Durham Public Schools’ Teacher of the Year Cultivates Positive Atmosphere in the Classroom

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Little River K-8 School’s William Hill shares why he began teaching middle school and his own experiences as a Durham Public Schools student

teacher of the year durham public schools

By Valeria Cloës | Photo by John Michael Simpson

The words “Read. Write. Think.” in multicolored letters stand out above William Hill’s whiteboard at Little River K-8 School, greeting students as they walk into his classroom.

The English language arts and social studies teacher, who was recently named Durham Public Schools’ Teacher of the Year, says his decision to become a middle grades teacher was largely influenced by his own experiences as a student. The Durham native grew up in the Gorman area and attended Y.E. Smith Elementary Museum School, Morehead Montessori Magnet Elementary School, Durham School of the Arts and Josephine Dobbs Clement Early College High School. All were formative experiences for him, but he cites two of his middle school teachers at DSA and one of his high school teachers as particularly instrumental to his growth.

“[My sixth grade math teacher, Jennifer Tuttle], took an interest in me,” William says, adding that she went above and beyond by taking time to read his creative writing outside of class. “That showed me that there was more to the teacher-student relationship than just the delivery and receipt of content – [there’s] also that personal connection.”

His eighth grade English language arts teacher, Marisa Barbaza, continued to encourage William’s love of composition by having her students explore free writing and poetry.

“[My ninth grade Advancement via Individual Determination teacher] David Becker was another great model for that teacher-student relationship,” William adds. He says David would also take the time to show his students’ support even after the final bell rang. “I always felt that that was something that I wanted to imitate as well in my own teaching practice,” William says.

To that end, William also finds ways to champion his students’ interests beyond academics, like attending their school athletic games.

Mason Russell, 12, now a seventh grade student at Discovery Charter School, had class with William in sixth grade at Little River. His mom, Jamie Stroud, says that every time she would go to her son’s soccer games, William would be right there in the crowd, cheering his pupils on.

“It really boosted my happiness of being there and confidence of actually playing, because he would sit there and cheer for me the whole game,” Mason says.

William also credits his experience at North Carolina Central University’s School of Education, where he graduated cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in 2016, for the teacher he is today, saying it “was the biggest part of my journey in preparing to be an educator.” He says he learned in his college courses that very few teachers enter into the profession at the middle grade levels. In fact, out of his graduating class at N.C. Central, he was one of only three students who intentionally pursued middle years education.

But thanks to those aforementioned teachers he had during his own public school experience, he says that choosing a career in middle grades was a “no-brainer” for him. “I wanted to share that same love of learning,” he says. “Same passion for my subject, but also be a person who is there for students during what is a pretty rough time.”

One of William’s biggest goals is to build a positive classroom environment. As a licensed academically/intellectually gifted teacher through Duke University’s Program in Education (where he earned a Teacher Advocacy in Gifted Education Award in August 2019), he starts with creating a “homey” feel to learning spaces to help put his students at ease – he utilizes soft lamp lighting instead of harsh overheads, an essential oil diffuser, decorations and flexible seating options.

“Equity begins with equity of voice,” William says. “I want to hear from all my students. I want them to feel comfortable sharing their ideas. I want to hear their perspectives. I want to hear their stories.”

William says he learns just as much from his students as they learn from him. “I’m learning about [their] language, their religious backgrounds, their ethnic backgrounds, cultural differences,” he says. “And I try to learn something from every single one of them, because it does help to prepare me to better engage with them and their own families throughout that school year, as well as with future students who come my way.”

He’s also taken four years of Spanish to better communicate with children whose primary language isn’t English. “Oftentimes, I find that there is a word that they may not necessarily recognize or understand in English, but if I know the word and its equivalent in Spanish or its equivalent in another language, that helps them to make that connection,” he says. “Anytime that I can make a linguistic connection or a cultural connection that helps them to better understand the concept [or a reading] that we’re discussing, I think that’s a great learning tool.”

“[William is] one of those teachers that makes school enjoyable for students and helps every kid to feel included and excited about learning,” Jamie says. Mason echoes the sentiment, saying that William boosted his confidence in reading. “He’s a great teacher,” he says. “I think the way he always comes to a classroom, it doesn’t really matter if he’s sad or tired – he always tries to cheer up the students if they’re feeling down.”

Students and parents would agree that William is well on his way to – like his own teachers before him – becoming one of those educators who students reflect on and appreciate for years to come.

“[The students will] look back and say, … ‘He always believed in me and helped me to be the best that I could be,’” Jamie says

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