Director, Corps Member Leadership
Year Honored: 2010
At the time of the Award, Rachel Willis was:Teacher
Morningside Elementary School
As a third-grade teacher looping with her second-grade class, Rachel Willis has overseen first-rate improvements in student achievement and education reform at Morningside Elementary School in Atlanta, GA. A product herself of Atlanta’s public school system, her return to implement positive change in education has come full circle as she inspires the next generation of students to be proactive about the issues and passions they hold dear.
After finishing college, Willis spent time exploring a career in government, interning for U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman and CNN. Ultimately, however, she chose the teaching profession after participating in Teach for America, a nonprofit program in which recent college graduates and professionals teach for two years in low- income communities throughout the U.S.
Willis’s teaching is both inventive and regimented. She uses differentiated instruction in the classroom and creates elaborate virtual field trips, such as decorating her classroom to look like the Forum for a unit on democracy in Ancient Greece. A motivated proponent for students and teachers, she was the first teacher at Morningside to apply for a Promethean interactive whiteboard. Once she was provided with one, she successfully lobbied for the technology’s inclusion in all second- through fifth-grade classrooms.
Willis’s students know she cares deeply for them on both academic and personal levels. She stays late after classes to tutor them and watch their after- school activities. When one student had pneumonia, she visited him in the hospital to make sure he didn’t miss any assignments and set aside time for all of her students to write get-well cards. This generous dedication to her kids has resulted in remarkable gains in student achievement. In 2008, 80 percent of her students met or exceeded grade-level standards for reading, English/Language Arts and math on the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests (CRCT). In 2009, the percentage increased to 100 percent. Many students who enter third-grade reading at a first-grade level are reading at a third-grade level by the end of the year.
A lifelong student, Willis is enrolled at Columbia University Teachers College, through which she will receive a master’s degree in educational leadership. She has trained more than 70 Atlanta Public Schools staff on the CLassroom Analysis of State Standards (CLASS Keys), the new Georgia teacher evaluation system, and serves on the Morningside school design team and PTA advisory committee.