Josita Allen is admittedly old-school.
“I don’t think if I’m walking down the hall that a child should high-five me,” said Allen, a Head Start teacher at Scotchtown Hills Elementary School in Laurel. “If I’m in a conversation, a child should not start talking.”
This year, Allen started her fifth decade as a teacher in Prince George’s County. She doesn’t divulge her age. “Why does that matter?” she asked. But a couple of key dates offer clues: Allen earned a bachelor’s degree in 1964 from what was then known as Bowie State College. And the Prince George’s school system hired her on Jan. 28, 1972.
Allen is not the longest-serving teacher in the county or the region. Personnel data obtained by The Washington Post showed that a modest number of others hired in the 1960s were still in Washington area classrooms as of 2011, even though retirements are thinning their ranks. One teacher at Suitland High was hired in 1965.
Still, Allen represents a generation of teachers who have helped to shape public education and continue to have a strong impact. In a county known for high turnover, where several hundred new teachers start every year, it helps plenty to have veterans like Allen on hand.
“She brings a wealth of knowledge,” said Tracie Prevost, the principal at Scotchtown Hills. “She is a source for novice teachers and even those who have experience. They can go to her to get the support that they need.”
Allen is as focused on learning as she is on building social behaviors. She said her students know they are not “pals” with adults, and she makes her expectation clear from the start: They must listen, be respectful and follow directions. “In my class, they know it’s their job to learn and to be focused,” she said. This kind of structure can be crucial as children prepare to enter the primary grades and learn to read.
But that doesn’t mean they don’t have fun.
One recent morning, Allen stood on a circular rug in the middle of Room 12, shaking a fuchsia-colored pom-pom while 19 youngsters recited the alphabet and danced to “ABC Rock” as it blared from a record player. (That’s right, a turntable. She also has a tape deck and compact disc player in the room, but not an iPod.)
Minutes later it was time for more music. The students sat in a circle as Allen called their names and instructed them one by one to select an instrument from a plastic bin.
“Introduce it and put it at rest,” she said. “My instrument is a tambourine,” said one girl after returning to her position on the floor. “Very good,” Allen said. Another child pulled blocks and another chose a pair of bells.
A few eager students raised their hands, hoping to be selected next. “I’m going in my own sequence, so put your hands down,” Allen said.
She didn’t raise her voice. But she invoked a seriousness that quieted the 3- to 5-year-olds.
Wearing purple fingernail polish, a leopard-print top and high-heel boots, Allen considers herself a grandmother in the classroom, playful one minute and disciplining the next.
Allen started in Prince George’s when the school system was largely white. Now, it’s majority black and Hispanic. Lessons that she once taught in first grade are now taught before kindergarten. (Over the years, she has taught children as old as third graders.)
She has watched superintendents come and go, and board members elected, appointed and ousted in Prince George’s. She has seen fellow teachers retire, leave the profession or quit for teaching jobs in other counties. But she remains a constant.
Allen, a mother of two and grandmother of three, said she remains focused on what happens in Room 12, not throughout the system. “I never wanted to do anything else but to be in the classroom,” she said. A native of Columbia, S.C., Allen attended schools in the District and Prince George’s. One of five children, Allen has two siblings who are also educators.
After college, she spent several years traveling with her husband in Germany, Texas and New Mexico while he served in the Air Force. She taught first, second and third grades during those tours.
For much of her career in Prince George’s, she taught at Bond Mill Elementary School in Laurel. From all indications, she has no intention of retiring any time soon.
“A lot of people don’t last this long. They either burn out or they reinvent themselves,” Allen said. “But I enjoy what I’m doing.”
And, it shows, Prevost said.
“Her persona is just, like, wow,” Prevost said. “When you see her working with children, you see the energy and the passion.”
At one point, Allen’s assistant, Olivia Marshall-Wylie, started a classroom routine known as the “morning chat.” The students spelled, read and developed sentences and answered questions about punctuation marks.
Meanwhile, Allen called students out of the group one by one and directed them to the sink. There, she told them to brush their teeth. That’s a requirement of Head Start, which is a federal program for preschool children from low-income families.
“My toothbrush is purple,” a girl named Roxy said as Allen passed her the brush.
“Thank you,” Allen replied.
But before she could brush her teeth, Roxy and the others had to tell Allen a sentence about something that interests them or something they have learned in class.
“An ant is a insect,” one child said.
“An ant is an insect,” Allen said, correcting the youngster.
“An ant is an insect,” the child repeated after a couple of tries.
“She has high expectations for her students,” Prevost said.
Allen said these kinds of moments with students are what drive her.
“By teaching young children, I can build the foundation that each succeeding grade can build off of,” she said. “And I am happy to say when they leave me, they are ready for kindergarten.”