Editor's note:This is the second in a six-part series profiling the six finalists for this year's Crystal Apple teacher awards.
By RACHAEL GRAY
Rod Willis had good and bad experiences with teachers when he was a student.
The Buffalo Jones Elementary School math coach has been in education for 45 years.
Although Willis had no defining moment when he realized he wanted to be a teacher, he's always liked to help people, even as a little kid.
Willis is one of six finalists for the Crystal Apple Award, an award given annually to Finney County's top educators. The C.A.R.E. Task Force of the Garden City Area Chamber of Commerce announced the 2012 finalists earlier this month. C.A.R.E. stands for Community Awareness and Recognition in Education.
The top three finalists will be named as the 2012 Crystal Apple Teachers of Finney County at a banquet Nov. 8 at the Clarion Inn, 1911 E. Kansas Ave. The winners will receive an engraved crystal apple, $1,000 cash award and other prizes. The other three finalists will be presented with a cash award of $250.
Other finalists are Andrea Baker, Garfield Early Childhood Center; Adam Cassellius, Garden City High School; Emily Hamlin, Holcomb High School; Diane Smith, Buffalo Jones; and Debbie Adler, Jennie Barker Elementary School.
Willis said that when he was younger, he had an ineffective teacher.
"I thought, 'I really need to go into education, because I think I can do a better job than that, and I think I can give the kids more, to teach them more,'" he said.
Willis also had a positive experience with a kindergarten teacher.
At the end of his kindergarten school year, his teacher took the class on a picnic to the park. Willis couldn't go because he was at home sick with the chicken pox. When school let out and Willis had recovered, the teacher visited his home to take him on a picnic.
"That probably affected me more than I realize," he said.
Willis has been in and out of the classroom during the past 45 years, with a few years as a counselor and principal.
He moved to Garden City in 1968 and first started teaching sixth grade at Alta Brown Elementary School. He taught there for 16 years before getting a master's degree in counseling. He served as a school counselor for a year and then when back into the classroom as a sixth-grade teacher at Alta Brown. He then earned a second master's degree in administration and served as principal for six years.
"I enjoyed that but wanted to get back into the classroom," he said.
He then taught fourth grade at the former Garfield Elementary School, was a counselor again and has taught for the last seven years at Buffalo Jones as a math coach.
During that time, he's seen the curriculum transform from No Child Left Behind to Common Core Standards.
He said both initiatives have made teachers more aware of student needs, and more aware of the need to differentiate.
Willis said Common Core already has been implemented into grades kindergarten through second. He said the young students are coming into the higher grades with stronger backgrounds.
"Common Core really allows you to dig deeper," he said.
As a math coach, Willis works with students in and outside of the classroom, and also works with teachers so they can develop more methods and teaching styles when dealing with math curriculum.
"So I have 'kinder' through adult, basically," he said, and laughed.
Over the past 45 years, Willis said, technology has transformed classrooms.
"That's been the biggest change. Kids are still kids. They're great. They are still eager to learn," he said.
It's the students that keep Willis in the classroom.
"I just like it. It's great. I like seeing the success of students. I enjoy when I see former students. My first year of teaching — they are turning 56 and 57 this year. I love to hear when they become doctors or lawyers, or just productive citizens of the community. That makes me feel good," he said.
Willis said oftentimes teachers don't see the fruits of their labors until much later.
"A lot of the success you don't see right away. But when a former student hugs you and is glad to see you, that means they remember. They may not remember everything they learned, but they will remember they liked you, and they liked the school year," he said.
Willis lives in Garden City with his wife, Dorothy. They have two daughters, Dierdre Haupt, Scott City, and Emily Buller, Topeka.