The sharp tap of snare drums surrounds Tim Baker every morning while ringing bells follow him the rest of the day. As drumline instructor and math teacher in two different schools for students who he says are very similar, Baker is followed by music wherever he goes.
Tim Baker's dual roles
Every morning through marching band season, Baker can be found out on the practice field at Rock Bridge High School, teaching and restraining the friendly and boisterous drumline. The drummers call him “Tim” and regard him as a friend with the power to tell them to shut up. And every morning, Tim drives across town to Douglass High School to be Mr. Baker, the only in-residence math teacher.
The 33-year-old teaches a bit of every kind of math at Douglass. The mixed ability levels of most of his classes make preparing lesson plans difficult, but he said it does have advantages.
“I haven’t been stuck in Algebra 1 my whole career and forgotten everything about geometry,” Baker said. “Use it or lose it, and I haven’t lost it. But coming up with individual assignments for every student is very time-consuming.”
Fifth hour is the only class where all the students are learning the same thing, and only during that hour does Baker stand near the chalkboard, writing down formulas and explaining algebra. The other hours are spent wandering around the classroom, encouraging the small groups of students and enforcing rules as they do homework.
“No eating. I don’t want to mess up the new carpet,” said Baker protectively. “The old one smelled like feet.”
Making an impact in the classroom...
A student calls Baker over. He explains the problem and looks at her answer.
“You don’t know what I did wrong here,” she challenges.
“Yes I do,” Baker says jokingly. “I know exactly what you did wrong. You got 72 as your answer.” He smiles, explains the problem and moves on to the next student. While he’s busy, another student comes over to volunteer her opinion of him.
“He’s such a good teacher,” she said. “I didn’t like math, and he makes it so much better. I kinda look forward to math class.”
The fulfillment and feeling of making a difference is why Baker teaches for a small salary, he said. Baker could work for a mortgage firm earning significantly higher wages, as he did for several years after college.
“Math degrees are pretty marketable. If I wanted money, I could have made money. If you’re here for money, you’re definitely in the wrong place,” he said.
When Baker applied to the school district in 1998, four schools called in one day to offer him a job teaching math — West Junior High School, Hickman High School, Rock Bridge and Douglass.
...And on the field
Baker started teaching drumline at Rock Bridge in 1991, while still a student at Columbia College. He’d played drums in high school and college, as well as being a part of the Sky Ryders Drum Corps. Now, in what he considers his 20th year of being a drummer, he’s nearing the end of his percussion career. His wife, Ann, is having a child, which he always considered the cut-off line for teaching drumline because of the hours involved.
His students have made his decision to leave next year much harder. On Nov. 13, he was presented with the “Bruin of My Life” award at Rock Bridge after being nominated by his students. The award is given to teachers who students say have had a lifelong impact on their lives.
Radiating pride in his line, Baker stands on the dew-drenched field at about 7 a.m., casually dressed in khakis and a knit shirt, a steaming cup of coffee in hand. Describing them as “smokin,’ “ Baker says he can’t write music hard enough for them, though this is the hardest show he’s seen in his 13 years at Rock Bridge. Officially called a percussion coach, Baker does everything required to run a drumline, from arranging music to teaching lessons to driving the riding lawn mower that pulls the cart full of kettle drums and chimes.
Though as a drumline coach he violates the math teacher stereotype of pocket protectors and nerdiness, Baker says math and drums are a natural fit. For Baker, math earns him a living, and percussion is his passion.
“I think there’s so many parallels between math and drums,” Baker said. “Now math teachers that actually play drums, that’s rare.”
About his Douglass students
Baker labels the Rock Bridge and Douglass as polar opposites, mostly because of the different educational focuses. Rock Bridge is a college-prep school and Douglass tries to give students life skills they can take into the work force after high school.
But Baker said he doesn’t treat the students any differently.
“I think most people think they’re a bunch of slackers, unintelligent troublemakers,” Baker said of the Douglass students. “And I thought that, too, when I started there, to be honest. But they’re kids, and they’re alike in many more ways than they are different ... which I think is pretty much opposite public perception. They’re not all troublemakers at Douglass and they’re not all a bunch of goodie two-shoes at Rock Bridge.”
Baker said there isn’t any competition between Douglass and Rock Bridge, probably because they don’t compete in sports. He also said Douglass students have learned something Hickman and Rock Bridge students haven’t — they don’t waste time “bad-mouthing” other schools.
“I wish the kids from Rock Bridge and Hickman would learn more about Douglass and find out about what’s going on there,” Baker said. “Everyone thinks it’s a bunch of juvenile delinquents. The vast majority of them aren’t — they’re just kids that were having problems.”
Baker’s day doesn’t end with the bell, because most days he goes back to Rock Bridge for extra drumline practices or to teach lessons, which generally keep him there until 6 or 7 p.m. That’s later than his mortgage job ever kept him, but he doesn’t seem to mind.
“I do love this job,” he said. “Best job I’ve ever had. The only job I haven’t been looking at the clock saying ‘Oh God, when is it gonna be 5 o’clock?’“