As West High School Principal Terrie Bernardin sat in her office Wednesday for one of the last times, she reminisced about a recent European trip.

In no time at all, anybody can see she was a math teacher at one point in her career — and always will be.

"We went on this bridge built in 500 A.D. ... and it still works," she said. "How did they do the math with that?"

Bernardin admits if she traveled before beginning her teaching career 29 years ago, she would have been a better teacher.

"I could have taught conic sections with that bridge. You think about why do kids care about conic sections and they have to know the strength points and that's part of the math and if you haven't had that experience you can't teach," she said.

But with nearly three decades of experience in the field, Bernardin learned how to teach well, with or without European travels.

Bernardin, who has been everything from a teacher, cheerleader adviser, assistant principal to principal, is retiring after a 29-year career at West High School. Her successor, Megan Gregor, begins her new career July 1.

It is very rare for an educator to stay in one place for their entire career, but Bernardin saw how great the investment was at West despite challenges along the road.

"Why would you go somewhere else and invest again when you can continue to invest here?" she said. "We went through some tough times and teachers left because they didn’t want to live through those tough times, and I was the opposite."

While she loves the school now, her feelings were the opposite when it opened. As an Arvin High School student, she said the opening of West High School led to the principal and 25 teachers from Arvin being transferred to the new school, and she was devastated to see them go. 

But Bernardin eventually made her way to teaching at West when she was 37 years old.

"When I married my husband I said I would never teach a day. I went back to Cal State Bakersfield to be an accountant and god I hated accounting," she said. "I was fighting teaching because there were so many in my family. Finally one day I said, 'Why don't you give it up since you know that's who you should be.'"

She began teaching at West High School in 1990 as a math teacher. Bernardin brought the first graphic calculator to West, and she believed in group work because "productive noise was important to learning."

Students to this day apply what they learned from Bernardin's classes to their careers, including Assemblymember Vince Fong. He thinks of her class when he is creating budgets.

"Terrie was an important part of my education at West High. As a student and as an alum, she has always been supportive and uplifting," Fong said. "Terrie’s commitment has always been to help students excel; whether it be through enhancing career technical education or bringing back the forensics program."

Bernardin was also the cheerleader adviser, activities director and workforce coordinator before moving into administrative roles. As assistant principal of administration, she ran the mechanics of West, and she later became assistant principal of instruction, which was her "Holy Grail."

"We talked about programs and changed programs to help kids get better," she said. "All of that creativity in those 10 years was about taking kids where they came to us and not letting that define where they left with us."

As her career advanced, West High was experiencing changes of its own. Once known as "the country club school of Bakersfield," Bernardin explained parent involvement was high because most families were upper-middle class and women were stay-at-home mothers who helped out with school activities. 

But other area schools were overcrowded, so when boundary lines were redrawn and Stockdale High School opened, students who lived far away who would not typically attend West High School were enrolled. Parents could not participate in the school as much because they lived far away or were working two or more jobs to make ends meet.

Morale among students, faculty and staff was low and it was difficult to get people to invest in West.

"We were hiring 15 new teachers a year and trying to build a group of teachers who would stay and invest and it was hard," she said. "We had tough kids."

But Bernardin saw the value in the school all those years and hired teachers who "were impassioned and wanted to make a difference for kids." From 2000 to 2010, she said the school transitioned about two-thirds of its teachers. Kids also began to invest in the school after their freshman year.

For the last five years she has been the principal, which has not been her favorite role. 

"There's a lot of politics involved when you get to this level," she explained. Though Bernardin found her "Holy Grail" job previously, she said she defined herself as principal by bringing in community members and making the school strong.

"No one knows just exactly how green the grass is at West High. If you don't go through the fence or the doors you're not going to see what's happening here," she added. "My goal was to not reproduce a Centennial, just to make West the best it can be."

As she prepares to hand over the keys to her successor, Bernardin hopes Gregor "outshines me in every way." But many are not ready to see her leave just yet. 

"I can’t imagine stepping foot on campus and not seeing Terrie there. She will be missed and the West High family is very lucky to have had her for 29 years," Fong said.

She has made no plans for July and August, but trips that incorporate math one way or another are always a possibility.

Ema Sasic can be reached at 661-395-7392. Follow her on Twitter: @ema_sasic.

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