Newton School Teacher wins prestigious Inspire 2 Educate Award

Greenfield Recorder

By JOSHUA SOLOMON

Recorder Staff

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

GREENFIELD — Her essay began with short, simple sentences about fifth grade, sentences like, “I was terrified. Absolutely and utterly terrified.”

It was a national award-winning essay that was read aloud in the Newton School gymnasium — written not by a current fifth grader but by a Newton School teacher about when she was in fifth grade.

“I was switching schools for the third time in five years. A new school, new teachers, no friends, and to top it all off, the children joining me in my new fifth-grade homeroom were all best friends from the other side of town,” wrote Jami Witherell.

Fresh off a plane from Chicago, the chief revenue officer of PeopleAdmin, a national education company, continued to read Witherell’s essay before a gym full of students Tuesday afternoon. The organization was announcing one of its four national winners this year in its “Inspire2Educate” contest, which asked teachers for the moments that made them want to become an educator. And one of those winners was Witherell, the third- and fourth-grade teacher from Newton School.

“Fifth grade was the year my parents divorced, my aunt had cancer, my mother moved away, and I (the Chilean adoptee) took on the belief that all of this, and more, must be my fault,” her award-winning submission read. “When I was most broken, felt most alone, Mrs. Willard took the time to love me, and often, I felt, pick up my broken pieces to show me that in fact, I was not too broken to be loved.”

As Matt Keenan, from PeopleAdmin, presented the award to Witherell, she started to hold back tears. Soon enough, so was Newton Principal Melodie Goodwin. The dozens of students looked on, keenly waiting to hear more about a clear fan-favorite teacher in the building.

“Jami is so inspiring. So connected. She puts her heart and soul in everything she does,” said Greenfield School Superintendent Jordana Harper after watching the ceremony. “It makes perfect sense that she would be recognized in this kind of way.”

With the contest win, both Newton School and Witherell received $1,000 from the company in addition to a glass award. Goodwin said she hopes to put the money toward classroom furniture. As for Witherell, she said she plans to apply the money toward the costs of pursuing a Ph.D. in trauma education, allowing her to continue to learn how to deal with students who have faced trauma.

But what Witherell said the award really means to her is what this may symbolize to her students.

“I hope for them, it’s that sense when you work hard and you love what you do, everything else is this experience of joy,” Witherell said.

She said her fifth-grade teacher instilled the joy of education in her when she, herself, was a student who came to the classroom with trauma.

“It’s incredible to me that I have such a visceral memory of fifth grade,” Witherell said after the ceremony. “I really could tell you the color of the classroom and what she was wearing. There was so much love in the classroom and not just division and multiplication.”

Witherell said one of the effects of standardized testing in the classroom can be that teachers lose sight of what really leaves a lasting impression on students.

Although her mentor wasn’t able to attend the day’s event, she wrote a letter of congratulations that was also read during the assembly.

“Your work and dedication to kiddos and families has made all the difference,” Willard said in her letter. “Truly, what a gift you have given and what a wonderful ripple effect it has already had on so many.”

You can reach Joshua Solomon at:

413-772-0261, ext. 264

jsolomon@recorder.com