Joyce Johnson knows exactly why she became a teacher. She remembers when she was a teenager in the early 1960s, watching her father come home tired from working on his cattle farm every day and study to become a deacon at Marshall Baptist Church in Fauquier County.
Her father, Fenton Edwards, quit school after second grade to support his parents, and he could hardly read. He struggled reading the Bible and felt embarrassed about mispronouncing words during nightly practices. She struggled, too, feeling ill-equipped as a sixth-grader to teach him how to sound and spell everything out.
"I would walk down the hallway, and dad would routinely be in a rocking chair reading the Bible, spelling a word like S-T-R-O-N-G. My heart poured out for him, especially since I didn't know how to show him the techniques," said Johnson, 55, a second-grade teacher at W.G. Coleman Elementary School in Marshall. "I saw how easily people can be embarrassed trying to learn something and that it's okay to make mistakes."
Johnson, who has taught in Fauquier's school system for 32 years, was honored this week as the county's teacher of the year. The Agnes Meyer Outstanding Teacher Award, sponsored by The Washington Post, carries a $3,000 prize. Johnson and Loudoun County's winner Rachel Newell, a music teacher at Hillside Elementary School in Ashburn, were among 20 teachers across the Washington region honored Monday night at the Post building in Washington.
For stories about the winners, visit www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/education/ teachers/agnesmeyer.
After graduating from Fauquier High School in 1966 and earning a bachelor's degree in elementary education from Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond in 1970, Johnson took a job teaching reading at Pearson Elementary in Catlett.
Nine years later, she began at Coleman, and she has been there virtually ever since, helping hundreds of second- and third-graders with some of life's basics -- spelling, writing, reading, arithmetic and the weather. Johnson's husband, Sam, teaches physical education and coaches the golf and baseball teams at Fauquier High School. They have two sons, Jay, 29, and Bryan, 26.
Johnson is well-known in the building for her gentle voice and respectful and patient manner, always encouraging and never condescending, said Joy Seward, principal of the 400-student school for second- through fifth-graders in northern Fauquier.
"Last week, she helped out one girl who writes too fast so you can't understand her writing," Seward said. "It was a big effort for her to slow down, and Joyce just kept saying, 'I believe in you. Give yourself a chance' and not, 'Do this again. It's messy. I can't read it.' "
Jodi Nash, whose three children have been taught by Johnson, said the veteran teacher can diagnose a student's problems almost instantly. Two summers ago, Nash went to Johnson seeking advice on how to improve her son Gage's reading.
Johnson offered an easy solution -- weekly tutoring all summer, for free. She even drove Gage, now 9 and a third-grader, to McDonald's and for ice cream after lessons.
It's the kind of treatment from a bygone time and place, Nash said, one that can still be found depending on the teacher. "It's very personal, and it allows your kids to really ripen," Nash said.
Johnson said her biggest regret is not being able to teach the one person who inspired her in the first place. Fenton Edwards died in 1968 but not before he was ordained a deacon at Marshall Baptist Church.