Teacher Spotlight: A Talk with William Thill

Posted by Britni Danielle

This post is in partnership with University of Phoenix

William Thill has been teaching for 17 years and was named 2010 Teacher of the Future by the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS). He is an award-winning advanced placement math teacher at Harvard-Westlake School, a private college preparatory school in Los Angeles. Thill was also a National Teaching Award Finalist and works as a professional teacher developer with the Park City Math Institute. To watch the extended interview with Thill, scroll to the bottom of the post for an exclusive video.

GOOD: How long have you been teaching and what type of students do you serve?

William Thill: I have been teaching high school for 17 years, and throughout that time I’ve been working in independent schools. I’ve worked at two schools with kids who are coming from backgrounds where there’s very high expectations to go to an elite four-year intuition.

GOOD: How do you differentiate your class so that all students can be successful?

Thill: I have an enormous amount of help because of the nature of the school. Our class sizes are usually no more than 20. We have time during the day where kids can come in and get extra help. So in addition to those things, when I teach a course there are two other teachers who are also teaching the same course. All of their students can come to me for help, and all of my students can go to them for help.

In the classroom, because the classes are so small, one thing I work really hard at is constructing projects, tasks, or asking simple questions that allow me to see at what level they’re understanding the material.

GOOD: What are some of the strategies you use to engage all students? 

Thill: I’m very much a believer in the idea that before you start a lesson, not only do you have to know the mathematics and the goals for your kids, but you have to design and prepare at least two or three really good questions that will bring to the surface what the most important issues are. I try to give very specific, clear decision points that kids have to talk about and think about and argue about with their peers about.


GOOD: How do you incorporate technology in your classroom?

Thill: One of the things I probably use almost every class is a simple document camera. You can take a student’s work, put it under [the camera], take a screen shot of it, and have students discuss the work very quickly.

In statistics class we make use of a statistical analysis program put together by Key Curriculum Press called Fathom. Fathom is a data analysis package that is very easy for students to learn and use, and it automates all of the very tiresome and drudge-inducing computations. These programs really automate that stuff very quickly and allow kids to get into the deep work of interpreting, analyzing, and communicating their work really well.

GOOD: What advice would you give to new teachers?

Thill: To learn as much as you possibly can about your colleagues, your school, the expectations that they have of you, and your students.

Very often I see a lot of wonderful and wonderfully well-intentioned young teachers with iconoclastic ambitions about throwing out the textbook and writing their own curriculum and shaking things up. And…they’re not teaching after four or five years because they’ve either burned out or they haven’t really embedded themselves into understanding the culture of the school and the department. As much as I love the ambition and the great ideas, you always have to remember that has to happen in a context.

GOOD: What’s the biggest misconception people have about teachers?

Thill: I think there are some big misconceptions about what it means to teach well. I think that high test scores by students are a tough measurement by which to measure whether a teacher is being successful or not. I know that I will always look good because of how my students do—regardless of what I do in the classroom.

Similarly, I know teachers who work in situations with kids who are so disadvantaged and who don’t have the cultural reference points of lots of family members going to college. And despite everything that those teachers are doing in many of those cases, it’s really hard for the successes that those teachers create to be manifested in test scores.

Read more from the GOOD Guide to Great Teaching here.