Augusta University alumni Shikara Willis and Ameesha Butler have been named the winners of Teacher of Year in Richmond and Columbia counties.
Willis, who earned her Specialist in Advanced Studies degree from Augusta University, has taught fifth-grade English at C.T. Walker Magnet School in Richmond County for the past six years. Butler, who is “triple Jag,” having graduated with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education, a master’s degree in education and an Educational Specialist in Advanced Educational Studies degree from Augusta University, is currently a third-grade teacher at Martinez Elementary in Columbia County.
Both teachers will compete for Georgia Teacher of the Year in February 2023.
Dr. Judi Wilson, dean of the College of Education and Human Development at Augusta University, said she could not be prouder of this year’s winners.
“Our graduates are well equipped with the knowledge, skills and dispositions needed to be highly effective teachers,” Wilson said. “Our AU alums consistently represent us with excellence and that is evident from the number of Teacher of the Year finalists we have each year. It is a joy and honor to celebrate their powerful stories of impact with our community.”
Richmond County Teacher of the Year: Shikara Willis
Shikara Willis remembers the exact year she decided to become a teacher. She was in the third grade at Bungalow Road Elementary School in Richmond County.
She began the year full of joy and smiling every day in class, excited to be at school. But a few months later, her smile had vanished and her third-grade teacher, Eleanor Lambert, immediately noticed something was wrong.
“My family was going through a difficult time and Mrs. Lambert noticed that my light had dimmed,” Willis said. “She was always really attentive to the students. And she suddenly saw that happy little girl that used to hop on in to her third-grade class was no longer there. So, she quickly took an interest in what was going on in my life, as well as with my family. The impact that she had on me was absolutely amazing.”
Willis paused a moment, trying to hold back tears.
“She did it for me. She is my why. She is my reason that I went into teaching,” Willis said. “Even in the third grade, I had this whole idea that if I could be half of what she was to me to somebody else, then it will be worthwhile.”
For the past 19 years, Willis has taught students in both Richmond and Burke counties by leading with her heart.
“I think teaching takes a heart of service in order to be able to work with children each day,” she said. “Everybody can’t do it because it’s not easy. You have to love it.”
Willis, who earned her Specialist in Advanced Studies degree from Augusta University, has taught fifth-grade English at C.T. Walker Magnet School for the past six years. She began her career at Blakeney Elementary School in Burke County, also teaching fifth-grade English.
“I like to call myself a 10-year-old professional,” Willis said, laughing. “I know 10-year-old kids because that’s all I’ve ever taught. I don’t know any other age. But 10- to 11-year-old kids, I get them. I know those kids.”
At that age, the students can be a challenge, but Willis says she understands their struggles.
“I remember one of my very first students when I was teaching in Burke County, named Reginald. I still occasionally see him because he is a grown-up now living in Augusta. He won’t mind me saying this, but when he was in third grade, I really think his motivation every single day was, ‘I am either going to make you or break you,’” Willis said, chuckling. “Believe me, I had his mom’s number on speed dial. She would talk to him and he would get back in line. But there were times when I thought, ‘This is it. I cannot do this anymore.’ It was my first year of teaching.”
But when Willis runs into Reginald now as an adult, he always tells her how much she meant to him, she said.
“When I see him, I remind him of the hard time he gave me and he smiles this beautiful smile and tells me, ‘Yeah, but I really liked you. Thank you. You were a great teacher,’” Willis said. “I even run into his grandmother and she says that I was one of his favorite teachers, but even she will joke, ‘I don’t even know how you did it with him.’ And I’m honest with her and always say, ‘Ma’am, I don’t know either. Grace and mercy.’”
Over the years, Willis has attended some of her former students’ graduations and followed their careers because she wants her current and former students to know that she cares about their future.
When Willis learned that she was a finalist for Teacher of the Year in Richmond County, she was floored.
“I have to say, when I was selected as Teacher of the Year for C.T. Walker, I was really humbled because there are so many of the teachers here who give the very best that we have and we work hard together as a team for the benefit of the children,” she said. “Then, to be one of the finalists in the county, that was just the icing on the cake.”
Willis said her 14-year-old twins surprised her by saying, “Mom, you know, you’ve always been a Teacher of the Year in our hearts.”
But Willis said her husband’s words after the announcement really moved her: He told her how much she deserved the recognition.
“It meant a lot because he has seen the days of frustration and the days of joy,” she said. “He knows about me having to purchase things for some of the children, especially when I was in Burke County, who didn’t have the money to purchase items. He knows about me telling some of the kids, ‘Leave your bookbag behind. When you are in P.E., I’ll put food in your bag for the weekend for you and your sister.’ He knows how much I care about these kids.”
Columbia County Teacher of the Year: Ameesha Butler
For the past six years, Ameesha Butler was a third-grade teacher at Westmont Elementary in Columbia County. Westmont, which opened its doors in 1970, is currently being rebuilt into a new state-of-the-art facility.
Therefore, Butler began this school year at Martinez Elementary where she has embraced her new coworkers and student body.
“When I taught at Westmont, my favorite thing was the family that we’d built,” Butler said. “With Westmont being such a small, neighborhood school, everyone knows everyone. Many of the students have parents and grandparents who attended Westmont decades ago. The closeness of it all really makes Westmont such a special place, unlike any other.
“Now that I’m at Martinez, the people still make it extremely special. I love my teammates. They’re phenomenal, dynamic educators and they champion me so loudly.”
Butler is also a proud “triple Jag,” having graduated with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education, a master’s degree in education and an Educational Specialist in Advanced Educational Studies degree, all from Augusta University.
“For as long as I can remember, school is always something that’s come easy to me. I grew up with several teachers in my family,” Butler said. “My mother was a teacher. I also had phenomenal teachers from Pre-K through college. I can actually call them all by name.”
Initially, Butler considered becoming a biochemical engineer, but she soon realized that career wouldn’t fulfill her.
“I knew I wanted to do something that would make a significant impact on the world,” she said. “I knew I needed to run toward what I felt was calling me: teaching. Since deciding to ‘answer my calling,’ it’s been the most amazing journey. I guess you could call it kismet. I’m getting to do what I love and make a significant impact, just like I set out to do.”
Butler says she enjoys every aspect of teaching, from data collecting and goal setting to relationship building and creating engaging learning experiences for her students.
“Every day is a brand-new day to make a difference for each of my 46 students,” Butler said. “Honestly, this has been one of the most humbling, most amazing seasons of my career as a teacher.”
“I work with such incredible teachers who are absolutely role models for me, so this whole experience means so much to me,” she added. “It’s a blessing to know that your colleagues see the hard work and love you pour into your work and they recognize you for it. I’m just grateful.”
Butler believes the three degrees she received at Augusta University prepared her well for the classroom.
“There are hours of in-person, in-field experiences from the very first moment that you express interest in becoming a teacher and I feel like that plays a role in the high-quality of teachers that AU is able to produce,” Butler said. “In fact, I was so well-prepared that I was actually hired for my first full-time teaching position on graduation day. I left the undergraduate classroom and moved into my very own classroom within a matter of days. Because AU prepared me so well, I aspire to be like the professors I had and one day teach future teachers.”