Fort Belvoir Upper School serves many military families, so it has a high rate of students coming and going each year: well over 30 percent. The robust turnover makes Julia Blair’s educational philosophy — to build a relationship with each student — all the more important.
“If the kids don’t trust you and want to work with you — not just for you, but with you — they’re not going to be successful in your class,” says the Northern Virginia Magazine Teacher of the Year finalist, who taught third grade last year and now teaches sixth grade.
Colleagues say that Blair has developed strong and cooperative relationships with her students’ families as well. “She reaches out frequently to them,” says Jennifer Orr, who also teaches at Fort Belvoir. “Sometimes it is to let them know how well their third grader is doing. Other times it is because their third grader doesn’t seem to be themselves or has brought up a challenge, and Ms. Blair wants to check in with the family.”
Back in high school, Blair thought she wanted to be a biologist. But after taking a sign language class during her junior year of high school that ended with a trip to teach at a school for deaf people in Jamaica, she was sure she had a knack for teaching. “While on the trip, my teacher noticed that I had this natural ability of working with the kids,” Blair says. “This led me to reconsider my career path.” Blair has been teaching for 18 years, including in a program for deaf and hard of hearing children.
From Fort Belvoir’s Principal Jamey Chianetta to parents, the community seems to agree that Blair’s signature teaching style is to make learning fun. “Ms. Blair uses multiple ‘brain breaks’ with fun physical challenges, as well as team-building activities,” says parent Julie Conrad.
Blair often engages her students in friendly competition, whether it’s a vocabulary game or a sprinting race. And even an injury won’t sideline her. During one race, she says, “I stepped into a hole when I was running, tearing my ligaments and a tendon in my ankle.” Blair had surgery to repair her ankle in July and started the 2022–2023 school year on crutches.
“After the injury, I didn’t miss a day of school because I enjoy working with the kids that much,” she says. “I started out the year teaching on crutches, but I would do it again in a heartbeat for my class.”
This story originally appeared in our October 2022 issue’s Teacher of the Year cover story. For more stories like this, subscribe to our monthly magazine.