Rachel Watts received the highest honor any teacher could earn — and it came from a simple student letter about her efforts. Leonel Gutierrez, one of Watts’ students, had been struggling for years with his vocabulary but he praised Watts for her role in his improving grade. He wrote “I had bad grades but she has made a difference for me and has made learning vocabulary easier.”
In another letter Maddy Lem wrote: “She helps me to become a better writer. She teaches history, reading and language. A lot of teachers are not very happy but Mrs. Watts is always happy. School is hard but she makes it so much easier to learn.”
Watts, a seventh grade language arts and history teacher at Denair Middle School, was recently honored as the California League of Middle Schools Teacher of the Year for Region 6, which spans the Valley from Stockton to Merced.
For Watts, making a difference in a student’s life is what she strives to do on a daily basis. In her fourth year of teaching Watts said from day one of class she has always celebrated students’ accomplishments, no matter how big or small. She is quick to deflect any honor to her students. “It's all on the kids, I feed off of them and their energy — when they get good grades and raise the bar I give them high-fives because it means so much to me to see them reach their potential. I am absolutely motivated by seeing the kids improve,” she said. “Motivating, inspiring and leaving those lasting footprints in our students’ lives. This is why I love my job.”
DMS Principal Aaron Delworth nominated her for the award and said her students’ enthusiastic learning starts with her.
“In a very short period of time she has changed our culture. She exemplifies what a teacher should be because she always puts the kids first. She is a team player and she collaborates with other teachers and administration to improve her student’s learning experience. You become a better person when you go into her classroom,” he said.
Watts’ willingness to be flexible to the students’ needs is the key to her success. She believes that every student can be taught and it is the teacher’s job to modify their teaching style — something she said can be done with collaboration with other teachers.
“You talk with other teachers and you get ideas about what is working for them and what isn’t working,” she explained.
Delworth noted that Watts has students in her classes ranging from exceptional ability to English and resource learners.
“When you go into her class you notice how much participation there is from the kids. There aren’t just five or six kids who answer every question but almost every hand is raised and she does such a good job of keeping all the kids engaged through varied instructional techniques. You want that choral response and participation,” he said.
Watts’ desire for full participation has turned her classroom upside down in many ways. It is not uncommon to find English learning students teaching subject lessons to the entire class.
“I’ll just sit in their seat and pretend I’m the student and let them teach, it’s actually fun to see how much they have learned,” she explained.
During her acceptance speech for the Teacher of the Year award Watts read a letter from a parent — a letter that had moved her to tears.
“She saw in my son that eager to learn little boy that I had lost so many years ago. She encouraged him, believed in him and taught him what I already knew. When you raise a child’s expectations, they will rise to meet them. I watched my son become excited to learn again. He was engaged in his schoolwork but most importantly he began to walk a little taller. I know my son has found the teacher he will be telling his children about and he will never forget,” reads the letter.
To contact Jonathan McCorkell, e-mail email@example.com or call 634-9141 ext. 2015.