Gordon Stokes entered the University of Virginia with the intentions of becoming an engineer and graduated in 1998 as a history teacher.
The career switch proved to be a good one. For nearly six years, Stokes has been teaching seventh-grade American history at Rachel Carson Middle School. He was named social studies department head at the school last year. And he was nominated for the Fairfax County Public Schools' Teacher of the Year award, also last year.
He missed out on the county award, but in November, Stokes, 28, was named American History Teacher of the Year by the Fairfax chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution. He is now in contention for the organization's statewide outstanding teacher award.
"In education there are not many naturals," said August Frattali, principal at Carson. "He did this from day one."
"THIS," IS MOTIVATING students to learn more about American history. Using role-playing, group projects and copies of actual historical documents, Stokes has impressed his coworkers, parents and, more importantly, his students.
Sara Shoob, the school system's middle-school curriculum specialist, said Stokes' impact on his students was evident in the nomination packet parents put together last year for the county award.
"One of the comments a mother wrote stuck with me. The mother wrote that when her son and his friends got into the car to go to a soccer game, they started talking about American history and social studies. She wrote that if they were talking about history on the way to a soccer game, they must have a teacher that inspires them," Shoob said.
Stokes, a 1993 graduate of Hayfield Secondary School in the Alexandria area, grew up in a house where education was a priority. His mother taught history and his father is a college professor.
"I've always been interested in [history]. Growing up, we'd always go to the Smithsonians. When I went to college I took a lot of history and it kind of just fell into place," Stokes said. "It started off as a kid, I wanted to play football and realized that was unrealistic. When I went to school, I thought I'd be an engineer, but my math and science weren't as strong as they should be. By my sophomore year in college, I thought, teaching."
"I WOULD LIKE to see the outstanding teacher of American history that is better than Gordon," said Jack Pitzer, president of the Fairfax chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution. "If you could read the packet put together by the parents, that's what teaching is all about."
The local chapter honored two teachers in November, both of whom were forwarded to the state's competition. The results, Pitzer said, should be known by late winter.
"I met him for the first time at the chapter meeting. In that brief period, it became pretty obvious why everyone thinks so highly of him," said Pitzer, who is also principal at Bush Hill Elementary in the Alexandria area. "He is very self-assured and accomplished in his young teaching career."
Stokes attributes his connection to his students with biology.
"Teachers' personalities have to match their grades," Stokes said. "I don't now if I could teach first grade."
Frattali said part of Stokes' secret is that he respects his students, who in turn show Stokes the respect he deserves. In addition, Stokes takes the time to listen to his students outside of a teacher-student setting.
"He loves it so much. He dedicates himself to the profession," Frattali said. "He puts a lot of time in and effort and he genuinely likes the children."
STOKES, WHO NOW lives in Arlington, had several teachers who inspired him as he was growing up, many from the Fairfax County school system. That is one of the reasons he wanted to teach locally after graduating. He has spent his young teaching career at Carson, which opened in 1998.
Now it is his turn to inspire others. He said he tries to be the teacher in charge of a classroom, but also someone the students can come to. He also enjoys it when former students poke heir heads in his door just to say hi or to tease the die-hard Redskins fan.
But for now, he has no plans of moving on, except to maybe eighth grade.
"I'm very spoiled. I'm in such a good place. I enjoy teaching middle school," Stokes said. "For the near future, I don't see myself leaving middle school. There are still a lot of things I'd like to do better."