Good Neighbor - October 2020
Joan Thomas can pinpoint the moment that set her on the path to becoming a teacher – and it was a teacher that inspired that decision.
- Story by Lisa Monti
“In fourth grade I had a teacher named Mrs. Green. She was amazing. I told her I wanted to learn to crochet and she taught me and every girl in the class to crochet. She was just about the greatest lady ever. My mama was my hero, but right behind her was Mrs. Green. I was nine years old and that stayed with me. I decided I wanted to be like her.”
Looking back on her distinguished 42-year career, Joan said she never lost her love for teaching and the reward of seeing a child learn. “It doesn’t matter how much money you make, there is a joy in teaching.”
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A New Orleans native and Jackson State graduate, Joan was a military wife who started teaching in 1970. After moving around a few years, the Thomas family eventually settled in Bay St. Louis. Joan went on to teach countless students in public and Catholic schools – generations, in fact, who went on to become “public servants, priests and policemen. I’ve taught them all.”
She served as chair of the history department at Bay High for many years before joining the faculty at Our Lady Academy, where she taught a variety of subjects.
With her strong background in history, Joan was invited to help write the history curriculum for the state of Mississippi. Daughter Courtney Thomas recalled a story about a student teacher who watched as Joan taught a history class without ever looking at the textbook. Joan explained to the young teacher that she actually had written the book.
Joan was so dedicated to teaching that she had three retirement parties before she actually did stay retired.
Courtney Thomas said, “She touched the lives of so many people. But she decided it was time to finally retire when she realized she was teaching the grandchildren of people she had taught.”
After years of being a classroom teacher, Joan continued working in nutrition education for the Mississippi State Extension Service and as a VISTA volunteer with the Gulf Coast Health Educators. She also taught nutrition to seniors through the RSVP program and at nursing homes, and helped to write a cookbook for seniors.
Joan served for two years on the Bay-Waveland School Board. She has also been director of religious education at St. Rose De Lima Parish for more than 25 years, teaching catechism and helping prepare young parishioners for the sacrament of Confirmation. As recently as March, Joan was teaching pre-kindergarten students, but that was upended by the pandemic.
Joan said there are three things she is most proud of: receiving the 1984 Bishop’s Service Cross that recognized her outstanding work at St. Rose; being named STAR Teacher in 1987 and 1991; and receiving the Walmart Excellence in Teaching Award.
Because of COVID precautions, Joan has had to curtail some of her activities, but she remains actively engaged with the Hancock County Federation of Democratic Women and HEAL, an organization working to build better rapport between the community and law enforcement officers.
Joan has two daughters, Corinn Thomas Burton and Courtney Thomas, and three grandchildren. Keely is studying pre-med at Mississippi State; Corbin is an aspiring singer; and Kirsten is a junior at Bay High and a cheerleader. And there’s her grand dog, Bellamy, who accompanies Joan on outings.
Joan has her own ideas about what makes a good neighbor. “When all is said and done, I hope every day I gave my best. That’s what makes a good neighbor, caring and concern about my community. We have to care for each other.”