Northwest High School teacher Gwen Hilliard has received more than her share of bad news lately. Her father had a stroke, her mom fell and hit her head, and her husband is scheduled for serious surgery later this month that requires cracking of his skull.
She could use a little good news, and it came in the form of a familiar voice on the other end of the telephone last week.
“Mrs. Gwen Hilliard, from Northwest High School? My name is Frank Reed, and I’m on the air at 94.9 radio in Dallas and Fort Worth …”The tears had already started to fall before he could finish his sentence. Hilliard knew the voice – it belonged to the host of The Family-Friendly Morning Show at contemporary Christian radio station KLTY. Reed was calling to let Hilliard know she had been selected as the KLTY/CareNow Teacher of the Month for December.
“Do you know how many entries we received about you?” Reed asked, referring to the number of nominations sent to the radio station by students.
The answer: 19.
Jillian Wood, a promotion representative for CareNow, which sponsors the award, said she typically gets about 80 nominations total in an average month. That includes schools, from elementary to high school, all over the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex.
Wood said that a common theme kept coming up in Hillard’s nomination forms.
“The No. 1 thing I kept hearing was, ‘She’s my role model.’ ‘She’s my inspiration.’ ‘I can always talk to her for whatever I need.'” Wood said.
So just how does a teacher earn that kind of respect and admiration from students?
“I’m laid back, but they know, ‘These are the rules.’ Classroom management is a very strong point of mine. But I also build relationships. That’s probably the key factor,” Hilliard said Wednesday in her classroom during the school’s lunch break.
As if on cue, a student walked in with a couple of bags of chips and a drink for lunch. Hilliard opened up a cabinet and gave the student a power bar instead.
“I try to help my students as much as I can,” she said, returning to her seat.
She’ll often refer to those students as “her kids,” describing her relationship with them as “an aunt.”
In the nomination forms, several students mentioned that they could confide in their teacher and come to her for advice.
“She gives me better advice than by best friends do!” one student wrote.
During her 14 years as a teacher, Hilliard has taught everything from health to physical education to eighth grade English and even kindergarten. She currently teaches child development and lifetime nutrition and wellness.
Whatever the subject, or the age of the students, Hilliard works at relationships.
“No matter if you are teaching kindergartners or seniors, you have to find out what their interests are,” she said. “I am a very well-rounded person. I like every kind of music. You’ve got to stay current with events. It’s literally knowing your students’ interests, because if you connect your activities in class to them, it gets them interested.”
On Monday, students, teachers, administrators and even Hilliard’s parents, husband and son came to class as Reed and other representatives of the radio station and CareNow made the formal presentation of the Teacher of the Month plaque.
This time, the familiar voice wasn’t on the radio but right there in her classroom.
“We have been doing the Teacher of the Month for many, many years, and I do not think we’ve had a recipient who has had so many entries who have said so many wonderful things about you,” Reed said, eliciting a hearty round of applause.
The presentation included a bag of prizes, including gift cards to restaurants, a jewelry store, a shoe store and even carpet cleaning, to name a few.
What makes the award even more special to Hilliard is knowing that the students who nominated her don’t receive any prizes or recognition. They did it simply because they love their teacher.
Now as Hilliard deals with family members’ health issues, she’s finding the support she’s given to students over the years is being returned to her.
That may be the best prize of all.