She puts everyone in their place

Chronicle Staff

Even as Computer programs beat chess masters, fight battles in Iraq, perform dangerous surgeries, calculate complex equations and explore the outer reaches of the solar system, math teacher Beverly Feulner achieves one formula-based feat no computer program can: scheduling 900 upper school students.

Feulner actually enjoys it, to the surprise of some of her students.

“Wait, you’re a scheduler person?” Michael Norris ’06 asked when he learned of Feulner’s second job.

“I’m the scheduler,” Feulner replied.

“Are you kidding me?” Norris said. “Why would you ever want to do that?”

“It’s like a big puzzle,” Feulner said.

“The worst puzzle ever,” Norris cut in.

“Like a giant Sudoku,” Feulner tried again.

The requirements on the scheduler are many. Classes must be roughly equal in size and placed in the correct room. Neither teachers nor students can be in two rooms at once. Double periods, part-time teachers and class meetings complicate the process. Many departments request roughly equal numbers of boys and girls. And, afternoon periods should have more students free than morning periods to accommodate lunch.

“The human brain, I think, is still more capable than a computer at holding variables,” Feulner said. “There are commercial programs or software packages that do scheduling, but we have too many variables for them.”

To her, scheduling is somewhat of a hobby, albeit one with payment attached. As she described it, her husband, Director of Upper School Master Planning John Feulner, plays the guitar to occupy his free time, while she solves her giant logic puzzle.

“We work together and have a lot of things in common professionally, but when we get home, he goes into his [music] studio, and I go into my office and we do our own thing,” she said.

Feulner toils over schedules from March 20 to mid July. “I work at odd hours: 12, three, five in the morning—whenever inspiration hits.”

During the summer, scheduling is a full-time job.

“She needs concentrated, continuous time to work, because it’s like a math or a physics problem,” John Feulner said. “If you get interrupted in the middle of concentrating on something, it may take a while to get back to where you were. You got to keep goin’ while you’re flowin’.”

The Feulners do reserve time for some breaks, though. “In the summer, we make sure we get up in the morning and take our walk in the park,” John Feulner said. “That’s a typical ritual.”

“The trick is to break the job up into lots of little manageable pieces and then to put them in the right order,” Feulner said.

First, she lays out the “singletons”—classes with only one section’s worth of students. Next she works on classes with two sections, then those with three and so on.

“All three days of Memorial Day weekend I spend working out singletons,” she said. “I take breaks to eat, watch the Indy 500 and that’s about it. If I can get all the singleton courses on the board, I feel like I’m in pretty good shape. It takes about another week to do the rest of the courses.”

Feulner receives a conflict matrix from the computer program Didax, a 200 by 200 matrix telling which courses have the same students. Almost every other step she completes by hand. In fact, she does not use spreadsheet programs to facilitate organization.
“I’m not a very good typist,” she said.

In her home office, she places three large boards along three walls. Running along the top of the chart are periods of the day, and along the side is a list of teachers.
“Then I fill out the boards with classes,” she said. “That whole phase I call ‘building the board.’”

Feulner takes care to keep her two cats out of her office.

“They have definitely knocked down the boards, and my husband can hear me yelling and screaming because two hours of work are down the drain,” she said. “So now I’ve learned to lock the door.”

After finishing the board in June, Feulner inputs her schedule into a computer program that randomly places students in the classes she has scheduled. The program is far from perfect. Feulner must balance classes for number and, in some subjects, gender. Additionally, the computer program double books 30 percent of students. Feulner usually works out about two thirds of the kinks.

“I have never been able to schedule with no conflicts,” she said. “As a mathematician, I’d like to think that there is a perfect solution, but I haven’t found it.”

“I try to be nice to her so she’ll give me a good schedule,” fellow math teacher Kevin Weis said. “I’m just kidding. But I’ve been pretty lucky the last two years…”

“Some years my husband has a terrible schedule,” Feulner said. “I can’t make schedules to make people happy. It’s hard enough to fit everything. Some years, I have a horrible schedule, and I’m like, ‘Who the hell gave me this schedule?’”

“As long as I still enjoy it—and I do—I’ll keep doing the schedules,” she said. “I still look forward to it, still get anxious to get the data every spring. As long as that’s happening, I won’t stop. Still, I always celebrate the day in July when I finish. We always go out to dinner, because that’s when my vacation starts.”

“We usually reserve a bottle of champagne to celebrate when she finishes,” John Feulner said. “It’s a major event in the summer when she says, ‘I’m done.’”