Honored educator credits farm upbringing

The Baltimore Sun

John Billingslea, the Franklin High School psychology teacher named yesterday as Baltimore County's Teacher of the Year, said that growing up on the family farm in northern Harford County taught him much about the value of hard work and the endurance he would need to sustain a career in education.

He said his grandmother, Inez Billingslea, a kindergarten teacher, drilled into him the value of a good education.

"My grandmother used to always, at dinnertime, tap me on my forehead and say, 'John, remember, they can't take this away from you,'" Billingslea recalled yesterday in a phone interview from the 97-acre farm in White Hall that he and his wife, Ellen, tend.

A serious mini-bike accident in 1976 that left Billingslea, then 8 years old, with head and brain injuries motivated him to pursue teaching, he said. The injuries threatened to leave him cognitively impaired.

"I promised that if everything turned out OK, I'd do something good in the world," he said. "In my family, teaching was always the noble profession."

Billingslea, 40, has taught Advanced Placement psychology at Franklin High School in Reisterstown for 11 years. Before that, he taught for three years at Randallstown High School.

A 1989 graduate of Washington College in Chestertown on the Eastern Shore with a bachelor's degree in psychology, Billingslea also taught at a high school in Montana and at an Indian reservation in Oregon before returning to teach in Maryland. He also holds a master's degree in education from Washington College.

At Franklin High, Billingslea has become a teacher to other teachers, taking on mentoring assignments and organizing outside social events with his colleagues.

Tracy Sanna, a first-year psychology teacher at Franklin, said yesterday that Billingslea has been a tremendous resource in developing lesson plans and figuring out the best ways to reach her students.

"Teaching can be very overwhelming, especially the first year," Sanna said. "He has given me an incredible sense of, 'You can do this and it will be OK, and never give up.' He has inspired me so much."

Billingslea, who now competes for state Teacher of the Year, was among three finalists who were recognized yesterday at the school system's headquarters in Towson. As the county's Teacher of the Year, he will receive educational technology for his classroom and a new laptop computer for his use during the year.

The two other finalists were Deirdre Austen, a fourth-grade teacher at Lutherville Laboratory for Science, Mathematics, and Communications; and Judith Henderson, a reading specialist at Lutherville Laboratory.

Billingslea also was given the keys to a 2009 Toyota Corolla to use for a year, part of an 11-year partnership with the Baltimore Area Toyota Dealers, according to school system officials.

During the coming year, Billings lea will be expected to make public appearances. He said he hopes to use them to help other teachers learn to become better instructors.

"We can teach the content," he said. "But kids need someone to look up to. They need adults in their lives who are willing to listen and not place judgment."


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