Before entering her classroom each day, Jill Powers reminds herself not to count the days, but rather to make each day count.
This reminder has, in part, earned her this year’s Educator of the Year award for Billings Catholic Schools.
“It’s such an honor,” Powers said. “Teaching is a responsibility I take to heart, so this recognition means a lot. But, it’s already an honor to teach among all the amazing teachers that are in our school system.”
Powers, 42, is in her seventh year of teaching for the Catholic schools.
Alumni, staff and parents nominated Powers, now a kindergarten teacher at Saint Francis Primary, after the annual nomination form was sent out in January with the monthly newsletter. The announcement was made after an all-school Mass at Central High School on Jan. 28.
The only person surprised by the outcome of the nomination was Powers herself.
Kathy Harris, BCS marketing director, said Powers received more nominations than any other teacher in the 32 years the system has given the award.
“The nominations were consistent across the board,” Harris said. “People who nominated her said she has such reverence for learning and that her classroom is magical.”
During an afternoon lesson Thursday, Powers and her classroom of 22 students made fresh-squeezed lemonade as they explored the letter L. After all the lemons were squeezed, students sampled their concoction.
The summer cocktail on a February day seemed appropriate, given that Powers’ classroom is jungle-themed with palm trees and monkeys.
A corner of the classroom designated for reading is shaded from window light by a large green canopy shaped like a palm leaf.
The class pet is a sock monkey named Max. Each week, Max goes home with a student along with a journal composed of photos and entries of students’ adventures with Max.
Hanging on the wall in the classroom is a chart titled Monkey Business, which lists students’ weekly class duties such as line leader and prayer helper.
Beside the chart is space designated for the class' “Top Banana,” a title given to one student each week for demonstrated excellence.
“She has a great way of making each child feel like an individual,” said Powers’ principal, Karen Petermann. “She has high expectations for her students with the right amount of balance of kindness and authority in her classroom.”
Ask 6-year-old Nolan Harada what he likes best about kindergarten and he’ll tell you it's his teacher, Mrs. Powers. And recess, of course. The lemonade, however, was a bit sour for his taste, he said.
“I try to keep learning fun,” Powers said. “As long as I’m having fun, I know my students are, too.”
As long as she can remember, Powers said, she has wanted to teach.
She received her degree in early education from Rocky Mountain College in 1992. She has since taught preschool, kindergarten and sixth and third grades.
In 2003, Powers was selected for the National Child Care Teacher award for her day care services at Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota, where her husband, Scott, 43, was stationed at the time.
Her husband’s job as flight chief of recruiting has landed the couple and their daughters — Lauren, 18, Sarah, 15 and Alivia, 11 — in many different communities before their move to Billings seven years ago.
And when Scott was transferred to Spokane, the family made the decision that Powers and their children would remain in Billings while he finished out his last 2 1/2 years in Washington before retirement last August.
“Billings Catholic Schools was one of the main reasons why my girls and I stayed here and my husband commuted back and forth,” Powers said. “It was really important to us to have the schools in our life. We knew in the long term, we wanted our girls to graduate from here and I wanted to teach here.”
All three of their daughters attend Billings Catholic Schools, and all three want to be teachers, Powers said.
“I often think about what, as a parent, I would want for my own children, and that’s what I try to provide for my students,” Powers said. “The kids spend more time with me during waking hours than they do with their parents. I feel like that is a huge responsibility that I care deeply about.”
Powers said she regularly attends early education conventions around the nation where she learns about new teaching methods and materials that she incorporates into her classroom.
“I’m constantly learning and the students are constantly learning,” Powers said. “Kindergarten never stays the same. Education and technology are always evolving.”
Teaching her students to be good citizens is the foundation from which she teaches. A big part of that, she said, is having the ability to pray and teach religion lessons in her classroom.
She said there are a number of reasons why parents choose to enroll their children in the system, such as small classroom sizes. But, she said, ultimately parents make the choice based on the opportunity for their kids to learn about the Catholic religion.
“Our school system is unique,” she said. “So many of our kids are in the system from kindergarten and up, learning the same set of core values throughout that is faith-based.”
When she was presented the Educator of the Year plaque during the all-school Mass, the system’s president, Harold Olson, said Powers exemplifies all that is best in a teacher.
“She makes each child feel special, while at the same time developing partnerships with parents to ensure the best possible educational experience for each child,” Olson said.
Back in her classroom, her students were thrilled to learn about Powers’ recognition.
“They all cheered and told me I was the ‘Top Banana,'” Powers said with a smile. “Now, that’s making the day count.”