Kim Thomas, Social Studies Department chair at Mountain View School, has not only garnered respect from students and staff, she's also received statewide acclaim.
SHE WAS recently named Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) High School Teacher of the Year for Virginia. And when word came, Principal Jim Oliver surprised her with a celebration in his office for several teachers, administrators and staff.
"We're very proud of her and her efforts," he said. "And for a first-year teacher at Mountain View to bring that kind of recognition to the school is outstanding. We're all very excited."
Actually, it's Thomas' seventh year teaching in Fairfax County. She previously taught world history at Falls Church High; at Mountain View, she teaches social studies, world history and U.S./Virginia history.
Tom Troy, a former Mountain View parent and a VFW member, addresses students there each year on Veterans' Day. And he, along with Mountain View staff and administrators, recommended Thomas for the award.
The honor recognizes the way she teaches citizenship to her students and how she incorporates her own experiences in this field into her teaching. English teacher Orlean Anderson compiled the nominating packet for Troy's VFW chapter 5410.
Thomas won the District 10, Northern Virginia Region competition and was entered in the statewide contest. She learned of her victory in January and will be feted at a banquet in June.
LIKE MANY of her Mountain View students, she's come a long way. She was born in New York City but, tragically, her parents had terminal illnesses and, at age 15, she was orphaned. But an aunt adopted her and she had a supportive family around her.
Thomas saw the military as a way to support herself, get a college education and put a roof over her head after high-school graduation. "That was the most constructive way I could spend my time while deciding what to do with my life," she said.
So at 18, she joined the Air Force, later serving in the Gulf War. Between 1985-1996, she was stationed in Dover, Del.; Zweibrucken, Germany; San Vito, Italy and Las Vegas, Nev. She was a computer programmer and, when the war began, she was a security-police augmentee.
"I also volunteered for other duties and lived in Turkey awhile, doing computer work," said Thomas. "I liked to travel and have adventures, and I met great people wherever I lived. In the beginning, it was a hard transition for me. But I won a number of awards, including Airman of the Year for Supply and Logistics, for my group in San Vito, for volunteering during the Gulf War."
And the year she captained the basketball team, it won the Mediterranean Sports Conference. Meanwhile, she used the G.I. Bill to do some undergraduate work at the University of Maryland.
After leaving the service, Thomas again lived with her aunt, in Mercersburg, Pa., and attended Wilson College in Chambersburg, Pa., where she received her bachelor's in history/political science, plus her teaching certification in 1999. So why did she become a teacher?
Said Thomas: "I was so grateful for the teachers and administrators who'd been there for me when my parents passed away, I thought to myself, 'How can I say thank you to all of them? I'm going to be a teacher."
MOUNTAIN VIEW Vice Principal Fran Bedont worked at Falls Church High when Thomas applied there. "He interviewed me to be a teacher and was so welcoming that I accepted," said Thomas. "Through the Student Council Leadership Program there, we did clothing and canned-food drives, Beanie Babies for Baghdad and adopted a local family for Christmas."
She also took 16 students to New York to see the U.N. and to Washington, D.C., to visit the Pentagon and the 9/11 memorial. And in summer, she took a group to Europe for 11 days to see historic sights there. She later came to Mountain View because Bedont was now here, plus she knew some of the teachers.
"I also knew I'd be able to use a lot of the teaching methods I was using at Falls Church," said Thomas. "Teachers who knew me said what I did would work here." For example, Interactive Notebook gives students information on one side of a notebook and they illustrate it on the other side to show they understand it.
And at kinesthetic work stations, students trace maps from an overhead projection and then embellish them. They also put information about Mayan Aztecs and Incas, for instance, on a cube to help remember it.
"This year was our SOLs, and [these techniques have] been very successful," said Thomas. "One of my classes took the test and did phenomenally. After tests, I always ask them what worked best [to help them learn the material]."
She, too, is flourishing there. "I love Mountain View," she said. "I think it's the perfect fit. The relationship I build with students not only fulfills me personally and professionally, but benefits the students personally and academically."
Thomas said she's never before been in a professional situation "where so many teachers are giving of themselves. I also think my experience in high school makes [the students and I] a lot alike. When my parents were sick, I was paying bills and taking care of my little sister and not knowing where I was going to live. And lots of these kids are going through the same thing."
AS FOR the VFW award, she said it was a "really good feeling" to be selected for it by her peers and, because of her military ties, to be chosen by the VFW because "those are my peers, also." She was surprised though because, as a teacher, she considers it her reward when former students return to tell her they've been successful or have gotten into college.
However, added Thomas, "I can't imagine a better award because it was from two institutions I've given my life to. It reaffirms that, if you give of yourself, not expecting any rewards, good things will come to you."
Her goal is to become a principal and she now holds a master's in educational leadership from GMU. She'll also be site supervisor this summer for a Civil Rights Institute at Howard University. She'll help develop curriculum and run the program.
Brittane Dodwell, 16, in Thomas' World History I class, calls her an excellent teacher. "She lets you go at your own pace, and she sets up her class based on packets [covering each] unit," said Dodwell. "There are vocabulary notes and activities you can do to help you understand the unit."
"For people like me, who aren't test-takers, the packets are balanced out so they're worth maybe three times as much as the test toward your grade," she explained. "I hate history with a passion, but I'm getting an 'A' in her class. With her, I understand it."
U.S./Virginia History student Jonathan Reid doesn't like listening to teachers lecture for a long time, but says Thomas keeps his attention. "She'll call on me for questions, and she'll make me laugh," he said. And when she realized he could do more advanced work, she gave it to him.
"I can relate to her because she's been through a lot of the things I have, in her living situation," he continued. "She definitely deserves the award. I've only been in her class four months, and she's really helped me have a grasp of everything." Besides, added Dodwell, "For SOLs and on test dates, she brings in pancakes and cooks for us. She does it to give us some brain power; she says the answers are in the pancakes."