Since 2001, the Danville Public School Foundation has bestowed the David L. Fields Excellence in Teaching Awards to an "outstanding" teacher from the primary, intermediate, middle school and high school levels.
This year's recipients are Markesha Hillsman, a third-grade teacher at Liberty Elementary; Rena Pate, a third-grade teacher at Southwest Elementary; Angela Brown, a data and instructional facilitator at North Ridge Middle School; and Kurt Willer, the Danville High School librarian and media/technology specialist. They will be recognized at the foundation's annual "An Evening of Singing and Dancing" tonight at the high school.
The award is named for the retired superintendent who served the district for 41 years as a teacher, administrator and his last 10 years as chief. He also has been a member of the Illinois State Board of Education since September 2004.
According to the foundation, recipients have demonstrated "superior effectiveness in student success, collaboration, continuous learning and leadership." They receive a $500 cash award from the foundation and $500 of instructional supplies for their classroom from the district.
Here are five things to know about this year's winners.
1 Despite becoming a teen mom her senior year of high school, the Danville native graduated from high school in 1999, Danville Area Community College in 2003 and Eastern Illinois University in 2005. "He was really my motivation for going forward with my education," Hillsman said of her son, Davin Gouard, who's in the eighth grade. Her other son, Phoenix, is a second-grader at Liberty.
2 Hillsman realized she wanted to be a teacher when she was a third-grader at Garfield Elementary. Her teacher was Susan Shane. "You could tell she really cared about her students, and she tried to make school fun," she recalled.
3 Hillsman will earn her second master's degree (in educational leadership) from Eastern Illinois University in May. She received a master's degree in curriculum and instruction from Olivet Nazarene University in 2009, and she may pursue a doctorate in the future.
4 A teacher for eight years, Hillsman taught briefly at East Park Elementary before moving to Liberty. She taught fourth grade for two years and third grade the past six years. She has also been her school's intermediate unit leader for the past four years. If teachers have a conflict, she helps them try to resolve it.
5 Hillsman's colleagues call her a trailblazer because of her willingness to try new things in the classroom and to improve upon things that work. This year, she won a grant to use the Reflex Math computer program in her class to help students become fluent in addition, subtraction, multiplication and division facts. "My students come in every day excited to learn, and it is my responsibility to make sure that learning takes place," Hillsman said. "I want my students to have just as much fun in school as I did; therefore, I try to do fun, interactive activities to keep them actively engaged."
1 Pate is one of only two teachers in the Danville school district who's Nationally Board Certified. She achieved certification in 2005 and recertification in 2013.
2 Since Southwest opened 12 years ago, Pate and her students have made weekly visits to Gardenview Manor, formerly the county-run Vermilion Manor nursing home, next door. Students read books to residents, play bingo with them, do arts and crafts and much more. "My students learn the importance of giving back as well as the reward for helping someone else have a better day," she said. "The faces of the residents light up when the kids arrive."
3 Pate has written two books on math problem solving. Her "When Do Dandelions Become Weeds" teaching manual is designed to demonstrate how and why problem solving is an integral part of higher-order mathematics, and "Most Colors of PlayDough Taste Alike" contains written problems and scenarios for teachers to use in their instruction.
4 Pate is a frequent presenter at regional, state and national conferences, including the Illinois Council of Teachers of Mathematics and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM).
5 Teaching wasn't Pate's first profession. Although she always wanted to teach and was valedictorian of her graduating class, she was unable to pursue college. She worked as a clerk/typist in the education department of Lakeview Medical Center, now Presence United Samaritans Medical Center, and then put herself through night school at Danville Junior College, now Danville Area Community College. She worked her way up to become the hospital's assistant director of marketing and communications, then got her bachelor's degree in education at the University of Illinois. Since then, she has earned a master's degree in teaching and learning mathematics.
North Ridge Middle School
1 Brown became a data and instructional facilitator at North Ridge Middle School this year. Prior to that, she taught at Holy Family School in Danville, Judith Giacoma Elementary School in Westville and at North Ridge Middle School. "I get the best of all worlds in this position," said Brown, an educator since 1996. "I'm able to work with students and collaborate with teachers while supporting them in the classroom. It's amazing that I used to be uncomfortable giving speeches and presentations, and now I provide professional development for my peers on a regular basis and truly enjoy that aspect of my job."
2 As a teacher and then coordinator for North Ridge's Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) college-readiness program, Brown launched the AVID Ambassadors program. Three or four times each year, eighth-graders go to Edison Elementary School where they assist a teacher, help students with reading and other activities and mentor them.
3 Brown's other passion is coaching. She's coached fifth- and sixth-grade boys and girls basketball at Judith Giacoma, and sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade girls basketball and sixth-grade girls volleyball at North Ridge. "My favorite part about coaching is seeing the confidence and skill develop in players as a season progresses," she said. "Winning is great, but that character that playing sports can build is the key."
4 Brown will earn another master's degree (an education-reading specialist degree) from Olivet Nazarene University in June. She also has a master's degree in elementary education from Eastern University and a bachelor's degree in elementary education from Indiana State University.
5 Brown is 2015 Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame Silver Anniversary Team nominee. The final selection will be announced in November.
1 Willer oversees one of the busiest places at Danville High. The library, which is larger than eight classrooms, houses the school district's information technology staff, three full-size computer labs, two mini-labs, two mobile laptop labs, the school I.D. card center, the school store, a copy center, 22,000 books and a conference room that's used all day long. "It takes three full-time staff members and a dozen dedicated student helpers to manage the 60,000 visits we receive each year," he said. "We currently have three student art installations and serve as a meeting location for students and staff."
2 Willer's job is as much about information technology as it is books. "These days, a librarian must be equal parts book minder, technology specialist, student art curator and classroom teacher," he said. "I work with everybody to ensure that technology, people and resources work together."
3 Willer teaches sword fighting at school and owns a functional suit of armor. In his spare time, he participates in the Society for Creative Anachronism. "The SCA is an educational and re-enactment group where I am a spearman, crossbowman and operate siege equipment during 'battles' that take place between groups."
4 Willer is a Chicago native and attended four colleges, including Canterbury Christ Church University in England, where he studied history and literature in 1994. His jobs have included a private sector librarian, college campus security guard, role-playing game coach and social studies teacher, and prior to coming to Danville, he taught in Central Virginia, Washington D.C. and the Chicago suburbs.
5 Willer credits another former job, a commissioned salesman for Marshall Fields, with teaching him how to provide good customer service, which he uses today. He said the key is to treat every person who walks throughout the door as if they were a millionaire, give customers what they want when they need it and try to do it better than you did last time.