Special to Viva Loudoun via Loudoun County Public Schools
JoAnn Pearson is reflecting on her retirement from Broad Run High School after 44 years.
“Nobody here will have the memories from all these years. Nobody will know who Mr. McBride was or who Wayne Griffith was. They’ll look at those pictures in the library and say ‘Who were those old men?’ There will be nobody here who has the history. That’s what’s hard about it… I know it happens at other schools, but I think we have a whole lot more history than other schools.” (In case you were wondering, Jim McBride was Broad Run’s original principal and Griffith was its second.)
Pearson wasn’t there the day Broad Run opened in 1969, but came on board at the beginning of second semester as a replacement for Betty Hatrick (the wife of now-Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick III.) Pearson was coming home from two years in Germany where her husband, Sonny, was stationed with the Army. (She was teaching GED classes there for the University of Maryland.)
“I had no intention of going anywhere else, if I liked it,” Pearson said shortly before her retirement. “I do like it. It’s been like home to me.”
That she stuck with something she likes should not surprise people who know Pearson.
A Leesburg native, she lives in the house that she grew up in (and that her grandmother lived in.) She met Sonny at Loudoun County High School and he’s still around.
Sonny Pearson followed legendary Principal Ken Culbert to Loudoun County, Park View and Loudoun Valley high schools as a football coach and athletic director before finishing his career at Heritage.
JoAnn Pearson, the chair of Broad Run’s English Department for three decades, said she never had any urge to go to a new school (10 high schools have opened since she began her Loudoun career.)
“I could have gone to any new school in the county. There wasn’t anything I found more appealing than being here. It’s like a family. I believe in maroon and gold.”
Pearson loves Broad Run so dearly because it’s where she grew up professionally.
“When the school opened, we were all rookie and young teachers. There were only one or two experienced teachers per department. Mr. McBride taught us all how to be good teachers.”
McBride started the Loudoun County Public Schools (LCPS) tradition of keeping all the blinds even in a room. It didn’t matter if the blinds faced an interior courtyard, they had to be even.
“He said ‘I don’t want to drive by here and it looks like everybody’s doing something different; we’ve got to be uniform with this.’”
The main lesson McBride taught, Pearson added, was personal responsibility.
“That you are responsible for these students. They are your responsibility.”
Monitoring attendance was a must; teachers always had to make sure they knew where their students were.
Once the students were in her class, Pearson taught them far more than English.
“I think some of the things I’ve tried to teach them are far more important than reading and writing essays…I do think I’m responsible for teaching them more than my subject matter.”
These extracurricular lessons were absorbed.
One former student wrote a note thanking Pearson for riding him about being tardy. (Pearson’s lessons about being on time served her former student well in college.)
Then there was Pearson’s annual senior assignment to write thank you notes.
“You’re getting a lot of graduation presents? I’m guessing some of you haven’t written thank you notes since you were 5 years old and your mother made you do this.”
Students could write to a teacher or a coach as part of this assignment. If the teacher or coach was in the county, Pearson tried to send them the note. (She added she got back a lot of thank-you letters for this gesture.) “I like to teach them a lot of practical things. We do resumes, we do cover letters… we do all the academic things too… I think there are a lot of things missing that we used to take for granted…
“I like to give them things that will help them.”
Pearson said she is demanding of her students, but that she holds herself to the same standard. “I realize that I’m different. I’m really old school. I tell the parents that first thing on back-to-school night. I don’t feel bad about that. I expect to live up to my standards. I may not agree with everything I’m required to do, but I do it because it’s part of my job. ‘Yeah, maybe you don’t like writing in this journal, but I expect you to do it.’ I do what is expected. It doesn’t mean you can’t express your opinion otherwise. But the bottom line is I need to do it.”
Pearson came to Broad Run when it was “Cornfield High,” sitting in the midst of undeveloped Ashburn. “They took great pride in that name, the kids who were here then. It didn’t bother them…
“We were in the middle of nowhere; one way in from Route 7.”
Every high school student on the eastern end of the county came to Broad Run. Sterling Park contributed the bulk of the school’s population.
Broad Run wasn’t completed when students and staff moved in and lacked many of today’s amenities. “I have no sympathy for all these brand-new schools that have everything handed to them. The PTSO and the booster club raised the lights for the softball field and the baseball field. We played on Saturdays; they built the concession stands.
“These new schools open with all of those things and they don’t appreciate it.”
Pearson sponsored the senior class for 25 years and sees the physical marks they left behind on the campus; the tile Spartan head installed by Steuart Weller or the brick marquee at the front of the school. “I can see it all over the place.”
How makeshift was Broad Run during earlier times? She and Mike Megeath (later the principal at Monroe Technology Center) once taught classes in school buses at the back of the building. “They took all the seats out and refurbished two school buses… We never knew what was going on in the building.”
Desks, heaters for winter and portable blackboards were the main amenities added to the buses. “What else did we need? We had the books, we had the blackboard.”
(Pearson also taught classes on the stage and floor of the auditorium.)
Wherever she taught, Pearson said she had a favorite class. “I love public speaking, but I haven’t been able to teach that in the last few years. I like senior English. I love the seniors. I taught 10thgrade for a long time, a really long time.”
She added she sometimes intimidated freshmen with her sarcasm. “I can spar with the seniors a little better.”
Some of the students whom Pearson most enjoyed teaching were those who were at-risk.
“They appreciate what you do for them.
“It’s rewarding. I can clearly see that I can help them. As knuckle-head as they are sometimes, I can see that, without my help, they wouldn’t be where they are; maybe they wouldn’t walk across that stage.”
Pearson added that the at-risk students received no breaks from her academically. “I don’t lower my standards for them. I still expect them to do the same things. We take a personal interest in them…
“I find that much more rewarding to me than teaching the AP students. Those AP students will get it with or without me.”
Pearson said students have changed in her more than four decades of teaching.
“I think they feel a lot more entitled than they used to. I don’t think they take their responsibilities as seriously… I don’t think they see an education for the sake of being educated. I think they see it as a means to an end. Sometimes they become so worried about their GPA that they don’t worry at all about the content of what we’re trying to do.
“There’s clearly more pressure on them and I think that’s a part of it. Their parents are more demanding, but I also think at the same time they’re more hands-on and they’re more hands-off. It’s almost a paradox; the parents breathe down their necks about the grades…
“There are a lot more things that distract them from school.” (Jobs, travel and sports make up Pearson’s list in this regard.)
Pearson added parents have become more critical of teachers.
“I can’t imagine my mother defending me in any school situation…
“I would not want to be a young teacher now… There are plenty of people out there demanding from teachers who were never in the classroom or who haven’t been in a classroom for a very long time and don’t know how difficult it is. It’s a really difficult job and I don’t think a lot of people realize this. They just want more and more and more.
“Testing is out of control. It’s really out of control; standardized testing. I really don’t think it’s a measure of necessarily who the child is or how good the teacher is…
“We’re too lock-step with a lot of things. Students mature at different times.”
Some of them should finish high school in three years, some in five, Pearson said. Trying to force students into categories doesn’t work.
Far from complaining, Pearson said she adjusted to the students she taught.
“I deal with what’s in front of me. I don’t think old school is necessarily better. But I do think what I do in the classroom is important and you should give it its due respect. I’ve done this long enough to know what you need.”
Pearson said the true measures of her instruction are simple.
“The measure is what kind of person he turns out to be. The measure is if he’s learned to take advantage of what we’ve taught him.”
Nobody in Pearson’s family was a teacher. Her parents didn’t want her to be teacher. Her mother wanted her to work for the government and go to business school, thinking that would be the ticket to security and more money.
“I probably would have made more money.”
Pearson said she was inspired to become a teacher by her third grade teacher, Marion Simpson, the wife of legendary Loudoun educator J. Lupton Simpson. “I just adored her. I wanted to be Mrs. Simpson…
“She was clearly who I wanted to be. She was kind. I just thought it was wonderful to be the teacher.” (Pearson also made it a point to send Marion Simpson a letter of thanks before her death.)
Pearson modeled her idol by setting up a portable blackboard in front of dining room chairs set up in rows with dolls and paper. “I never wanted to be anything other than a teacher.”
Pearson wanted to be Mrs. Simpson, up to a point…
“I realized I was not going to be an elementary teacher. I’m not a little kid person, but I wanted to be a teacher.”
Looking back, Pearson said she knows how she wants former students to describe her.
“Fair. She was hard, but she was fair.”