Each year when summer begins to wind down, Joseph Hills starts getting charged up about going back to school. The night before the first day, he barely sleeps a wink.
For Hills, the thrill of the first day hasn't diminished one bit, even after 44 years in the classroom.
"The kids are just amazing. I really enjoy it," Hills said. "I get so excited waiting for them to come the next day."
Hills's seemingly endless enthusiasm for teaching is among the qualities that prompted former students, colleagues and administrators to nominate him as Virginia's Teacher of the Year. The Lake Braddock Secondary School social studies teacher, who won the award after beating out eight finalists from throughout the state, has been selected to represent Virginia in the National Teacher of the Year program.
Matt S. Erskine, Virginia's deputy secretary of commerce and trade and a former student of Hills's, said he knew from the start that class with "Mr. Hills" was not going to be the status quo. Hills's world history class wasn't just about facts and dates. There was serious discussion about the context, impact and interpretation of events.
"He didn't just challenge you on the subject matter, he challenged you to think differently and think more deeply," Erskine said. "For a 14- or 15-year-old, that's powerful stuff."
Hills was one of two veteran Fairfax educators honored in recent days. Audra Sydnor, the principal of Liberty Middle School, was selected as the district's 2005 Principal of the Year. Sydnor also is among 20 principals from across the region who has won a Washington Post Distinguished Educational Leadership Award.
Sydnor launched her career in Fairfax in 1983 as an English teacher at Edison High School. She went on to work as a curriculum specialist, minority student achievement monitor and coordinator of secondary programs. Before she was named principal at Liberty Middle School, she worked as assistant principal at Robinson Secondary School and principal at Lanier Middle School.
Diane Belden, president of Liberty's Parent Teacher Association, said she remembers meeting Sydnor in a trailer in the months before the school opened in 2002. Belden, along with three other mothers who hoped to start a PTA, had come to greet the new principal.
Belden said she expected a stark makeshift office and was surprised to walk into a room with comfortable chairs, lamps and even knickknacks. "I was thinking this person cares about the people who are coming to see her," Belden said. "This person has a great deal of warmth."
Sydnor can often be seen visiting classrooms and makes a point of keeping in close contact with teachers and students, said Belden, adding that Sydnor has a reputation for helping struggling students get on the right track while at the same time encouraging gifted students to excel.
"I genuinely believe she loves every one of those kids who walk in the door," Belden said.
Hills was hired by Fairfax schools in 1960. He worked first at Fairfax High School and later at Marshall and Langley high schools. He moved to Lake Braddock in 1973.
He also has taught summer school for 42 years at 17 high schools.
Hills said his passion for teaching dates to his own high school days in central Pennsylvania. Many of his classmates cut their education short, he said, because they dropped out of school to work.
"I thought if I can just get to these kids long enough to show them they should stay in school, then they will be able to pursue their dreams," he said.
Erskine, who still keeps in touch with Hills, said he'll never forget the first assignment Hills gave his class. The students were given facts and speculation about America's discovery. Their job was to come to a conclusion about whether Christopher Columbus or Leif Erickson had been the first to land in the new world.
"He said, 'I want to see how you think through it, and the conclusion isn't as important as how you got there,' " Erskine said. "It was paradigm shifting because everyone else said, 'Get the right answer.' "
For his part, Hills said he is getting as much out of his classroom as he has put into his teaching.
"I learn something new every day, and that's one of the joys of teaching," Hills said. "Everyone in the classroom should be a teacher, and everyone in the classroom should be a learner -- and that includes me."
Hills said he thought about retiring a few years back but decided that school was where he belonged.
"I thought, in four days you'll have everything done around the house and you'll be bored," he said. "I'm still going strong, and there's no quit in me."