Michelle Wilson, a longtime English teacher at Dougherty Valley High School, hadn’t always planned on a career. Looking back, she could see that there were many signs, including her love for “teacher’s movies” such as “Dead Poets Society”.
“To really get kids who just couldn’t get into society to get into society, any child, whether they’re high achievers and not challenged enough or very low, breaking that barrier and getting them to believe in their abilities is what makes this job pretty cool, ”Wilson said in a recent interview.
Despite the “underground” feel of many teacher’s films and Wilson’s own dedication to students who might be considered marginalized in all respects, she has recently been put in the limelight. On September 28, the San Ramon Valley Unified School District (SRVUSD) announced that Wilson will be one of two Contra Costa County finalists to be considered for the California Teacher of the Year award. This makes Wilson one of the many SRVUSD professors to be represented in the competition.
“She inspires her students by allowing their voices, differences, cultural experiences and unique traits to be an integral part of the classroom experience,” SRVUSD Superintendent Dr. John Malloy said in a statement about by Wilson. “It creates a climate where students are more than a statistic.”
According to Wilson, looking beyond statistics is especially important at a top-notch school like Dougherty Valley, whose high rankings on paper can sometimes come at a cost, from his perspective in the classroom.
“The way the system is set up, the way the grades are set up, the way the college entrance is set up, is that students start to sort of robotically go after grades, and after grades. points, and after recovery boosters and, through no fault on their part, lose sense of what education is supposed to provide, ”Wilson said.
For Wilson, what education is supposed to provide are ways to maximize the potential of students as well-rounded individuals, rather than simply imparting information.
“Being at this last stage of what I like to call compulsory education, I have had my fair share of a wide range of teachers,” said Krithi Premnath, senior at DVHS. “But I think the problem with Ms. Wilson in particular was that she tended to strike that perfect balance between leading the class and also giving us the resources to do it on our own.”
Wilson’s encouragement of engagement and critical thinking in the classroom stems from previous interests in journalism and debate. While these guided her work in middle and high school, the skills she learned proved invaluable when she entered teaching.
“I think it sets me apart in some ways as an English teacher because I’m so much more interested in any opportunity to be able to engage in the real world in a communicative sense,” Wilson said.
Wilson was also impressed with many of her own English teachers, and her interest in writing and academics was central to her interest in communication.
“I just remember they were so innovative to get us to think and learn,” Wilson said.
While Wilson has been guided by many sources of wisdom from generations past on teaching, the unprecedented turn of events brought about by the Covid pandemic has meant an entirely new perspective and a shift in focus, for Wilson and for other educators.
“Showing patience and compassion has in many ways become more important skills as a teacher than going through the program and being successful at any level,” Wilson said.
The return to face-to-face learning has been successful in many ways for Wilson, the district, and the students. However, she noted that the seemingly insurmountable obstacles they have been able to overcome since the onset of the pandemic have resulted in additional pressure on educators and unrealistic expectations.
“I think there was a quick rush to try to solve all the gigantic problems possible and to ask teachers to pay attention to all of these things,” Wilson said.
The Teacher of the Year competition was first launched by the California Department of Education in 1972, with intentions such as honoring the teaching profession and seeking to inspire future educators. While teaching has never been easy or glamorous work, the years of the pandemic have brought not only unique technical and educational challenges, but also a shift in thinking about education.
“What I think is positive, I guess, to have a positive turn on all of this is that I see a lot of good thoughts,” Wilson said. “It’s so exciting to be able to have the opportunity to change what we do, that the goals are there, the intentions are there.”
Wilson’s appointment follows a strong track record of successful SRVUSD teachers in the competition, making her the fourth in the district to advance to the state level in five years. However, the work that the award recognizes came as a result of pressures and obstacles that did not exist in previous years.
Much of the work required to advance and improve education has only just begun, according to Wilson.
“There’s a lot of time to spend on all of this, I think very few of us feel like we have,” Wilson said. “That’s what I think we’re all trying to figure out.”
The winners of the statewide statewide competition will be announced in October. More information about the program, including past SRVUSD applicants, is available here.