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Liberty teacher wins state honors

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By John Barnhart

    A routine class turned into a big surprise for Jeanne Willis, a Liberty High School teacher, Friday morning.

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    Willis had been named Virginia Outstanding Economics Educator of the Year, but this was kept a secret until a group of people walked into her classroom with balloons, a huge potted chrysanthemum and the announcement that she is Virginia’s top economics educator.
    The secret was well kept. Willis had seen the mum a couple of days ago and admired it, not knowing that it was her's.
    There’s a lot more. Willis will receive a $1,000 check and be recognized on Dec. 6 at an awards luncheon at the Federal Reserve in Richmond.
    Willis had advanced to the state competition after being named the regional outstanding economic educator by Lynchburg College’s Center for Economic Education. She received that honor in May. She has taught for 20 years — 13 years in Bedford County.
    “Oooh, I was thrilled,” Willis said, when asked how she felt about the honor during phone interview. “It was exciting.”
    She was also impressed with how well the school administration was able to keep the news from her until the day of the surprise.
    “We have some good secret-keepers here at Liberty High School,” she said.
    Willis teaches the personal finance and economics course at the school. This course, a state-wide graduation requirement is now in its third year. Willis said the class also offers a certification opportunity, via a national financial literacy test, which graduating students can add to their resumé. She said Liberty’s students had a 90 percent pass rate last year.
    “And we were the only high school in Bedford County that did that,” she commented.
    Willis is especially pleased that the  Virginia Outstanding Economics Educator of the Year comes from a rural county school division, rather than one of the state’s large metropolitan areas.
    “That is really exciting, isn’t it?” she said.
    Willis brings a solid economic background to teaching. She has a Master’s of Business Administration degree and had a career in banking before coming to public education. Her last banking job was as an area trainer for BB&T.
    Along with her own banking background, Willis has been able to bring in staff from Stellar One and American National Bank to talk to her students. She said this is a valuable way to reinforce what she teaches.
    It also helps that her students can see foreclosure signs on houses and industries that have shut down. This provides real life lessons on the reasons about the importance of what Willis is teaching.
    She’s on advisory board for Lynchburg College’s Center for Economic Education, one of 10 such centers around the state which train teachers for this course’s curriculum. Willis said one of the questions that came up, at the beginning, is what certification areas teachers for this course should have.
    “I was very passionate that it should be a business teacher,” she said.
    Rebecca Booth, director of Lynchburg College’s Center for Economic Education, which operates under the college’s School of Business and Economics, called Willis “a cheerleader for economics education” for this area.
    “She feels very strongly for the importance of economics and finance education,” Booth said.