BERLIN – Gwen Lehman never set out to become a teacher.
When she graduated from Hood College in 1968, she saw herself making a living as a writer. The senatorial scholarship she had received, however, committed her to two years in the classroom first.
A few months of teaching high school English convinced her that wasn’t such a bad thing.
“I just loved it,” she said. “It was a wonderful experience. I thought, I like it and I seem to have a flair for it. I might as well try it at least for a couple years. A couple turned into 46.”
Lehman will end her more than four decade teaching career when she retires from Stephen Decatur High School in June. At 68, she says she’s ready to slow down.
“I decided it was time to stop working like a maniac and spend time with my family,” she said.
Lehman, the force behind Stephen Decatur High School’s renowned drama department, is known throughout the area for the impact she has on students and the array of theater productions she leads each year. There’s hardly a Worcester County graduate who hasn’t been to one of her Children’s Theatre productions or watched her students perform Shakespeare in Decatur’s outdoor theater.
“Over her 46 years at Stephen Decatur, she has impacted the lives of thousands of students and her Children’s Theatre productions have been performed for literally hundreds of thousands of local elementary school children,” said Tom Zimmer, principal at Decatur. “Gwen is highly respected by both students and staff and is truly an icon that will be missed by all at Stephen Decatur.”
Although Lehman began her career teaching English at South Hagerstown High School, an opportunity to teach psychology brought the Williamsport, Md., native to the Eastern Shore in 1969. Gladys Burbage, principal of Stephen Decatur at the time, hired Lehman to instruct students in both psychology and English. Coming off a year in the classroom with some of Hagerstown’s top students, Lehman experienced a bit of a surprise when she met her charges at Decatur. The school, at the time, included seventh through 12th grades and had no special education program in place. Her students ranged extensively in both age and academic ability.
“I had a kid who didn’t know the alphabet past J,” she said. “It was such a shock.”
She quickly settled in though, and came to love the tight-knit school community.
“I always liked the atmosphere here,” she said, “and I loved Mrs. Burbage. She gave you a lot of academic freedom. You don’t have much of that these days.”
When Burbage needed someone to take over the school’s drama program in 1973, Lehman, who’d been taking classes in theater, volunteered. At the time, however, the program consisted of just two events — a junior class play to raise money for the prom and a senior class play to raise money for graduation. Lehman told Burbage she was happy to take responsibility for the drama program as long as it stopped serving as a fundraiser. Instead, she wrote a curriculum and started a class.
It wasn’t long before she was turning students away.
“It filled up pretty quickly,” she said. “It got a reputation as something that was fun to do.”
In an effort to narrow the pool of kids wanting to get in, she created attendance criteria and even minimum grade requirements for the class. Interest remained high though, and eventually Stephen Decatur began offering drama as well as introduction to drama classes. Even now, though, freshmen are excluded from the program to keep it at a manageable size.
Lehman says she’s thrilled to have been able to build such an extensive student drama program, particularly on the Eastern Shore. In most rural schools, drama remains an after-school program.
“The arts are not considered the most valuable and important things schools can teach,” Lehman said. “You have music and visual arts but you usually have to be in a metropolitan area to get dance or drama.”
Today, Decatur’s drama and introduction to drama classes are responsible for five productions each school year. They’re highlighted by the annual Children’s Theatre — which celebrated its 38th year in the fall — and Shakespeare under the Stars, which is set for the middle of May.
While performing Shakespeare is a favorite of her students, Lehman says the Children’s Theatre is what Decatur’s drama program is known for in the community. More than 10,000 children from Worcester, Wicomico and Somerset counties attend the annual production. Lehman said the program grew out of her decision to have her students perform for children at Buckingham Elementary School one year.
“My theory was the best way to teach the kids theater was to have them do it,” she said, adding that she figured they would be less intimidated acting in front of a young audience.
Their production was so well received at Buckingham that they were asked to perform at other schools. Eventually demand grew to the point that it proved more efficient to have the children come to Decatur to see the annual show. This year, Lehman’s drama students performed the Children’s Theatre production 18 times.
“I didn’t plan for it to be this huge,” she said.
She’s thrilled with the way it’s turned out though, and says she hopes it will continue once she retires.
“It’d be a shame to see that go,” she said. “More than anything I’d like to see that continue.”
In addition to her endless work with Stephen Decatur’s theater department, Lehman stays busy teaching two classes of AP psychology.
“It’s an unusual schedule but I love it,” she said. “I’m teaching stuff I really enjoy teaching.”
The hours in the classroom have exposed her to the array of changes the education field has experienced in the past four decades. She’s concerned about the effect standardized testing has had on education.
“In the past, you wanted kids to learn but you didn’t have a score where if they missed it by one point it could mean dire things for that child,” she said. “Students seem to worry endlessly. I don’t feel it’s a healthy way to approach teaching.”
During her time at the school, Lehman has also watched the use of electronic devices grow. She doesn’t like the way they’ve taken over nearly every aspect of teaching.
“I don’t want to be tied to that kind of device,” she said.
While she won’t miss having to use the latest software to manage her class, Lehman says she will miss her students. She’s enjoyed having a room full of young minds to talk about her favorite books with and a cast of characters to direct on stage.
“I’ll miss the kids,” she said. “Even if they do things that upset you, you can forgive them because they’re just kids. They’re just learning.”
Lehman’s attitude and enthusiasm for teaching are remembered by her students long after they’ve left Stephen Decatur.
Brooke Rogers, chair of the art department at Salisbury University, says his experiences in Lehman’s drama program nearly 30 years ago were the highlight of his time in high school.
“She’s just organically, without trying to be, a strong leader and at the same time seemed like a friend too,” Rogers said. “That’s a tough line to walk.”
He said she made him feel like an equal but at the same time left no doubt as to who was in charge.
“As a teacher and director, she was demanding and rigid with high expectations and somehow everybody loved her for it,” Rogers said. “She was my first example of true professionalism in the arts.”
Former student Annie Danzi, who is now a professor at Frostburg, says Lehman’s passion and personality are what influence students.
“Gwendolyn Lehman is more than an excellent educator,” Danzi said. “She lights a fire in her students.”
Danzi, who teaches communications, is working on a documentary about Lehman and the Children’s Theatre that she’s hoping will air on Maryland Public Television.
“It’s an honor to make this film about her,” she said.
Danzi was also one of several of people to nominate Lehman for a new Tony Award created just for theater teachers. The winner will be recognized at the Tony Awards in June.
“We think it would be the perfect way to honor her,” Danzi said. “She is most deserving.”
Lehman, in typical fashion, says she’s just pleased that the awards program is finally recognizing the people who sparked a love of theater in some of the nation’s best performers when they were just teenagers.
“A lot of people look back on their high school career and acknowledge that there was somebody that did a lot for them,” she said. “Seeing that acknowledged [by the Tony Awards] was really meaningful.”