MTC '18 Spotlight: Mary Beth Willis





1. What made you want to join the Mississippi Teacher Corps?

I have spent a lot of time over the last fifteen years doing volunteer work in third world countries and becoming more and more interested in potential solutions to poverty. Since 2015, I have developed a relationship with a community in Haiti, and one of the community leaders and I have spent a lot of time discussing how education is the factor (often the only factor) that makes the difference between continuing the cycle of poverty and having a future with the possibility of something better. I had seen it in my home state of Mississippi as well. I knew what a difference education had made in my own family's life. The more I talked to him, the more I reflected on my own experience growing up in Mississippi and seeing the ones who "got out" and found success, often never to return. As a high schooler, all I wanted to do was get out of Mississippi, and I worked very hard to make sure I got into an out-of-state school. My biggest fear was ending up stuck in my hometown, never seeing what else was out there. I went to school ten hours away, and I thought I would never look back. The last few years have been a process of working on education initiatives in a small village in Haiti and figuring out why I couldn't let go of the idea that I was supposed to be doing more at home. I joined Mississippi Teacher Corps because I know the incredible impact education can have on a person's life. My own education in Mississippi was amazing, and it opened so many doors for me. I think every student in Mississippi deserves the same opportunity, and I want to be a part of that. 

2. You previously taught on the university level. Has your teaching style changed now that you're teaching high schoolers?

I taught ESL in a university setting, so even the move from ESL to English is very different. I don't have to worry about a language barrier, so I feel like my persona is quite different. With my ESL students, there was usually an automatic relationship of respect between teacher and student. I rarely had to deal with behavior issues beyond sleeping or playing on phones. However, teaching high school, I have to spend a lot of time on classroom management, building relationships and creating an environment of respect. 

3. What is living in Meridian like?

It is harder to live in Meridian than I expected. It is similar in size to my hometown Tupelo, so I guess I expected a similar culture. It feels very different, but then again, I have never been an outsider looking in at my hometown. Meridian has a lot of violence and crime for a small city, and most of my students live in areas with a lot of gang activity. There seems to be a lot of tension in the community, and that can be a tough thing to navigate as a newcomer. Even though the school has been somewhat overwhelming, I have had a few coworkers that have helped me adjust. I also have very kind neighbors, and I feel like any place takes time for adjustment.

4. Do you have any ambitious goals for this next semester?

My school's goal for me is to get my kids to pass the state test. I am not much of a data person, and while I do want my kids to be successful on the test, I want to focus on making sure they know they are worth so much more than a test score. They hear a lot about test scores and how important it is for them to pass and graduate, and this is not usually communicated to them in the most positive and encouraging way. I know most of my kids wake up in a negative environment and then come to school and are immediately yelled at as soon as they walk in the door (It is literally how they are greeted each morning). I imagine a lot of them also feel like walking numbers because test scores are discussed so often. My goal is to be a constant advocate and encourager this semester. On the first day this semester, I showed my kids some pictures of a really tough hike I did in Utah about a year ago. I explained how I felt going up the mountain, how every step felt heavy and that there were people literally running past me on the trail. But then I would meet so many people who were on their way back down the mountain who would say, "You're doing great! Keep going- it's so worth it!" I explained that I didn't feel like I was doing great, but their words were enough to make me keep going. I showed them a picture of the view from the top. I said, "Here's the thing- I got the same view as all those people who ran ahead of me. It didn't matter, in the end, how fast I could climb. All that mattered was that I kept going." I told them all to look me in the eye and believe me when I said, "You are doing great, even if you don't feel like you are. Keep going. It's worth it."

Hunter Taylor