A teacher at Wakefield High School is a finalist for the Virginia Teacher of the Year award after a surprise announcement this morning (Monday).
Michelle Cottrell-Williams, a social studies teacher at Wakefield, learned of the recognition from Virginia First Lady Dorothy McAuliffe, who presented her with a certificate and flowers during a sociology class. McAuliffe was joined by Superintendent Patrick Murphy, Arlington County School Board members and Wakefield principal Chris Willmore.
Cottrell-Williams is one of eight teachers in the running for Virginia Teacher of the Year. She represents educational Region 4, which comprises various cities and counties in Northern Virginia.
She is the first regional finalist from Arlington since Colette Fraley, another Wakefield social studies teacher, in 2010. Cottrell-Williams is already Arlington Teacher of the Year, having been nominated by Lisa Labella, Wakefield’s senior project coordinator.
“I’m speechless,” Cottrell-Williams said after the announcement. “Dr. Willmore walked in, said he had to interrupt for a minute, OK. People just kept coming and coming and coming, and I have no words. This is incredible. I feel like I’ve just been me, and to be recognized, that other people recognize that what I’m doing matters, is pretty amazing.”
Cottrell-Williams has taught at Wakefield for 10 years, and is the lead classroom teacher of World History II, U.S. and Virginia Government, AP European History, Sociology and senior project classes.
She has been recognized for her dynamic lesson plans that use various strategies and methods to help students learn as well as her commitment to professional development for her fellow teachers.
“In my other classes I’ve been asked to come up with projects and ways to rethink education,” senior Alex Pearson said. “I feel like Ms. Cottrell does that. She’s a teacher that makes class fun, and I feel like we’re going to learn a lot of things.”
“I think it says a lot about Ms. Cottrell,” senior Ana Sofia Uro-DeLeon said. “We haven’t even started our classes yet, and she’s already getting an award and everything. It shows that she really does care about the students and the individual, not just the statistics and our grades.”
McAuliffe said with budgetary pressures weighing on public school districts across Virginia, recognizing teachers when they are so dedicated is important.
“She’s so dedicated to her students, but also dedicated to her peers and to her colleagues, her fellow teachers and making sure that professional development opportunities are there so they can further their craft of teaching,” McAuliffe said. “That’s really so important, to make sure that teachers have the support they need in everything to do.”
Cottrell-Williams will join her fellow finalists in Richmond on Monday, September 18, where they will go through a series of interviews before the awards banquet that evening. Cottrell-Williams said that whether she wins or not will not change the fact that her most important interactions are with her students each day.
“It’s about the students, it’s not about whatever accolades I get,” she said. “It would be nice to have a broader platform to share with other teachers how I have found success with my students, how I interact with them, how I’ve really grown to like what I do because of the relationships I get to build with these students. But at the end of the day, I’m still here in the classroom with them whether or not I have an award.”