Story By Jo Ann Mathews
Photography By Suzy King

One of Rebecca “Becky” Willis’ goals in teaching mathematics at Brunswick County’s Early College High School is to make the lessons of math relevant.

Driving to work in the morning takes people longer because they must drive slower to accommodate other traffic, including school buses, she says. “Your average speed changes the faster you drive, but the distance remains the same. That’s inverse variation,” she explains.

Students in Willis’ Algebra II classes learn that concept, while students in her Algebra I classes learn that doubling a recipe means they must double all the ingredients. “That’s direct variation,” Willis says.

Joint variation concerns geometry students. They learn that determining the lateral area of a room proves beneficial for several reasons, including knowing how much paint to buy for it.

These relevant examples help students understand difficult mathematic concepts.

“If something doesn’t matter to us, we won’t put any effort into it or remember it,” Willis says.

Her approach is working because all of Willis’ 90 students this year scored proficient according to state standards in the end-of-course exams.

School personnel, including her peers, recognize Willis’ outstanding ability and chose her as the Brunswick County 2010 Teacher of the Year. “She is very passionate about the students succeeding,” says Dr. Vicky Snyder, principal of Early College High School.

“She is very professional, very student-centered. I think she eats her lunch in bites because she is helping students during her lunchtime. During her planning period she tutors them. She stays after school to help them. She is really on top of what the students are doing. She will do whatever it takes to make a student succeed.”

Willis began teaching just nine years ago after spending 30 years in the insurance industry. Her last position was risk manager for a chain of department stores, but when the industry made changes that didn’t provide the job satisfaction she had enjoyed, she resigned.

With encouragement from her husband, Dr. Dwight Willis, an educator for 37 years and currently principal at Brunswick County’s Supply Elementary School, and her sister, Phyllis Howell, an elementary school teacher in Yanceyville, N.C., Willis chose education as her second career.

Willis had earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Averett University in Danville, Va., so she applied for and received a provisional license to teach high school mathematics. She took courses to become a certified teacher and taught in Virginia for two years.

In 2003 she and Dwight moved to Holden Beach, where they had spent their honeymoon back in 1971. Their wish was to return and settle there. “We’re living our dream,” Willis says.

The couple met on a blind date while both were in high school in Danville, Va. Willis remembers going to Dwight’s home that day and not only meeting his parents but holding his newborn nephew in her arms. Dwight, she was told, confided to his mother at some point, “I’m going to marry that girl one day.”

When the couple moved to Brunswick County, Willis taught mathematics at North Brunswick High School for one year but transferred to West Brunswick High School where she stayed for two years.

“It was only because of distance,” she says, explaining that the drive to Leland consumed a great deal of her time. “I got 12 days of my life back by changing to West,” she says.

Four years ago Willis accepted a post at the newly formed Brunswick County Early College High School. This program offers high school students who meet certain criteria an opportunity to earn in five years a high school diploma and an associate’s degree from Brunswick Community College or two years transferable college credits.

In 2009 Willis earned her National Board certification. Of the 801 teachers in the Brunswick County system during the 2009-10 school year, 88 have this certification.

“There is so much I admire about her,” says Secanda Seifred, counselor at Early College High School. “She is a very loving, caring and giving person and always sees the best. She strives for excellence in herself and in her students. I feel blessed I share in her life and she shares in mine.”

The skills come naturally to Willis.

“I thoroughly enjoy what I do,” Willis says. “I look forward to going to school and challenging the students and them challenging me. I care about the students. I equate my success as a teacher with their success as a student.”

In addition to teaching, Willis is the school’s advisor for Future Teachers of America, co-advisor for the National Honor Society and a senior advisor. She planned the senior trip to Disney World in 2010, but it was scheduled the same time as the Teacher of the Year luncheon, so Willis was unable to accompany the students. She plans to make sure she can go next year.

Both her sister and her husband attended the Teacher of the Year ceremony in April and praised her for her achievement.

“I told her she was competing against the best, and to be chosen is quite extraordinary,” Dwight says.

“It’s such a humbling experience,” Willis says of being chosen Teacher of the Year. “Every teacher works hard. I don’t deserve it more than any other teacher.”

Each of the 19 schools in Brunswick County chooses its own Teacher of the Year, and the Brunswick County Teacher of the Year is chosen from those 19 teachers.

Willis received $2,500 from BB&T, the sponsor for the Teacher of the Year luncheon, and says she’s saving it for a European vacation in 2011. She also won a weekend getaway to Bald Head Island worth $1,500, donated by Bald Head Island Limited, which she says she’ll use this fall.

For now, Willis has the summer to do as she chooses and says she wants to concentrate on improving her golf game. “We’re both pretty bad [at golf],” she says.

An avid reader, Willis’ idea of a perfect day is going to the beach with a book. She also enjoys time with Bella, the couple’s three-year-old golden retriever, and looks forward to playing with grandchildren one day. The couple’s son, Eric, and his wife, Jeannie, live in Studio City, Calif., where both are attorneys.

Willis says she looks forward to the next school year and may add pre- calculus to her list of courses to teach.

As the county’s Teacher of the Year she says, “I’ll do my best to represent Brunswick County well, to make the county proud.”