I am very pleased to nominate Joni Willis for your Teacher Feature award. There are many excellent teachers in our schools; however, I believe that it takes a very extraordinary person to be a special education teacher. Mrs. Willis is a special education teacher who taught my son at both Meadow Moor Elementary and Upland Terrace Elementary. Currently she teaches at Pleasant Green Elementary in Magna. My son has autism and when he was placed in Mrs. Willis’ classroom, he required one-on-one teaching in order to learn. Mrs. Willis was very patient and compassionate and was very willing to adapt her teaching environment and approach to match my son’s needs. Over the four year period of time that she taught my son, he was able to reach many amazing milestones. Within a relatively short period of time he was able learn in small group settings rather than the one-on-one teaching. She not only cared about my son’s academic education, she really cared about his well being and often initiated other teaching programs such as a safety program when she noticed that my son would benefit from it. My son has limited language and he is not able to tell me about his day at school. Mrs. Willis provided daily home notes telling us about our son’s day in school so we would know how he was doing and what was going on. She took time out of her schedule to make personal phone calls to us when she was excited about something he did or accomplished at school. She truly loves the children that she teaches and takes a personal interest in each one of them.
This year was my son’s first year of junior high. In my experience, every parent of a child with autism is terrified of their children leaving elementary school and attending junior high. Mrs. Willis was very aware of my apprehension and instigated transitioning my son to his new school several months before he completed 6th grade. Early on she contacted the special education coordinator for Granite School District to solicit her help in making my son’s transition as smooth as possible. She even took an afternoon off from her classroom and took my son to his new school to familiarize him with the school and his new teachers. She introduced him to the “noisy” lunch room to make sure he would be able to handle that environment as well. When he started junior high, she prepared what she called a dictionary that contains explanations of some of my son’s behaviors and phrases and what they mean to help his new teacher know what he is needing or saying. Most amazingly, she arranged to have her classroom teaching assistant go to school with my son for the first few days of school to help him adapt to the new environment. Due to the many wonderful things she taught my son as well as the care she provided him, the transition to junior high was seamless. His new teacher loves having him in her classroom and he is thriving in his new environment. I know this is due in large part to Mrs. Willis and the extra care and time she took with my son. She was just as amazed as us by his potential for growth and she always strived to push him to reach it. The needs of a child with autism, especially in a school environment, are so great; I cannot list everything she did for his benefit. She will always hold a special place in our hearts for the unconditional love she showed him. I cannot think of a more deserving teacher than Mrs. Willis for this award.