Amid the hubbub of lunch in the Taylor Middle School cafeteria the other day, Christine Douthett witnessed something she found remarkable.

A young boy approached Ruth Nelson, principal of the Warrenton school, to repay a dollar she had offered him when he was short on lunch money. Nelson told him he had a choice: He could give her the dollar, or he could consider it a gift. The boy handed Nelson the dollar.

That scene summed up Nelson's strengths as a principal, said Douthett, president of the school's parent-teacher organization. It showed that Nelson trusts and respects her students enough to lend them money and let them make decisions and that they trust and respect her enough to ask for help and express their gratitude.

In 15 years as an administrator at Taylor -- 11 as principal -- Nelson has cultivated a reputation as a friendly, gracious leader. Her example, parents and teachers say, has created a comfortable atmosphere that fosters learning. This year, that helped Nelson, 50, earn The Washington Post's Distinguished Educational Leadership Award for Fauquier County.

"I've never seen a principal who's so popular with everybody," Douthett said. "It's because she's so warm."

Taylor is best known for her accessibility and openness to innovation, whether it comes from a 12-year-old or a veteran teacher. This year, she supported an idea from two teachers to plant a "memory garden" in front of the school, where students and staff planted bulbs that will bloom in the spring. She also backed up one student's suggestion that classes write letters to soldiers in Afghanistan.

Teachers and students come to her with ideas because they know she'll listen, Nelson said.

"My door is always open," she said.

Not that she is in her office much. To learn the 440 names of every Taylor student by winter vacation, Nelson cruises the halls between each class period, sits in the cafeteria at lunch and gets students on the buses after school. To test herself, she studies students' photos, which are saved on the school's computer system.

Nelson is also a frequent visitor in classrooms, where she often jumps in to participate in lessons.

She said she puts out that effort because she believes educators must build relationships with every student, and at Taylor, all students are her students.

"We need to make sure that we don't have one child who falls through the cracks," she said. "They need affirmation."

Teachers said Nelson gives them the same treatment.

"She treats her staff like family," said Lindsey B. Wangsgard, an eighth-grade English teacher who attended Taylor when Nelson was an assistant principal. "I respect her as a boss, but when I talk to her it's not like talking to a boss, it's like talking to a friend."

Nelson, a Fauquier native, said she knew she wanted to be a teacher when she was a middle schooler herself. After graduating from college, she taught choral music for 15 years in Prince William County and earned a master's degree from George Mason University in 1979. Curious about administration, she applied in 1990 for an assistant principal position at Taylor. When she was chosen, however, she did not celebrate.

"I didn't want to leave the classroom," she said. "That was one of the most difficult decisions I've made in my life."

Fifteen years later, Nelson has no regrets. She has kept up with teaching trends by reading and, in 2003, getting a second master's degree in curriculum and instruction from George Mason.

"I need to be modeling lifelong learning," she said.

When she is not at Taylor, Nelson is choir director and organist at Marshall United Methodist Church and a soprano in the Camerata Cantores, a madrigal group. At home, she hones her cooking skills, reads about two novels a week and browses through the dozens of magazines -- from The Economist to Southern Living -- to which she and her husband, Jeff, subscribe.

Nelson said she will leave her job when it starts to feel more like work than fun. But she does not think that will happen soon.

"Every day is different," she said. "I can't get enough of middle school kids in general."

Ruth Nelson, Fauquier winner of The Post's Distinguished Educational Leadership Award, is principal of Taylor Middle School.