Teaching is a calling: WSJE Teachers of the Year reflect on path to education

Published 12:05 am Wednesday, November 27, 2019

EDGARD — Debra Washington retired from teaching with 38 years of experience under her belt, but it didn’t take long for her to return to the classroom to continue nurturing the leaders of tomorrow.

Thomas Becnel never intended to become a teacher. More than 20 years have passed since he fell into the field of education, and he has never looked back.

Washington and Becnel were recently named West St. John Elementary School’s teachers of the year for elementary and middle school divisions, respectively.

Thomas Becnel is the West St. John Elementary School middle school level Teacher of the Year. He is pictured with his seventh grade students.

Neither teacher was particularly surprised by the award; both have been named teacher of the year several times throughout their respective careers, and the recognition is not what motivates them to make an impact in the classroom.

When Washington was in high school, she first considered becoming a nurse. That changed when she realized her true passion was in education.

“I have a passion for children,” Washington said. “You have to have a passion. You have to have the love, and you have to understand the young kids because some of them go through a lot.”

Most of Washington’s career has involved teaching kindergarten. Over the years, she has also taught first grade and third grade. Now three years post (her first) retirement, she currently teaches 4-year-old pre-kindergarten students.

“They asked me to come back to take a class for three months, and three months is now three years,” Washington said with a laugh. “A teacher had an accident, and they asked me to complete the school year. When August came, they asked me to come back to start the school year off. My last day was supposed to be in November, and the parents wouldn’t let me leave. They said no, you have to stay for the rest of the school year. I’ve been here ever since.”

Washington has seen her tiny students grow up to become prominent physicians and lawyers. Others have become educators, and some have even worked alongside Washington in the St. John Parish school system.

“A lot of great things come out of little minds,” Washington said. “I hope that we get more dedicated teachers to educate our students. If you aren’t dedicated, you aren’t going to do a good job.”

Washington shows her dedication by staying several hours after school to plan future lessons.

“I never leave at 3 p.m.,” Washington said. “I spend a lot of time preparing for the next day to be a great model for the little ones.”

Becnel is dedicated to making lessons come alive for his seventh grade ELA and social studies students. His students attained the highest standardized testing scores in those subjects last spring, but Becnel said that accomplishment is not his alone.

“It wasn’t just me. I’m just one step along the way,” Becnel said. “All of their former teachers helped get them to this point.”

Becnel initially worked for the state in mental health, but he saw no future for himself in that field. From there, he went on to work in construction. He eventually returned to college in his late twenties when he was recently married.

In 1996, Becnel heard from a friend who worked in the School Board office that there was a shortage of teachers. Since he already had a bachelor’s degree, all he had to do was pass a test in Baton Rouge to qualify for a teaching certificate.

He clearly remembers the day when he made the big jump to become a teacher.

“I was sitting in the lunch room when my general foreman came in and said, ‘You, get your tools. You need to be across the river at the School Board office for a job interview.’ The next day, I was teaching,” Becnel said. “I didn’t call it. It called me.”

Becnel started out at the high school level and moved to West St. John Elementary in 2000. He enjoys teaching middle school because it lays the ground work that students need to become successful at the next level.

Many of his former students have returned to tell him the English and writing skills they learned in seventh grade have helped them immensely throughout high school and college. Others say they miss his class and his corny jokes.

“I try to liven it up a lot,” Becnel said. “You have to make it real. You have to tell them how this will benefit them later on in life.”

Becnel also reminds students to treasure their school years.

“It goes by so fast,” Becnel said. “The Christmas spirit, the football games and all the events; It kind of keeps you young.”

District level teachers of the year will be announced in December.