In the late 1950s, Kathryn Burden went to the Newport News, Va., schools system and demanded an education for her special-needs daughter.
When school officials asked, "But who will teach her?" Burden responded, "I will." Then she helped to establish the school district's special education department.
More than 10 years later, Burden's niece, Rachel Newell, appeared before the Louisa County, Va., School Board and insisted that the county needed an elementary school music program. The School Board asked, "But who will teach it?"
"I will," responded Newell, a teacher with just one year of experience. So Newell spent the next year traveling across the county in a bookmobile van with an art teacher, a physical education teacher and a librarian, spending hours on the road and teaching music to each of the county's elementary school children.
Last week, Newell, 53, a music teacher for 31 years who said she still looks at a picture of her aunt for inspiration every day, was honored as Loudoun County's Teacher of the Year. The Agnes Meyer Award, sponsored by The Washington Post, carries a $3,000 prize.
Wendy Giordano, a first-grade teacher at Lowes Island Elementary, and Denise Wingfield, a biology teacher at Park View High, also were finalists.
Newell said her aunt pushed her to pursue music, her true passion, and to teach it to others. Like her aunt, Newell has spent a career nurturing a field that she thinks is crucial to education.
"She was a teacher who believed there were no limits," Newell said. "She believed you can teach people to have a love of living."
Newell said that she tries to do the same by teaching children to appreciate music and that over the decades, more and more people have come to agree with her about its importance in education.
"It's not necessarily about music," Newell said. "It's about life and loving life. Music is for every occasion we have, from birth to death. It was here at 9/11. It's here when we marry, when we celebrate and when we die."
From her music room at Hillside Elementary School in Ashburn, where she has taught for five years, Newell teaches music to children in second through fifth grades. She leads two choruses, for fourth- and fifth-graders, and a percussion ensemble.
Her room is stocked with books and records and crammed full of props for the yearly musicals she leads. She has instruments from all over the world, including buckets of maracas and stacks of autoharps.
But it hasn't always been this way. For years, Newell spent her career on the road, teaching music to many schools at once. She came to Loudoun in 1974 and has taught at 18 different schools for 22 of the 28 years since then. She has taught from a cart, wheeling supplies around school, and from her car, driving thousands of miles a year to reach students in disparate parts of the county.
"It's so great to have a home" at Hillside, she said. "I have 31 years worth of stuff. So when I'm talking about organ pipes, I can reach over and grab an organ pipe to show the children."
Newell said she hopes that her award reminds people of the importance of music education.
"I realize I'm accepting this award for music teachers across the county," she said. "It's for every band director, every choir director, everyone who works so hard to give their students a love of music."
Hillside Principal Mary L. Green said Newell's honor has been exciting for the school. She is the first teacher at the five-year-old school to be named teacher of the year. Green said that staff members held a party for Newell on Wednesday morning and that a congratulatory banner hangs in the hall by her room.
"She is absolutely an amazing teacher and person," Green said. "She's here before school, after school. She's here all the time. I'm often telling her, 'Rachel, it's time to go home!' "
Newell lives in Leesburg, a block from the school system's administrative building and near St. James' Episcopal Church, where she is an active member and plays piano with the choir. Newell also participates in a weekly women's Bible group and leads a support group, called Mondays Matter, on Monday nights for women who are separated or divorced.
Newell said she plans to flip through the packet of nominating material that came from her fellow teachers, students, their parents and friends -- including her husband -- whenever she needs a pick-me-up.
"It's such an honor to see that I've been a light in other people's lives," she said.