SUMTER — Catholic schools in the Diocese of Charleston are shining a bright beacon on the high quality of parochial school education.
One of their most recent awards came from the South Carolina Independent School Association, which named Shirlee Bills, a second-grade teacher from St. Anne School, as the Elementary School Teacher of the Year.
Two other Catholic schools had finalists for teacher of the year: Ana Ward, who teaches middle-school Spanish at St. Peter in Beaufort; and Louise Garrison, the K-5 teacher at St. Anne in Rock Hill.
Bills, who has spent 25 years in the profession, said she was surprised and thrilled by the recognition.
“I felt truly honored to receive the award,” she said, adding that it reaffirms her belief that she is doing exactly what she is supposed to be doing.
Bills loves her profession so much she actually came out of retirement to take it up again. When she moved from Charleston to Sumter, she retired from teaching at Charleston Catholic, but Bills said she missed it too much.
Laughing, she said she would pass by a school and find herself “hanging out the window” wondering what they were doing inside and imagining the children and their activities.
“I really missed being part of the school, and the school community as a whole,” Bills said.
Kristi Doyle, principal of St. Anne, is certainly glad Bills stepped out of retirement.
“She’s a phenomenal teacher. She’s very supportive and caring of the students,” Doyle said. “It’s hard to put all of her wonderful qualities into words.”
Bills has taught at St. Anne for four years now, and every year she focuses on a different theme for her class. This year, the second-graders are learning about the rainforest, so her walls are painted bright green and the students’ take-home folders are decorated with brilliant-hued jungle frogs.
Doyle said Bills is always trying new things in the classroom. “She loves to learn and loves to bring that enthusiasm to the students,” she said.
In return, Bills said the children inspire her with their curiosity and enthusiasm.
She said her best memories are the daily “Aha!” moments, “When all of a sudden someone says ‘I think I’ve got it!’ and you can see how pleased they are with themselves. That’s why this job is so wonderful.”
Although the veteran teacher has high expectations of her students, Doyle said her classroom is always a positive, peaceful place to be.
In fact, Bills said she would love to change the busyness of modern life. She noted that so often, children are already in rush mode when they first arrive at school. That’s why it is important to her to provide a calm, happy climate in class.
That’s not to say it’s boring.
Bills said she likes a busy, active classroom. Math has become her favorite subject to teach because there are so many manipulatives students can work with during lessons.
The award-winning teacher said she has no plans for a second retirement and plans to teach as long as she has something to give.