables that set the classroom aside from all the rest. It’s not the jukebox in the back of the room; it’s the teacher behind it all. Sitting behind her black and white checkered desk, overlooking a classroom that makes students wonder if they’ve been teleported to the ‘50s, history teacher Bessie Alexander smiles. This is not only her classroom and her place of work, but a representation of where she’s been and who she is. 

“Well, I’m a product of the ‘50’s,” Alexander said. “I’m old school. I love good music and I love the roller skates and all the carhops. Everybody loves [music]. Music, food and friends. And I thought, ‘Hey, I’m all about music, who doesn’t like music?’ Find me a person who doesn’t like music and I’ll show you a person who has some issues.”

I love all my students. I don’t let any of them out of here until they realize we’ve got a good thing going here. It’s warm and fuzzy.”

— Bessie Alexander

Whereas most students walk into their classes dreading the day before them, the students who set foot in Alexander’s class are immediately reeled in by its inviting ambiance and its scent resembling something like baked goods. She greets her students with a bright smile and instantly they know these four walls are different from anything they’ve encountered before. The classroom is a diner and learning isn’t a bore or a punishment; it’s a joy.

“I never liked what we call the ‘cemetery rows,’” Alexander said. “You put kids in those rows, they’re going to die. They’re not going to listen to you, they’re dead already. Just put a name on this tombstone. I realized there was a better way to do it. I’m a firm believer that two heads are better than one. I’m a firm believer that if you put me in, even at my age, with someone to collaborate with, I don’t feel as pressured. I don’t feel like I’m dumb.”

Inspiring her fellow teachers is an unexpected result from Alexander’s creative learning environment. English teacher Lois Hardaway, a longtime friend to Alexander since she began teaching, has adapted Alexander’s bright attitude and unconventional classroom. 

“I don’t have the jukebox but I really do tend to try to be a little bit more entertaining,” Hardaway said. “Because of her, I will open up a little more with my students like she does.”

Because of her, I will open up a little more with my students like she does.”

— Lois Hardaway

Not only are other staff members welcome in her room at all times, but students as well. Building a close relationship with her students is something Alexander prides herself on. The unpredictable decorations give new students a fresher feeling to history class. From making sure all her students do their best on state-issued tests to simply making them smile, Alexander lets her students know they’re loved.

“I was very surprised because she seems like she would be a strict teacher,” junior Sapphira Hart said. “[Like] nothing on the walls and nothing distracting. [Her room] is something that really showed us her personality.”

Every August, Alexander returns to this class. It isn’t the history lessons that demand to be taught that reel her back in, but the relationships she builds with every single student. From the moment they walk into her room for the first time, to the very last day of school, they are not just her students; they are her family. 

“On the last day [my students] leave my class, I stand in the doorway and I have the song playing by Rod Stewart, ‘Have I Told You Lately,’” Alexander said. “I love all my students. I don’t let any of them out of here until they realize we’ve got a good thing going here. It’s warm and fuzzy.”