Judy Willis says she is still in disbelief over being named Indiana Educator of the Year by the Indiana Criminal Justice Association.
Willis, a teacher at Logansport Juvenile Correctional Facility, has taught English and language arts at the facility for 18 years.
“There are so many teachers in this environment that do great things and are deserving of the award, including many I work with,” Willis said. “They all deserve recognition. I’m glad this brings recognition to the facility.”
The award is meant to acknowledge innovation, excellence and outstanding achievements of those in criminal justice education who provide high quality instruction for incarcerated offenders and criminal justice students, a press release said.
With working at the Logansport Juvenile Correctional Facility for 18 years, Willis recalls being overwhelmed at the beginning. She also recalls having a mentor, Jenny Guy, who showed her a lot of the ropes. Willis recalls Guy requesting the worst kids. She was also influenced by her niece, Natalie Gerhart, who when diagnosed with cancer was determined to become the best teacher she could be. Although Gerhart passed away, she has been an inspiration to Willis.
“Jenny showed me how to get the most from the kids, how to get their respect and give them respect,” Willis said. “If it hadn’t been for her, I don’t know I would have advanced as much.”
Along with learning from her mentor, she has learned from the students. Willis said she has had every type of student, including some who have skipped school and others who have commented horrible crimes.
“They’ve done some bad things and some will continue to do bad things, but when they come in here and have an accomplishment it’s really cool,” Willis said. “I’ve learned every kid is capable of achieving.”
Willis laughed, talking about how her room is comparable to the front of a refrigerator with all of her student’s accomplishments. The students have enjoyed participating and having their work displayed, she said. Pictures and papers — even an entire wall of poetry — decorate her room.
A student of hers has been published in a poetry analogy by Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings (CEEAS). She suspects another student of hers could be published in the upcoming CEEAS short story publication.
“They taught me I need to check in and know their background and we’re they’re coming from,” Willis said.
The key for Willis is developing a relationship with her students. Respect has been instrumental to building relationships as well as “meaning what you say when you say it.”
The selection committee members for naming Indiana Educator of the Year noted that the most challenging students in Indiana pass through Willis’ classroom doors. She remains effective in delivering quality education, according to a press release from the committee.
Many people who know Willis praise her. Harold House, an Indianapolis educator and former municipal judge, said Willis has conducted training for other correctional professionals throughout the state.
“She stands less than five feet tall yet deals with the toughest kids in Indiana,” House said. “She is extremely effective and they love her.”
Willis mentioned how thankful she was for the supervision at the facility.
“You never win an award by yourself. The staff and teachers are very supportive,” Willis said.
Amie Sites is a staff reporter at the Pharos-Tribune. She can be reached at 574-732-5117 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her: @PharosAES.