You know someone loves her work when she starts talking about the joy of "seeing lots of miracles" every year. That's how Pam Walkup sees her job as a first-grade teacher at Alexandria's Jefferson-Houston Elementary School.

Walkup, 39, has been named Teacher of the Year for the Northern Virginia region by the Virginia Department of Education. She is one of seven teachers honored in the state, each representing a region and one of whom will be chosen as Virginia Teacher of the Year. That person will go on to compete for the National Teacher of the Year title.

But what thrills Walkup more than the honor is her job, although she said she was overjoyed to receive the news of being named a teacher of the year.

"I received a letter in the mail . . . from the Department of Education telling me I had been selected and I thought, wow!" Walkup recalled. "It was thrilling."

Alexandria Superintendent of Schools Paul W. Masem was "delighted" for Walkup.

"I have had the opportunity to be in Pam's class several times . . . . I think she's just an outstanding professional and a first-rate teacher. I think it's a well deserved recognition," Masem said.

Walkup has worked for the Alexandria schools since 1972, after graduating from West Virginia University. She has been teaching first grade at Jefferson-Houston Elementary School, at 1501 Cameron St., since 1976. She also has a master's degree in elementary education from George Mason University.

The need for parental involvement in their children's education, particularly reading, is one of her most passionate causes.

"One of my strongest beliefs has to do with reading and the fact that parents must read with their children at home," Walkup said. "The value of reading in a child's life just carries over into all parts of a child's life, including math."

She sees her job as being responsible for "finding that little key that unlocks the door of learning or that unlocks motivation for each student." When that happens "it's like a miracle," Walkup said. "That's the wonderful thing about that age {first-grade students}, you see a lot of miracles . . . . I see miracles every year."

The one that stands out in her mind from the past school year was a boy whose parents were concerned that their child was not reading yet.

"I met with both the parents and they were extremely frustrated because he wasn't reading . . . . They were putting so much pressure on him that he was feeling really bad about it," Walkup said.

She advised the parents to read to him every night, but not to push him. "I told them when he's ready he will read." Meanwhile, Walkup worked with the boy to help him rebuild his confidence.

"Parents think their children don't pick up on their disappointment, but they do," she said. Then, in March, which is late for a first-grader to begin reading, according to Walkup, the boy suddenly began reading.

"Everything just clicked and he started reading, and reading very well," Walkup said. However, her real reward was a letter from the boy's mother thanking her for the guidance.

"The mother said that she doubted my advice," Walkup said, but that reading to her son every night had resulted in the blossoming of a very close relationship between her and her son.

Walkup has always been active in the business of education. She was president of the Education Association of Alexandria from 1984 to 1986. She has also been vice president of Alexandria's Parent-Teacher Association Council, and she's been treasurer of the Jefferson-Houston PTA several times in the past 10 years. She has served on numerous committees of the National Education Association, as well as committees of the Alexandria School Board.

She said first-graders have "definitely changed" in the 19 years she's been teaching. There are many more children from divorced parents, parents on welfare, and homeless children. "Ten years ago you never had a student who was homeless. It was just unheard of," Walkup said.

"I think one of the things that has not come out in the forefront of education today is that it is going to cost more to educate these children. They need a lot more social service type of support than they're getting.

"In this country some of our kids are falling through the safety net and they're falling through in much larger clumps than they ever have before," Walkup said. "It's very disturbing . . . . These children need help."