Jessica Mifsud

How did you first get into playing bridge?

I was always a card player, and I played constantly with my grandparents as a youngster, but learning how to play bridge didn't happen until after I was married. We moved to Corning, NY, where I immediately started teaching school. Since my husband's new job required him to be gone four days out of seven, I quickly joined the neighborhood bridge group, even though I didn't know anything about the game of bridge.

At my first bridge party I was paired with a young gal who mentored me and within six weeks we were already playing at the local novice duplicate games. I was hooked! When my first partner moved from the area, I was fortunate to immediately find another partner. She was gracious and always positive. How fortunate to have nurturing bridge partners!

How did you get into teaching bridge?

Years later, my husband was transferred to Charleston, SC at the perfect time for me. I had just turned 55 and I was able to retire from teaching school. The first person I met in our new neighborhood asked me immediately if I played bridge. She ended up being my next-door neighbor… how fortuitous!

Since our community was new we started our own Women's Club. There was a great interest by many of the members to learn how to play bridge. Along with another gal I taught bridge lessons for two years. We now have Bridge Club at Coosaw every Monday morning.

At about the same time I started playing duplicate bridge at the local Bridge Center and became one of their Board members. We were plagued with a declining enrollment and someone suggested we start offering bridge classes. Well, I started teaching on Tuesdays. These people are still with me after five years of "Tuesdays with Tina". The only difference is my bridge family has grown and grown.

What are your favorite bridge books?

For teaching I've used several authors: Audrey Grant, Pat Harrington, Marty Bergen, Eddie Kantar, Barbara Seagram & Marc Smith. Some other good resources: Mel's How to Play like an Expert and Fairbrother's Partnership Agreements.

In my study I have a wonderful collection of bridge books not only to use for teaching but for my own personal enjoyment. I have all of the "25 Series" books by Barbara Seagram and Marc Smith. [They are in] an easy format, and user-friendly. I also have Marty Bergen's collection. I enjoy his humor and format. He even does on-line lessons, which I find very useful.

What is your teaching philosophy?

Bridge means different things to people. Some just want to "exercise" their brain; some want to improve their game socially; some want to be able to play in a duplicate game or even attend a tournament; and you even have some who dream of becoming a Life Master. You try and do your best to reach out to all your students' needs.

Of course I want the students to not only learn the basics of bridge but to have fun doing so. I try to encourage them to be risk-takers and open their minds. [It's] amazing what they can learn. I also try and give them a purpose for learning a new convention, and I understand the importance of knowing the "whole story" before [students] can mark it on their Convention Card.

What advice do you have for other teachers?

I think it's essential that you know your material and are very organized. Try and find clever ways to present the material to help the students understand and remember the various concepts. If your class is large you can have other teachers assist you. You can also have experienced players come and help you with the guided play. [I call it] "give-back" time.

Be willing to share your own experiences at the bridge table, the good and the bad. Let students know we all make mistakes, and that's part of the learning process. Let them see you laugh and remember to find time to celebrate any milestones. A successful bridge program is a team effort: many small parts are contributed to the whole.

We have heard that you like to use costumes to help get your points across. What are some examples of costumes you use, and what do they stand for? Do you find this helps your students learn?

Wearing costumes certainly captures the interest of the students and greatly helps with retention. Example: NT

Everybody knows what's in opener's hand when he bids 1NT...15-17 hcps and a balanced hand. The person directing the partnership is responder...he's the captain. His responsibility is to steer the partnership to the correct level and denomination. Thus, I wear my captain's hat with my NT sign.

I also have a "jeweled" pig hat that I use to help the responder decide what kind of hand he has.

P (partscore 0-7 hcps)

I (invitational 8-9 hcps)

G (game 10-15 hcps)

I tell the students to play "PIG" every time their partner opens 1NT. Of course, I drawl out the word P-I-G...such fun for all!

What was your reaction to being nominated for the ABTA Teacher of the Year award?

My students secretly nominated me for the award. Joyce Penn called and asked if I was making the trip to New Orleans for the ABTA conference. She went on to say I was one of the eight finalists for the ABTA Teacher of the Year award. Since she caught me by surprise, I think I was a bit speechless and overwhelmed.

The next day when I went to class I mentioned to the group that I had received a phone call with the news that I was a finalist… but I didn't even have the opportunity to finish the sentence. The classroom erupted with spontaneous cheers. They had been anxiously waiting for any news. Finally news had arrived and it was great news for everyone!

What was your reaction to winning the ABTA Teacher of the Year Award?

In my mind I was already a winner because I was nominated and was a finalist. I felt very honored to just be in New Orleans at the Conference with people who shared a common passion for bridge. When my name was called as winner… I know I was astounded and overcome with tears of joy. What an achievement! Being given this outstanding award will always be an unforgettable beautiful memory.

Your students have told us a lot about you. What would you like to tell us about them?

I love their enthusiasm, sense of humor and willingness to be risk-takers. Not only are they caring and respectful of each other, but they are generous with their time and talent. They love celebrating any milestone and are not hesitant about lending a "helping hand" wherever needed. They are my special bridge family.

Since you're already Teacher of the Year… what's next? Are there any goals you'd like to accomplish?

I hope to just keep everything moving forward. Of course I will continue to do my best to help improve the bridge programs for which I have been given responsibility. Building a good support team will be a goal. Having fun while learning will be a priority!

What do you like best about the game?

I guess I would say I've always been a "continuous" learner. In bridge you're always learning and no two hands are ever alike. Best of all, you have the opportunity to meet many people and develop strong friendships.