Spotlight: Devon Willis-Jones (LA '16)January 30, 2017
Principal Devon Willis-Jones (LA '16) motivates her teachers by reminding them that the students sitting in their classrooms are their community's future mayors, police officers, nurses, doctors and other leaders: "Give them your best so they can have a successful future," she tells them. Willis-Jones received her Milken Educator Award at Jeanerette Elementary School in Jeanerette, Louisiana, on October 25, 2016.
Milken Educator Awards: How did you end up in education?
Devon Willis-Jones: I come from a family of educators. My mother is a retired teacher and I always remembered the joy I received when she would allow me to check or grade students’ work. I also have a crazy obsession with school supplies. I get so excited when Walmart has school supplies on display! But I didn't get the “aha” moment until my second year at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. I was planning on majoring in nursing. One of my roommates (an education major) shared some of the concepts she was learning in her classes, and I said to her, “That's what I want to learn.” The rest is history.
MEA: What’s your favorite thing about elementary school kids?
Devon: I enjoy their excitement about learning and their thirst to know more. The most frustrating thing is we don't always measure growth in a way that tells a child's story. We have kids at my school who work extremely hard at everything they do. Their personal growth is amazing, but they never reach an acceptable level according to the district or state. Those kids feel like failures, the teachers feel like failures. That's very frustrating. We tackle this by celebrating individual success—for example, we recently had a special event where students who had met their individualized learning targets or goals were invited to a chicken-and-waffle party.
MEA: What was your first job?
Devon: I worked at a local nursing home as a Certified Nursing Assistant during high school and college. Elderly patients can be difficult; some don't want to be there, others are experiencing dementia, a few are just stubborn. That experience taught me patience, which served me well as a special education teacher.
MEA: Who was your most memorable elementary school teacher?
Devon: My aunt Jackie [Jacklene Jones, a Louisiana Milken Award winner in 2001, pictured above with Devon at her October 2016 notification]. She made learning fun. I remember she had this "Guess What Box" and we had to use descriptive words to determine what was in it. I also enjoyed the “Word of the Week”—she always chose words that weren’t usually part of a child's vocabulary. She encouraged us to use the word in our daily conversations and rewarded us for doing so. My favorite: procrastination.
MEA: Just how many educators are there in your family?
Devon: Education is in my blood! It started with my maternal grandfather, who believed education was the best career for his children and grandchildren. Then there was my mother, three aunts, three cousins and a brother. My family provided me a model of what good teaching looks like. They were dedicated to their craft and in turn made me dedicated to mine.
MEA: What was your favorite subject?
Devon: I enjoy reading and the idea that two people can read the same book and interpret it in different ways. My guilty pleasures are the Harry Potter and Twilight series, but I'll read just about anything. My hardest subject is mathematics. I struggled as a student and now I'm struggling as a parent and principal. To overcome this deficiency I research, read, and practice, practice, practice! Thankfully I have a master teacher at my school who can tutor me whenever I'm called to support a math teacher.
MEA: Tell us about your first class.
Devon: I was not prepared! The kids misbehaved and didn't respect me or my authority, and I thought about quitting in December. But I learned a great deal from my colleagues: how to develop a behavior management plan, classroom procedures, backwards-designed lesson plans. I learned a lot about myself and knew I was destined for more than just the classroom.
MEA: What impact do you think your Milken Educator Award presentation had on students at your school?
Devon: The Milken Educator Award presentation had an impact on our entire community. For days and weeks after the notification, parents and community members would approach me in the local grocery store and tell me they were so proud of me and the accomplishments of the school. The entire community beamed with pride that our school was recognized on a national level. Parents from the neighboring elementary school began asking how they could get their child enrolled at Jeanerette Elementary.
MEA: What do you hope your students remember about you and their time at your school?
Devon: I hope they remember the fun we had while learning and the importance of a good quality education. More importantly, I hope they remember that I love and care for all of them.
MEA: How do you involve parents and families in your school?
Devon: We have an open-door policy. Parents are welcomed to visit the school and classrooms. Throughout the school year we host numerous events that involve parents: Grandparents Day, Family Nights, Open House, parent conferences, Christmas programs, band concerts and more. We also have a school pantry provided by Second Harvest that provides free food to the entire community.
MEA: What’s your favorite time of the school day?
Devon: After school, when everyone has left for the day. I get to reflect on what went well, what didn't, and my next steps.
MEA: What’s the biggest challenge you and your teachers face?
Devon: The looming accountability in the face of a state and district in transition. The state of Louisiana recently adopted new standards and moved to online testing, and the district is implementing a new curriculum. That's a lot of change for my teachers and me. We are continually learning new strategies and techniques to reach our students, but at times it can be difficult. It helps that, through our work with the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, we have supports built into the fabric of our school that can make the transitions easier: job-embedded professional development, knowledgeable mentor and master teachers, and a network of other schools for collaboration.
MEA: If someone gave you a million dollars to use in your school, what would you do with it?
Devon: A million dollars would change everything! I'm getting goose bumps just thinking about it. Aside from a Chromebook for every student, I would create after-school and summer programs for both students and parents. We could provide parents work skills, parenting classes, remedial reading and math. I believe if we educate parents and get them more involved, then students and families thrive. The after-school and summer programs would serve two purposes. For struggling students, the programs would close any instructional gaps. Students working on or above their levels would get enrichment. We could develop mentoring programs and ensure that all students are on the path toward a college diploma. Finally, I would use the money to recruit the best and brightest educators around.
MEA: If you hadn't chosen a career in education, what would you be doing right now?
Devon: Probably working as a nurse at a local hospital.
MEA: What can our nation do better to encourage young, capable people to consider teaching as a career? How can we motivate new teachers to stay in the profession?
Devon: Educators are the professionals who build other professionals. If you want to be a doctor, someone has to teach you the knowledge to become a doctor. We are essential to the future of the next generation. I tell my teachers this all the time: The future mayors, police officers, nurses and doctors of our small community are seated in their classrooms right now; give them your best so they can have a successful future. But often we are not acknowledged for our efforts or paid enough, and we get blamed for all the wrongs in the education system. Once the education profession is lifted up, we will begin recruiting and motivating new teachers.
MEA: Finish this sentence: "I know I’m succeeding as an educator when…"
Devon: …students exceed everyone's expectations.
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