Four Hamilton County teachers recieve grants for travel and professional development

This summer, four Hamilton County teachers will collectively explore five countries and at least 10 cities across the world to bring real-life experiences and diverse perspectives back to classrooms in the fall.

The teachers, Marcie Williams and Justin Walley of Ooltewah High, Vanessa Moss of Central High and Brooke Hopkins of Soddy Daisy High, were selected as part of a competitive fellowship program through the national nonprofit Fund for Teachers.

They'll each receive up to $5,000.

The funds are administered locally through a partnership with the Public Education Foundation, an organization dedicated to advancing student achievement in Hamilton County.

The foundation has partnered with the Fund for Teachers for over a decade now and has provided nearly 200 teachers from 40 different Hamilton County schools with the opportunity to delve deeper into the subjects they teach through travel.

"[The Public Education Fund] is, once again, delighted to provide Hamilton County teachers the opportunity to learn even more about the subjects they teach - and to do their studying anywhere in the world," fund President Dan Challener said in a news release.

For Williams, who teaches physics at Ooltewah High, this will be her second time as a Fund for Teachers fellow.

She plans to attend the International Physics and Astronomy Educator Program at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory in Richland, Washington, and then explore West Coast science museums in San Francisco, Portland and Seattle.

"[The program] is to help teachers learn how to teach modern physics and astronomy in their classrooms. So, they are working to provide you with methods for adding those into your curriculum," Williams said, adding that her students have been more curious about modern physics lately.

Modern physics, as opposed to classical physics, touches on topics like muons, leptons and particles that are even smaller than protons and electrons, Williams said.

Williams said she first applied to the program in 2017 to improve her overall teaching skills.

"I applied after I had been teaching for three years. And I have a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering," Williams said. "I realized I know physics, but I didn't know how to teach physics well."

She attended a three-week program at Arizona State where she spent eight hours in a classroom every day learning from other physics educators.

"It really increased my confidence ... I felt like, now, I know how to teach physics after I attended the course. And also, I've been able to form a group of physics teachers around this region," Williams said. "It's great to have a group of collaborators where we can learn from each other and have professional development focus on teaching physics."

Ooltewah High's Walley and Central High's Moss will partner up to explore sustainable living practices across Alaska. The goal is to create student "buy-in" and to build a functional model to aid students thinking about human impact on the environment. When they return, they'll help launch a new initiative for next-generation sustainable living.

Soddy Daisy High's Hopkins will explore cities in Northern and Central Europe to better understand the lived experiences of Holocaust victims. Hopkins hopes to build a greater understanding of the systemic way the Nazis exterminated more than 6 million Jews and other marginalized groups. Through the experience, she hopes to help students feel more connected to the victims, perpetrators and bystanders of the Holocaust.

In any given year, between 25 and 40 teachers from Hamilton County apply for the fellowship. Their applications then go through the Fund for Teachers' selection process, which is based solely on their proposals. All identifying information, such as race, age, gender and the school where teachers work is removed, Michael Stone, vice president of innovative learning at the Public Education Fund, said in a phone call.

"They really go out of their way to make it a merit-based process where they're looking strictly through the lens of 'What will this learning do?' And they're really evaluating how will the fellowship impact that teacher, and how will the teacher use that impact to come back and transform learning for their students," Stone said.

The proposals are "self-directed" by the teachers and there are no restrictions regarding subject matter or locations. However, applicants must offer a tangible strategy for incorporating their experience into lesson plans.

"They're traveling, but they're really traveling in pursuit of deeper learning," Stone said. "This is not intended to be a paid vacation kind of time. It's really an investment through the teachers in their development."

Since 2001, Fund for Teachers has invested $35 million toward the professional development of more than 9,100 educators across the country. This year, the organization allotted more than $17,000 in grant awards for Hamilton County teachers.

Past fellowships have made a district-wide impact, Stone said.

In 2015, a group of fellows visited Australia and China to study how digital fabrication, a manufacturing process in which a machine is controlled by a computer, impacted students and how they're using robotics and artificial intelligence in fabrication labs.

The fellowship led to a partnership with Volkswagen and the creation of 15 eLabs, or "Fablabs" in Hamilton County Schools.

(READ MORE: Hamilton County Schools, foundation creating 15 new eLabs through $1 million donation)

"[Hamilton County Schools is] now the world's leader in digital fabrication labs. We have more Fablabs at schools than anywhere else in the world. That was, in many ways, influenced by some of the learning that happened on that particular fellowship," Stone said.

The fellowships take place over the summer and can last anywhere from one week to a couple of months.

"It's just really a great tool for teachers to be able to have opportunities for summer professional development that are based on what they need and ... the ways that they're seeking to improve their practice," Williams said.

Contact Carmen Nesbitt at or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @carmen_nesbitt.