Students and their teacher were all tearing up when education officials and news crews surprised Winona Senior High School (WSHS) Special Education and Music Teacher Lora Hill with the honor of Winona Education Association Teacher of the Year. Hill uses music to energize students during the day, mentors the anti-bullying, pro-diversity Fortitude group after school, and draws from a deep well of compassion to make personal connections with students that last well after they leave school.
Photo by Chris Rogers
WSHS Teacher Lora Hill (left) was named Winona Education Association Teacher of the Year last Friday. Members of the diversity club she advises celebrated her honor. Hill's anti-bullying efforts figured prominently in her selection by the teachers' union.
"She does everything she can possibly do and beyond. She's like a second mom to me," said Fortitude member Bailei Johnson. Hill is there for youth suffering depression, students said. A former student who was once "hopelessly addicted" came into Hill's room after school one day this year, and — just as when the alum was in school — the pair talked into the evening about how positive the alum's life had become. In Hill's music class, students did not know their classmate could get out of his wheelchair until the day he stood up to dance with whole the class.
"She's a super hero. There's no other word for it," agreed Andrew Jones, another Fortitude member.
Hill's Fortitude club is both a support and outreach group that uses plays, banners, and friendships to combat bullying and prejudice and to promote acceptance of all ethnicities, sexualities, economic status, and disabilities. Winona Area Public School District (WAPS) Diversity Committee member Thomas Harris called Fortitude "a great mentoring program." The courage and success of the group played a major role in Hill's selection for Teacher of the Year, but Hill's compassion for students is not limited to the club.
"I think that Lori is a true representation of what all teachers work to inspire in kids. She gets to the root of every kid," said WSHS Principal Kelly Halvorsen. "She excels at relationship building; it doesn't matter who you are." Halvorsen explained that Hill has made a big difference in the culture at WSHS. Halvorsen praised Hill's determination even in the face of resistance. "She is the root of our anti-bullying campaign," the principal said. That is important because "the base of all learning is feeling safe and accepted," Halvorsen added. "It's unreasonable to expect people to learn if they don't feel safe and accepted."
"She's a very determined lady," Fortitude member Jarod Hennessy said of Hill. "Her word is strong. She doesn't let her people down."
Hill does a lot to stop bullying as WSHS, said Dimitrius Hale, another club member. He called Hill a "freedom fighter for the high school."
"She is just a caring person," said WSHS student Gabby Cleveland. "She is nice and she listens to everyone."
Hill was stunned, honored, embarrassed, and tearful all at once when she was surprised with the announcement and media attention in the WSHS commons last Friday morning. "This school would not be what it is without every single teacher here," she said. "I feel awkward being singled out when I know that every single teacher is giving their all."
When asked why she makes time for kids outside of the classroom, Hill replied that poverty, bullying, and prejudice are real challenges to her students and she can relate. "I struggled in high school, like a lot of people. I know what it feels like to not have food at home, to not be understood, to be characterized negatively," she said. "It wasn't until I got older that I found I wasn't a complete failure," she added, mentioning later academic success. Now, when she sees the goodness and the genius in young people struggling like she once did, Hill says she cannot help but want to help. Her message: "We need to unify the community about what is most important, and that is kids."