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UNF sets lifelong educator on path to service and success



For Patricia Willis, life has always been about education. From the time she received eye-opening curriculum and instruction at Andrew Jackson High School in Jacksonville, the now deputy superintendent of Duval County Public Schools (DCPS) knew she wanted to be an educator.


“[My teachers] instilled in me the confidence to trust my own thinking,” Willis said. She wanted to follow the same path as her teachers to inspire others and made the decision to become an educator herself. She wanted to have a lasting positive impact on any student with whom she came in contact – much like her teachers did with her. The lifelong educator said, “I knew I wanted to be that type of teacher for my students.”


After nearly 35 years in the DCPS district – first as a teacher, then an administrator and now to her current role – Willis said she has UNF to thank for providing the solid pathway.


Willis began her collegiate career at Tennessee State University in Nashville, but after a semester, decided UNF was a better fit. She came home to Jacksonville and majored in English literature and minored in secondary education.


After graduating from UNF in 1977, Willis immediately began teaching throughout the school district. Despite some very challenging first assignments, Willis grew to love her new profession.


“My greatest challenge was identifying a role model and mentor,” she said of her early years in teaching. “That is why the competent and caring faculty at UNF was so important to me. They willingly and effectively filled the role of mentor, and I saw the possibilities of becoming a teacher and educator who also could positively impact the lives of my students and others around me.” 


Her passion for teaching and working with her students helped her make the decision to transition from teacher to administrator – Willis was a principal at three schools in the county before moving to deputy superintendent.


Willis said her experience at UNF made a huge difference in the type of educator she became. She learned by the example set by her professors, administrators and fellow classmates.


“The dedicated, selfless, knowledgeable and willing staff, above all, is what I loved about UNF,” she said. “It was small enough that I never felt like just a number or statistic. There was always someone there to help, to provide assistance and to guide the way so others like me could be successful. It was that one-on-one individual attention – that personal touch that they were able to give – that so few universities are able to give that made the difference for me.”


Dr. Larry Daniel, dean of the College of Education and Human Services (COEHS), has known Willis for more than a decade and said having her as a partner in collaborative projects has been crucial for UNF to develop programs within the school district.


“She provides the broad leadership that is needed to help partner the two institutions,” he said. “Pat Willis is an expert at developing partnerships. She is greatly respected in the community to the extent that she can pull together a diverse set of collaborators on any project. Her work has been recognized by major organizations such as the Council of Great City Schools and the National Association of Secondary School Principals, and she was a 2009 finalist for the Florida Times-Union EVE Education Award. She believes strongly in UNF and regularly finds ways to include UNF faculty and students in major school district initiatives.”


Willis has maintained a mutually beneficial relationship with her alma mater and the nationally award-winning Professional Development School Program, in particular. “She has been a key player in assuring that this significant partnership has continued despite times of limited resources and shifting priorities,” Daniel said. The program trains teachers in urban settings and ensures graduates have the work experience needed to become better teachers for the children of Duval County.


Willis administers several community initiatives, including the Neighborhood Learning Networks project, which is a collaborative venture between the Florida Institute of Education at UNF, COEHS and the Duval County School District. It focuses on increasing family engagement in childhood learning throughout select urban areas of the county. The project also aims to increase neighborhood-level collaborations with children and family social service agencies, to develop firm connections with programs and services for children and families and to improve children’s academic and developmental outcomes. Daniel said Willis was a key player in the launch of the project.


She is currently leading a delegation of Duval County administrators who are working collaboratively with COEHS graduate faculty and administration to offer graduate programs better suited to the needs of teachers and students in the school district.


“One of my goals has been to make sure that I make a difference for the children of Duval County,” Willis said. “I want to ensure that every child has an opportunity for high-quality education and to have in front of them a teacher who is skilled, equipped and successful.”


After three and a half decades working in education, Willis said teaching and education have become her life’s work. She said she can trace every bit of passion her back to the spark that was ignited while learning at UNF.


“It has been said that, if you can find your passion and do what you love, you will never work a day in your life. I fell in love with teaching because I saw how one teacher could make a difference in so many lives that would eventually touch so many others.”