Joseph Sonnier has worked at Port Barre Elementary since 1981. The older students remember him as Mr. Sonnier, the janitor. Now, he is Mr. Sonnier, the teacher.

"When I was still a custodian, they were just in kindergarten and coming up. You think that kids are not going to respect you because, ‘Oh, he was just a janitor.’ Those kids respect me more because they see what I’ve done and what I’ve accomplished," he said in an interview.

Sonnier teaches math, science and social studies to two groups of third graders. Higher education has always been a lifelong dream. It took him eight years, while working full-time, to earn his bachelor’s degree in elementary education.

Neither of Sonnier’s parents completed high school. His father left school in the eighth grade and his mother dropped out when she was a junior in high school, both because of family obligations. Even though his parents lacked diplomas, "they stressed the importance of education," Sonnier said. He finished fifth in his class at Leonville High School in 1979. The following fall, he enrolled at Southern University, majoring in electrical engineering.

He eventually dropped out to help with family obligations. He went on to work at several jobs before becoming a custodian at Port Barre Elementary. At home, Sonnier and his wife, Felicia, emphasized education— by their words and example. While their sons Shaun and Maurice were in high school, Felicia earned a degree in accounting from Louisiana Technical College.

After both boys had graduated from high school, Sonnier said to himself, "Well, I think it’s my turn." He enrolled at the University of Louisiana, but was able to attend most of his classes in Eunice, thanks to the 2+2 elementary education program, in which UL instructors teach courses on the LSU-Eunice campus.

He began in August 2000 as a part-time student and attended night classes, slowly earning college credits. By the spring of 2005, however, the remaining classes he needed were not offered at night.