Dougherty Valley High School's longtime English teacher Michelle Wilson didn't always plan to have this career. Looking back though, she's been able to see that there were numerous signs, including her love for "teacher movies" such as "Dead Poets Society."
"To really get kids that just could not access society to access society, any kid, whether they're super high performing and not being challenged enough or super on the low end, breaking that barrier and getting them to believe in their abilities, that's what makes this job pretty cool," Wilson said in a recent interview.
Despite the "underground" feel of many teacher movies, and Wilson's own devotion to students who might be considered on the margins in any regard, she has been cast into the spotlight recently. On Sept. 28, the San Ramon Valley Unified School District (SRVUSD) announced that Wilson would be one of two Contra Costa County finalists to be considered for the California Teacher of the Year Award. This makes Wilson one of a steady track of SRVUSD teachers 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," said SRVUSD Superintendent Dr. John Malloy, in a statement about Wilson. "She creates a climate where students are more than a statistic."
According to Wilson, looking beyond statistics is particularly important in a high-ranking school such as Dougherty Valley, whose high rankings on paper can sometimes come at a cost, from her perspective in the classroom.
"The way the system is set up, the way grades are set up, the way getting into college is set up, is that students start to kind of robotically go after grades, and go after points, and go after resume boosters and, through no fault of their own, lose the meaning of what education is meant to provide," Wilson said.
For Wilson, what education is meant to provide is ways of maximizing students' potentials as well-rounded individuals, rather than simply conveying information.
"Being at this last stage of what I like to call mandatory education, I've had my fair share of a wide range of teachers," said DVHS senior Krithi Premnath. "But I think the thing with Mrs. Wilson specifically is that she tended to find that perfect balance between directing 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 stem from earlier interests in journalism and debate. Although these had guided her work in college and high school, the skills she gained turned out to be invaluable when she went into teaching.
"I think that kind of in some ways sets me apart as an English teacher, because I am so much more interested in any opportunity to be able to engage in the real world in a communicative sense," Wilson said.
Wilson was additionally awed by many of her own English teachers, and her gravitation towards writing and academics were at the heart of her interest in communication.
"I just remember them being so innovative in getting us to think and to learn," Wilson said.
While Wilson has had the guidance of numerous sources of wisdom from past generations on teaching, the unprecedented turn in events brought on by the Covid pandemic has meant an entirely new perspective, and shift of focus, for Wilson and other educators.
"Showing patience and compassion have in many ways become more important skills as a teacher than getting through curriculum and sort of achieving on any level," Wilson said.
Returning to in-person learning has been triumphant in many ways for Wilson, the district, and students. However, she noted that the seemingly insurmountable obstacles they were able to overcome since the start of the pandemic has led to additional pressure for educators, and unrealistic expectations.
"I think that there has been a quick rush to try to address every single possible gigantic issue that we possibly can, and to ask teachers to be mindful of all those things," Wilson said.
The Teacher of the Year contest was first put forth by the California Department of Education in 1972, with intentions such as honoring the teaching profession, and seeking to inspire aspiring educators. Although teaching has never been an easy or glamorous job, the pandemic years have brought on not just unique technical and pedagogic challenges, but a shift in thinking about education.
"What I think is positive, I guess, to have a positive spin on all of this, is that I see a lot of the right thinking," Wilson said. "It's so exciting to be able to have an opportunity to change up what we're doing, that the goals are there, that the intentions are there."
Wilson's nomination comes in the wake of a strong track record of SRVUSD teachers' success in the competition, making her the fourth from the district to advance to the state level in five years. However, the work that the award is acknowledging has come in the wake of pressures and obstacles that weren't there in previous years.
Much of the work needed to advance and improve education is only just beginning, according to Wilson.
"There's a lot of time that needs to be devoted to all of that, that I think very few of us feel like we're getting," Wilson said. "That's what I think we're all trying to figure out."
Winners of the statewide competition at the state level will be announced in October. More information on the program, including past SRVUSD nominees, is available here.