Special education teacher Rhea M. Willis has spent her 31-year teaching career serving the needs of students in St. Louis County Special Education District and in St. Louis Public Schools, as a plan consultant teacher and a professional development instructor.
Presently, she teaches and is the Science Department chair at Sumner High School, where she helps to make an active difference in the lives of her students.
The school is a stone’s throw away from Tandy Park, named in honor of her ancestor, activist Captain Charlton Hunt Tandy, who worked tirelessly to promote equal rights and education equality for black people. Willis has done her best to keep his legacy alive through her work.
“I make sure the students I serve who have disabilities have the same opportunities that student’s without disabilities have,” Willis said. “I also work to stop the stereotype that children who are homeless, have learning and behavior challenges, or are poor, can’t learn.”
Willis said she was inspired to pursue special education work by her uncle, George Tandy Willis, who used to play school with her when she was a little girl. Even as a child, Willis was always trying to find new, innovative ways to help him learn. Willis believes all students have the ability to learn and excel but may require a different, more unconventional approach.
“I teach in a variety of different ways. Each child is unique, and I teach based on my students’ learning styles and abilities,” Willis said.
“I combine my innovative teaching skills with their learning styles. I enhance rigor in small increments and that helps build success. I engage students where they are and support them in reaching their greatest potential.”
She notes one student in particular with whom she worked. He lacked confidence in his ability to succeed in his science classes. Willis patiently worked with him to build up his skills and encouraged him to do his best.
“He placed first in a Science Fair district contest,” said Willis. “There are many times when my students have surpassed everyone’s expectations, even their own.”
When differential teaching strategies are employed, the growth that students exhibit is obvious. Willis has found this is also helpful in her position as Science Department chair and encourages educators to adopt teaching strategies that promote learning for every student they encounter.
“I support my science team by providing research-based strategies in teaching and classroom management,” said Willis. “This is something they can use in their classroom that helps all students with all sorts of abilities.”
Seeing the results her work yields is the reason Willis is so committed to her profession and the community in which she works. Willis is passionate about providing education “beyond the four walls of the school.” She contributes to her community through organizations like Suits 2 Success, Taking it to the Streets, science fairs and Sumner’s Science Enrichment Club.
Recently, Willis worked as an executive producer on the 2018 documentary about Michael Brown called “Stranger Fruit.” She said the director contacted her after community members spoke of her activism.
In 2012 and 2018, Willis was awarded the Dorothy R. Moog Special Education Educator of the year award for her work with students at Sumner High School. The award is named after an active community volunteer and philanthropist whose primary philanthropic interests included children and special education.
“Inspirational moments happen in my career practically every day,” Willis said. “This compels the growth and improvement of the students that I serve academically, behaviorally and socially. I believe education is for improving the lives of others and for leaving your community and world better than you found it.”