Todd Willis - Tate County, MS

Highlighting the innovative programs created and led by Mississippi Rural Teacher of the Year winner, Todd Willis, an innovative 3rd grade Teacher at Coldwater Elementary School in Tate County, MS.

July 9, 2024 |
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Photo caption: Todd Willis receiving Mississippi Teacher of the Year award with his students. Photo Credit - Mississippi Department of Education. The Program for Research and Evaluation for Public Schools (PREPS), housed at William Carey University, an RSC Regional Hub partner in our Mississippi Hub, recently awarded four teachers the honor of Mississippi Rural Teacher of the Year. This feature spotlights the innovative programs created and led by the overall state winner, Todd Willis, an innovative 3rd grade Teacher at Coldwater Elementary School in Tate County, MS.

Each year in Mississippi, four teachers (one from each congressional district) are honored as MS Rural Teachers of the Year. PREPS, or the Program for Research and Evaluation for Public Schools housed at William Carey University, hands out the awards. William Carey University, alongside Mississippi State University, form the Mississippi Chapter of the National Rural Education Association, and are RSC’s newest state to join our Regional Hub Network. As we welcome our new Mississippi Hub to our network, we will be spotlighting these Rural Teachers of the Year as illustrations of the excellent work happening across the Magnolia State.

Todd Willis is a third-grade teacher at Coldwater Elementary School in rural Tate County, MS. Todd’s journey to teaching in this Memphis exurb has meandered, much like the nearby bends of the Mississippi River, leading him to building a thriving community of learners immersed in their local community and ecology. As a result of numerous projects and partnerships that have uplifted his students, Todd was named the overall MS Rural Teacher of the Year in 2024. Walking down the streets of Coldwater, Mississippi, you might hear the following:

“What’s that man teacher up to?”

“I want that man teacher!”

“Tell that man teacher that he should apply!”

Tate County School Superintendent Alee Dixon (right), congratulates Todd Willis (left) at a board meeting - Photo credit Tate Record.

Todd Willis stands out in more ways than one– and people have taken note. For one, he entered the teaching profession later in life: “Teaching is actually my third career. Banking and real estate were my first two. After teaching at a large public school for 8 years, I accepted the opportunity to teach at a small private school in rural Arkansas. Then I accepted the position to teach in Tate County, MS.” Additionally, he teaches third grade, not a common age-group for male teachers. Most of all, though, Todd stands out for the ways in which he goes above and beyond to create meaningful learning opportunities for his students, both within and outside of the classroom walls. In teaching, his third career and now at his third school, he has found his place and passion.

“When I made the decision to prepare to be a teacher, I completed the master's program at the University of Mississippi. I probably feel more personal satisfaction teaching in this rural setting than any job I have had as an educator. I feel needed and, because of the smaller class sizes, I feel I am making a difference.”

Todd’s start in experiential, project-based learning came in his first teaching position, when he started a small garden outside of his classroom. He and his students were both immediately hooked on the fun and learning that it could provide: “Well, I think a garden does two things. First of all, the thing you're constantly striving to do with students is to get them vested in their education, so they understand that they're going to need it later. It's not just ‘can you answer these facts? Check, you're done for your life.’ So you're trying to get them to make that real-world connection to their curriculum. Then the second thing the garden does, just by nature (pun intended), is it forces a cross-curricular connection. . . if you take one step farther and start talking about seasons or temperature, you're bringing the science part into it.”

Moreover, Todd believes that teachers are at their best when they are focusing lessons around areas of passion for themselves, bringing an infectious enthusiasm that translates to their students. He shares that “I think everybody should teach what they're passionate about or what they're gifted in . . . I have always had an interest in and an affinity for the natural world, whether it's being out in the woods, growing up as an avid hunter and on a farm, [and being] out in the garden.” Over the years, in finding joint interest with his students, Todd found that as he brought his passion for nature to the classroom, the lessons resonated with students, his administrators, and the wider community.

“Our students are achieving more and enjoying more opportunities to excel in academics. They also are enjoying the transition to more Project and Place-Based Learning. Those learning styles lead to more emphasis on real word and cross curricular outcomes.”

One standout example of these types of projects is the Coldwater Elementary School Hickahala Creek Exploratorium, a learning space created by Todd and his students on land adjacent to the school owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Students have created trails, learn outside, and study their local environment through a partnership with the Army Corps. In short, “it provides a place for students and the community to study, research, explore, and preserve nature” says Todd. Todd and his students created the name, both to highlight the purpose of the dedicated learning space and the history of the land: “ Using the name Hickahala is an acknowledgement of the native Chickasaw people who named the creek. Hickahala means sweet gum in the Chickasaw language. And the term Exploratorium is an acknowledgement of the primary purpose of the area - learning through exploration.”

Students become citizen scientists and prepare to enter the vernal pool for collection of water samples for chemical analysis and invertebrate search.

In addition to partnership with the Army Corps, Todd has brought in experts from Mississippi Fish and Wildlife to help teach his students about local biodiversity found in the creek, such as macroinvertebrates. In language arts class, the students studied vocabulary words like pollution, dissolved oxygen, and watershed, and completed modules to prepare them for on-site explorations. In the exploratorium, alongside with wildlife experts they collected water samples, conducted tests, and searched for animals that are bio-indicators of ecosystem health.

As Todd has deepened connections between students and their own backyard, he has also created field trips and additional experiences that both broaden their horizons and build on the love of learning instilled by a garden or the exploratorium. Through personal connections and community partnerships, Coldwater Elementary students now take as many as 12 field trips a year in pursuit of unique, real-world experiences. Todd describes his process: in “elementary [school], the kids need concrete things [to study]. So what businesses do we have here that produce a product? I never had a business turn me down when I call them up and say, ‘look, I got 30 kids and we want to come and see how you, you know, fill in the blank.’”

Students learning how to make salads with the greens from their class garden.

There are strong farming roots in Tate County, and Todd incorporates agricultural lessons into his curricula and field trip itinerary whenever possible. First, Todd had his daughter, an excellent chef, video-call in and show the kids how to prepare a salad with some greens that they grew in their garden. He saw the value of incorporating perceived experts, and expanded from there. While studying math, the students visit the local sales barn to practice their arithmetic: “selling cattle, all of that meets the standards. And so the kids were able to see that real world connection and everything.” Likewise, community members will drop things off at school, where agriculture can be further incorporated into the curriculum: “I have community support and at once the community kind of hears about the garden or hears about the farm, they'll just drop stuff off. They'll say, ‘Give that to that man teacher.’”

On a beginning-of-the-year sheet Todd has parents and guardians fill out, he asks them not just for phone numbers, emergency contacts, and the like, but also for their hobbies and professions. One parent noted that he works for Sinclair Foods, which makes all of the potato salad for Sam’s Club and Walmart. The parent facilitated a tour, which was a massive hit with the students, who studied “how we cook it, make it, mix it, and we had all those different kinds of potato salad. We had a taste contest with potato salad. And they loved it.” On the trip, Todd recalls that he had as many parents as students in attendance, highlighting the buy-in he has been able to achieve from families and the community. This has resonated with his administration and fellow teachers at Coldwater Elementary, including his superintendent, who nominated him for MS Rural Teacher of the Year.

“Our community stakeholders such as the school board, board of supervisors, and other leaders have fully embraced our plans. They know a successful school system is a foundational unit to a growing, thriving community. Successful school systems attract homeowners and industry dollars.”

Recently, Todd has looked beyond northwest Mississippi for learning opportunities. After a trip to Puget Sound to visit his son, he got excited about the idea of creating cross-curricular lessons around salmon migration. “My kids don't know anything about salmon migration, or the Pacific Northwest. Well, there is this huge thing called King Salmon, and once a year they have a simulated game where your kids can sign on, register for a fish and it puts them in the stream.” Students each get to follow their very own chipped-and-tracked Salmon through their migration upriver, and Todd facilitated a lesson where students simulated inserting the fish-trackers in bananas, just like wildlife professionals do in their schooling. For third-graders, of course, they also had fun decorating and naming their would-be salmon.

Students decorating their "salmon" bananas for a lesson on salmon migration.

With each successive experience, Todd creates fun learning for students where it previously did not exist. It started with a small garden, one pot per student, with each kid climbing out of a window every day to check on their plant. That seed grew, and branched into field trips and real-world learning experiences. Todd has funded these experiences through a voracious dedication to applying for any and all grants he comes across. A dedication to Place-Based Education has drawn accolades and notoriety for Todd, but what’s most important to him is the impact on his students. What’s next for Todd Willis, Mississippi Rural Teacher of the Year winner?

“The project I'm most excited about is the one I'm working on next. I don't hardly ever repeat. I'm afraid if I have that one cool lesson, and repeat it every year, over time it will lose its magic. With all the things we have to teach in third grade, we need that magic to happen every day!"

We are grateful to Todd for sharing his experiences as a rural teacher in Mississippi. Thank you to our Mississippi Regional Hub partners for connecting us with Todd.

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