Jill McWilliams got a virtual surprise Tuesday when she saw some unexpected faces pop up on her computer screen during her weekly online staff meeting.
“A couple of people came on from the county, and I thought that was a little strange ... but then my mother came on and that was my first indication that something was up,” McWilliams said.
They were all virtually there for good reason though — McWilliams had been chosen as the Frederick County Public Schools 2020-2021 Teacher of the Year.
School superintendent Terry Alban and Board of Education President Brad Young announced it during the virtual meeting in front of colleagues and family, some as far away as Arizona.
McWilliams said she is honored to be chosen and feels privileged to represent Frederick County in such a way.
“I feel like I represent an amazing group of teachers in Frederick County,” McWilliams said. “I’m one of thousands of teachers that are dedicated and committed and care about their students.”
McWilliams is a teacher at Walkersville Elementary School where she leads a multi-grade class of kindergartners and first-graders.
She was chosen for the school district’s most prestigious award, which recognizes excellence in teaching, out of 68 other nominees.
“The creative ways that Mrs. McWilliams dedicates herself to building connections with students and their families, combined with the ways she encourages students’ support of one another and collaborates with her peer educators, make her an excellent representative of quality teaching in Frederick County,” Alban said in a statement.
McWilliams earned her bachelor of science degree in applied learning and development with a specialization in English and early childhood education from the University of Texas in Austin and her Masters of Science in education, early childhood literacy, from Wilkes University.
She has worked at Walkersville Elementary since 2006 and has used the time to foster connections with her students, and their families, which she believes is critical to ensuring student success.
Making such connections is something McWilliams said she realized later in her career though after gaining more experience and overcoming her fear of communicating with parents.
“I realized that it really just helps the child to succeed when there is that sense of partnership between parents and myself,” she said.
To help build connections between home and school McWilliams has implemented initiatives at Walkersville Elementary such as a summer program that helps students build confidence before the start of the school year and weekly journals that McWilliams send homes to her student’s families.
Called “Home-School Journals”, they include a highlight of the week’s learning and writings from the student about the best part of their week. The journals also allow parents to write back to their children.
McWilliams said it fosters a three-way writing relationship and helps keeps parents in the loop about their child’s education, when oftentimes Kindergartners or first graders don’t necessarily have all the vocabulary to share what they’re learning in school.
“My letter in the journal gave parents the language to be able to have a lot of conversations with their child about what was happening. If they said “oh your teacher said you read this book”...then their child would begin to talk about that,” McWilliams said. “In that way it really connected home and school.”
At the end of the year, McWilliams said she binds all the writings and journals together and gives it to students.
“I’d watch [students] look through this and just be so proud of themselves because they could see their writing from the beginning of the year and the progression all the way to the end,” she said. “And parents have said over the years what a special keepsake it is for them.”
When asked what it’s been like to teach a multi-grade classroom in the current reality of distance learning, McWilliams said it hasn’t been much different but that it requires a lot more collaboration.
The hardest part is not seeing her students every day and added that she hopes they all continue to work hard.
“I ask that when their families ask them to sit down and work, to do it,” she said with a laugh.
Even though the announcement of her recognition was a little different this year than in the past, when teachers would be visited by Alban and family members in person at school, McWilliams said she feels she got lucky.
“Honestly this was better because my mother who doesn’t walk well and lives in North Carolina would have never been able to participate or my brothers who live across the country,” McWilliams said. “So, it was really, to me, a very special occasion because everyone got to participate.”
Now that McWilliams has been named the FCPS teacher of the year she will also be in the running for Maryland Teacher of the Year. The Board of Education will honor McWilliam’s achievement at a future meeting and FCPS is planning a future celebration which will be based around safety considerations due to pandemic.