Martha Wood with her VEA Friend of Education award

It’s hard to believe Martha Wood is retired.

For the past 23 years, after 34 years as a classroom teacher, Wood, of Charlottesville, has remained a major figure in the Virginia Education Association and National Education Association, leading the resurgence of the VEA-Retired, recruiting for the organization and fiercely advocating for public education.

For her years of leadership and service, Wood recently was given the VEA’s Friend of Education Award, the organization’s highest honor.

Born in Colonial Beach, Wood grew up on Air Force bases in Guam and elsewhere. She got hands-on teaching experience while she was still a student herself.

“In our school, we didn’t have substitutes, so the eighth-grade girls were always put down in the elementary and primary grades when the teachers were sick,” Wood said. “I got a lot of experience!”

After graduating from Mary Washington University, Wood began her teaching career in 1959 in Stafford County and joined the VEA and NEA. She soon moved to Fairfax County and remained an active member of the organizations, chairing committees and serving as a delegate to the state and national conventions.

In 1979, Wood and her husband moved to Charlottesville. She briefly taught at Charlottesville High School before spending 12 years at Walton Middle School in Albemarle County. Throughout her career, Wood utilized or helped to pioneer educational techniques still considered innovative by contemporary standards.

“I’ve always been project-oriented. You don’t put seventh- and eighth-graders in chairs for 50 minutes and expect them to do well. It’s a matter of switching up and changing things, and it changed how I taught, and I learned a lot of that from the VEA,” Wood said.

One of Wood’s methodologies involved tailoring lessons to students’ backgrounds and interests, resembling the Culturally Responsive Teaching approach recently applied in Albemarle schools.

“I was hired to teach a bunch of boys who were not interested in anything but the mechanical stuff. And I was supposed to teach them history,” Wood said. “So I taught them history, but I used the inventions of the period and how they were developed so that they had to see how these things evolved.”

In Fairfax, Wood also pioneered team-based teaching. She partnered with an English teacher to create a cross-curricular approach that other teachers throughout the school soon started to imitate.

“When [the English teacher] was teaching public speaking, my kids had an oral presentation. When she was teaching research skills, my kids had a research project,” Wood said. “We knew the kids better. You might relate to me, but not to my math teacher. She might get kids that thought math was wonderful and social studies was boring. But between the two of us, we could provide for both.”

Wood noted how one time, while teaching in Albemarle, she attended a continuing education lecture on team-based teaching and was amused to realize that the assistant superintendent leading the program had come to observe her classroom in Fairfax five years prior.

After retiring, Wood was one of seven educators approached by the VEA to explore restarting the group’s then-defunct branch of the organization for retired teachers. She helped to form the bylaws of the VEA-Retired, then served as its first elected president. She also spent six years on the council of the NEA-Retired, advocating for public education and recruiting retired teachers at the national level.

“When my term was up, the council asked me to stay on and run the elections. So I run the national elections for national retired officers, members of the NEA board of directors, members of the resolutions committee,” Wood said. “[These] are the people who are dedicated to making sure that public education stays strong and has the resources it needs to meet the needs of our new population.”

Wood cited breakthroughs in understanding of students with special needs and the increasing diversity of classrooms as necessitating the ongoing evolution of educational techniques. When she started teaching, she said, most teachers did not even know what dyslexia was.

With the education associations’ groups for retirees, Wood lobbies state and national representatives to allocate sufficient funds for public education. She views herself as an advocate for students and families who may not be able to adequately voice their needs.

Wood also volunteers with local civil and human rights organizations, something she has been passionate about since growing up during the civil rights era. She participated in lunch counter sit-ins in college and was once reprimanded by a school administrator for demonstrating against the state poll tax.

Today, she advocates with the VEA, NEA and other organizations for the preservation of separation of church and state and the protection of public schools against privatization. She is optimistic about the use of project-based learning and individualized instruction to inspire a love of learning in students of all ages.

“Really, [educators] are all trying to do the same thing, and that is to make sure that our kids have a good reason for learning,” Wood said.

Past recipients of the VEA’s Friend of Education Award have included delegates, senators, governors and other non-elected advocates for public education. Wood’s longtime commitment to the state and national organizations and education in general made her this year’s pick.

“Martha’s name has become synonymous with active retired membership at both the state and national levels. She was instrumental in launching both the VEA-Retired and the VEA-Retired Council,” outgoing VEA President Meg Gruber said via email. “Her many years of dedicated service to teachers both active and retired led us to give Martha the VEA Friend of Education Award, the highest honor we give.”

Wood is now getting ready to move into a senior living community, and she is ready to let new retirees step into leadership roles in the VEA-Retired. She nevertheless plans to stay active in her many volunteer roles and with running the NEA elections.

“As far as the NEA part is concerned, as long as the president wants me to serve and I’m physically able, I will,” Wood said.