Sara Gibson thought she was the victim of an elaborate prank when she learned on Jan. 29 that she had been selected as National Teacher of the Year by the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
“I had to double-check with them to make sure they were not joking with me,” Gibson said.
It wasn’t until she received separate congratulatory emails from the people who nominated her—local Vietnam War veteran James Pitts and his daughter, Tina Darby, a former colleague—that she realized it wasn’t a joke.
Gibson, a history teacher at Caroline Middle School, was recognized by the VFW at the local, state and national levels.
The VFW Teacher of the Year contest recognizes one classroom elementary, junior high and high school teacher for excellence in a curriculum focusing on “citizenship education topics.”
Pitts, a Caroline native, is commander of a VFW post in Henrico County. He said this is the first time he’s ever nominated a teacher for the award. He first met Gibson when she invited him to speak to her class about his Vietnam War experiences.
“The way she teaches her kids, it’s just amazing,” Pitts said. “I just decided to give her the recognition she really needs.”
Gibson will receive $1,000 for professional development purposes and Caroline Middle School also will receive $1,000.
Gibson has been teaching for seven years, all of them at CMS. She teaches seventh-grade U.S. History II, which covers 1865 to the present.
Because the United States has been involved in so many conflicts during that time—World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—much of the class is dedicated to military history. Gibson said she brings in veterans of some of the wars to talk to her students and give them a personal perspective on historical events.
“We take field trips to the Marine Corps Museum and when we started taking vets with us, it was an instant change,” she said. “The vet can stand there and go, ‘I remember that. I remember firing that weapon. I remember that battle.’ Kids can hear it from their perspective and see it through their eyes and magic happens.”
“When you bring vets and kids together, it’s magic. It is absolutely magic,” she added.
She said she encourages her students to thank veterans for their service whenever they are out in the community.
“You can usually tell who a vet is, so go shake their hand,” she tells her students. “Ask to hear their stories, because they’ve got them.”
In 2013, Gibson and another CMS teacher, Ruth Judd, created the Caroline History Club. For their first project, Gibson said, they were told the 38th parallel—which formed the border between North and South Korea prior to the Korean War and intersects the present Korean Demilitarized Zone between the two countries—runs through Caroline County.
“We were supposed to find it and do something with it,” Gibson said.
With help from the Fort A.P. Hill GIS department, they learned that the parallel crosses in front of Caroline High School.
What started as a project to erect a sign on the spot turned into a drive to collect memorial bricks to those who served in the Korean War and then into a full-fledged garden. The garden was built in four months between the 60th anniversary of the armistice ending the Korean War on July 27, 2013, and Veterans Day of that year.
Gibson said she draws her students’ attention to the garden whenever they feel there is something they can’t do.
“We were told we could never build a garden and we did,” she said. “I tell them, ‘You guys can do anything you want to do, and I’m here to support you.”
Gibson said she finds it easy to make history relevant to her students.
“We just started our World War II unit today and it’s interesting how World War II history applies greatly to today,” she said, noting how the Nazis blamed Jewish immigrants for many of the problem in Germany then.
“We’re finding new people to blame for problems today. It’s a different religion now, but all that started with singling people out, so it’s very relevant today,” she said. “I had some interesting discussions with my kids.”
Those discussions with her students are what keeps her motivated as a teacher.
“When the door closes and it’s just me and my kids and we’re talking history and ideas are flowing and the conversation is going ... that’s when it gets good,” she said. “They’re the reason I keep coming back. They keep me going.”