LifeChanger of the Year Nominee Profile

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Erin Willard

Position: Kindergarten Teacher
School: Sonoma Elementary School
School District: Harper Creek Community Schools
City, State: Harper Creek, MI

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Erin Willard was nominated by her principal, Shalen King-Short.

There are teachers in this world who can change the lives of not only the students, but the parents, staff, and community.  Mrs. Willard is one of them. She is a beamer; she can always be counted on to bring the perspective of the students first whenever she's collaborating with someone. She is part of the school leadership team and is always willing to step up to any challenge.

Mrs. Willard embodies a nurturing atmosphere in a way that can not be compared to anything else. Her room prior to COVID-19 looked like a forest, with materials from nature and learning stations that were authentic and inspiring.  She created a sense of wonder and excitement in a way that no one could recreate.

"As a new principal, I can say I wondered about her play based, plant based classroom," said King-Short. "While working in her room, the level of learning and exposure to not only curriculum, but to lifelong, essential learning, was astounding.  Watching her teach gives you chills. The students know what they are learning about, and it is amazingly authentic.  During a lesson last year, her students were asked to make a den.  As the principal, I thought, 'This is not deep thinking.' As the students began to share out, however, I was shocked! They were sharing things like why they built it a certain way, with vocabulary that sounded like third graders.  They explained the features of the den, how they kept predators out , and the geologic parts they added and why."

Then, COVID-19 happened, and Mrs. Willard's sense of belonging and mastery was broken.  How can someone who has this amazing system full of materials from outside the building recreate it in a safe way?  If anyone could do it, it would be her.  With the help of a local church, Mrs. Willard moved her classroom outside!  She created an amazing learning space where her students spend time each day learning about the world around them and connecting to nature in their outdoor classroom.  She took what she knew about play, children, motivation, and the importance of being outside and created an authentic learning space for students to learn.

"Erin is a true life long learner who supports the students, parents, staff, and community through her teaching," said King-Short. "She is an exemplar educator who has changed the lives of all the students she has worked with. She has changed mine, as well. I am privileged to work with Mrs. Willard."

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