This year’s state teacher of the year and one of the finalists have a common thread uniting them.
They both grew up in the Lahontan Valley, graduated from Churchill County High School and attribute much of their professional success in the classroom to the education they received while Fallon students.
The Nevada Department of Education named Pilar (Crooks) Biller, an art teacher at Damonte Ranch High School as the 2018 Nevada Teacher of the Year, and Rachel (Novak) Leach, a sixth-grade teacher at Silver Stage Middle School as one of four finalists.
“Pilar is a great example of a teacher who has devoted her career to finding better ways to create and provide engaging lessons for her students,” said Steve Canavero, superintendent of Public Instruction. “Having great teachers such as Pilar who inspire their students is how Nevada will become the fastest improving state in the nation in education.”
Biller graduated from CCHS in 1992, attended Gonzaga University and graduated in 1996 with an art degree. Once she returned to Nevada, she took several classes at both Western Nevada College and the University of Nevada, Reno. After several years of working part time and taking courses, Biller decided she wanted to become a teacher, so she completed the teacher certification program at Sierra Nevada College.
Biller’s career has taken her from being a first-grade teacher at Numa Elementary School and CCHS in Fallon to the Ukiah (Calif.) Unified School District. After being laid off, she relocated to Nevada and became an elementary teacher in Washoe County before spending the next five years at E. Otis Vaughn Middle School. For the past three years, she has been at Damonte.
A National Board Certified Teacher, Biller also holds a master’s degree in education. When nominated, she said her approach to teaching was a major factor.
“I have adapted a design model for teaching art,” she said, explaining how she focused on this model in one of her essays. “Even in art, classroom creativity must be deliberate.
Biller said it’s important for students to think creatively and to problem solve. She is a strong proponent of having her students share their art in the community and to work with service organizations.
According to the NDE, “her pursuit to build her toolbox has allowed her to present at the Nevada Museum of Art, the National Art Education Association Conference, the Art Educators of Nevada Conference, and at district in-service days.”
With that comes additional responsibility for her advanced art students. For an art show, she said students select the venue, work with adults in a professional environment and set up the exhibits.
“Pilar is an amazing art teacher who is so passionate and works just incredibly well with kids at all levels,” said Darvel Bell, Damonte Ranch principal. “Her classes are fun, her kids love being in her classes. I recently got to participate in one of her classes where the objective was to connect their art projects to businesses. This included developing a marketing plan and was a great example of how learning applies to the real world.”
Bell said Biller is an amazing teacher to be selected as Nevada Teacher of the Year and will be an incredible voice for educators.
“To select an art teacher speaks volume for the committee’s decision,” he said. “She’s absolutely in the running for teacher of the year.”
Bell said she has students engaged at different levels and connects learning to the real world. Bell also said Churchill County should be proud of both Biller and Leach and what they achieved this year.
“What a celebration for Churchill,” he said, adding Fallon residents should be excited because of this year’s winner and finalist.
Biller’s four years at CCHS — which she called “her job” — set the stage for her professional career. She was involved in choir, theater, yearbook, debate and golf and also worked part time.
“The whole community was really supportive and allowed me to try many things and succeed,” she said. “How grateful I am for the support and nurturing while I went to school in Fallon. People there were important in my growing up.”
To this day, Biller said she values her teachers and the education she received in a small community. Biller will now receive consideration for the National Teacher of the Year program run by the Council of Chief State School Officers and national levels.
“The Washoe County School District and our community are fortunate to have incredibly gifted teachers who are truly making a difference,” said Traci Davis, Washoe County School District superintendent. “I am so proud of Pilar Biller and pleased to see her recognized for this prestigious award.”
Leach graduated from CCHS in 1994 where she participated in the Honors School program, National Honor Society, band and debate and also played tennis. She attended the University of Nevada, Reno and has been teaching at Silver Springs for 19 years, most recently as a sixth-grade self-contained teacher at the middle school. After she graduated from UNR, she wanted to remain close to family and had applied to school districts within easy driving distance to Fallon.
The Fallon native first taught music and then math in Silver Springs but then had a desire to teach students in a self-contained classroom. Her principal, Amber Taylor, nominated Leach for Teacher of the Year.
“She goes above the highest expectations,” Taylor said. “She has a nontraditional classroom, free seating arrangement, kids sit where they feel comfortable and it feels more like family unity in the classroom. She also uses standard based grading, and students really have to perform. She meets with every parent every six weeks to talk to about their child.”
Within the community, Taylor said Leach is known for both her garden and the projects undertaken at the school. One such program deals with area farmers picking up items to recycle or use as compost in the school’s garden. Because of that project, Taylor said the school has reduced the number of garbage bags used at lunch from 30 to under two bags.
Taylor said another project championed by Leach implemented family school dining where teachers sit with their students and work on communications. The program has achieved several notable goals including helping students talk to each other and to reduce the number of fights.
“She’s a remarkable person who has a heart of gold,” Taylor added.
Leach said she is humbled by the recognition and how others note her positive influences in both the school and Silver Springs community.
“I had random people and the principal nominate me, and then people wrote letters,” Leach explained, adding she received support from area organizations such as the Helping Communities Coalition.
“It was an interesting process,” she said.” They (NDE) then graded the five highest scores (for teacher and finalist).”
When she attended the ceremony last week, she discovered Biller had been selected as Nevada Teacher of the Year, an honor she said also brings credit to Fallon. For her recognition as a finalist, she said being a finalist also brings positive recognition to the small community.
Like Biller, Leach has tried many “out-of-the-box” strategies with her students. She has received two Bessie Minor grants during the past four years, one for herself and another she helped obtain for the pre-kindergarten program at the school. The Bessie Minor Swift Foundation was formed by the owners and founder of Swift Communications, which owns and operates the Lahontan Valley News, the Nevada Appeal and http://www.nevadaaappeal.com. She also received two $10,000 grants from the Nevada Department of Agriculture to begin a microgreen farming program for lunch.
Leach said the education she received at CCHS prepared her. She said her Advanced Placement teachers made her a better student, and she said math teacher Anna Clark Wright made the subject relevant to what a person does.
“I had a lot of great teachers,” she added.
“I had both students,” said Steve Johnson, a science teacher at CCHS. “Rachel took chemistry and AP chemistry, and she was an outstanding student and did well. Pilar is a very fine artist, and I remembered how she challenged herself and worked hard in chemistry and did well.”
For Biller and Leach to be at the top of their class as teachers doesn’t surprise Johnson, who was the 2009 Nevada Teacher of the Year.
“This has to be very unusual, maybe a first knowing the two ladies,” Johnson said. “I’m sure they worked very hard in their lives and careers, and I am not surprised of what they achieved at this level.”