Willoughby teaches through storytelling

James Willoughby helps 8th-grade student Hunter Hackney with an outline about the American Expansion during U.S. History class at Dixon Elementary School (Webster County) Feb. 4, 2011. Photo by Amy Wallot
James Willoughby helps 8th-grade student Hunter Hackney with an outline about the American Expansion during U.S. History class at Dixon Elementary School (Webster County) Feb. 4, 2011. Photo by Amy Wallot

By Susan Riddell

It’s common for people walking by James Willoughby’s 8th-grade social studies classroom at Dixon Elementary School (Webster County) to hear a loud, animated voice.

But anyone who has sat in – or near – his classroom in the K-8 school knows Willoughby is just telling a story that relates to the day’s lesson.

Fellow teacher Lynda Hudson said Willoughby has a great story about the first man to ever see fire.

“He is very animated, yells, gets burned, makes funny faces,” Hudson said. “The students never forget that story. They will be sitting in another class and can hear him telling the story and they know exactly what he is doing and telling.”

Principal Eric Wheatley also is familiar with Willoughby’s teaching style.

“He uses stories as a means for personal relevance to connect the subject of social studies to the students,” Wheatley said. “He always has a story which relates back to the topic he is teaching. He is a dependable, responsible teacher who attempts to get the most of his students.”

Willoughby said storytelling works for him because it helps bring his personality into the lessons.

“I tell stories about content and include specific students in the story with a touch of humor,” he said. “Not only can the students answer questions about the content correctly on the test, but they can remember the characters as well.”

Willoughby has taught for 31 years, all at Dixon Elementary. He plans to retire at the end of the school year. In his time at Dixon Elementary, Willoughby taught science for 20 years before settling in with his preferred subject of social studies. Along the way, he also briefly taught classes in physical education, economics, health and manners.

“He (Willoughby) is a dependable, responsible teacher who attempts to get the most of his students.”
Principal Eric Wheatley, Dixon Elementary School (Webster County)

Willoughby said he got into teaching because he wanted to coach and help students, especially those from low-income families.

He describes his classroom as hands-on “with an emphasis on having fun while learning,” he said.

“He uses hands-on projects and research-based assignments to get students interested in social studies,” Wheatley added. “He makes connections by linking today’s learning to past learning and experiences of the students.”

Hudson, who has worked with Willoughby for 14 years, describes him as compassionate, enthusiastic and informative.

“I do hear what the students say about him,” Hudson said. “They always like him, they can depend on him, and they trust him.”

“He is very easily approachable and is always showing an interest in what the students are doing,” Wheatley added. “He has several former students who still stop by to see him today.”

It’s very important to Willoughby for his students to have that “a-ha” moment when he knows they understand the lesson he’s trying to convey.

“The students’ faces lighting up when they really get the concept on how life used to be is so rewarding,” he said.

Roles outside the classroom

Willoughby serves on several committees at school, including the Kentucky Center for Instructional Discipline committee for Positive Behavior Support.

“He works with others in our building and district during Professional Learning Communities,” Wheatley said. “He meets with the other middle school teachers and special education teachers to schedule activities for student enrichment.”

Willoughby said it’s important to stay focused on educating children and do as much as possible without taking on too much.

“Do everything you can to avoid burnout,” he advises, “but if it happens, get into some other profession to be fair to yourself and, more importantly, the students.”

Wheatley believes it’s rare for a teacher to spend his entire teaching career at the same school.

“Just a couple of teachers at Dixon (Elementary) have been fortunate to stay at the school their entire careers,” Wheatley said. “Mr. Willoughby was my KTIP (Kentucky Teacher Internship Program) resource teacher when I started in 1998. So, I kind of joke with him that he came with the building. He will be missed as an important part of Dixon Elementary School.”

Willoughby has been able to adapt to educational advancements over the years. He said the biggest change he’s noticed, however, is how parents are invested in their child’s education more than ever. That’s a concept he can appreciate.

“I enjoy going to work every day and trying to make a difference,” he said. “My goal each year is to try to change one student for the better. Luckily, in most years it turns out to be more than one.”

James Willoughby, james.willoughby@webster.kyschools.us, (270) 639-9080


  1. James Willoughby is not only a teacher/mentor for students, but he is also a teacher/mentor for colleagues, new teachers, parents, vocational instructors, physical education specialists, and coaches. He is so good at all reaching out to all of those individuals because he has been all of those–in this same school for his entire career. And while many of us “burnout,” as he calls it, and move on to something perhaps less demanding, James has managed to remain engaged, tolerant, relevant, and-even tempered and pleasant to students, staff, and parents. As a board member in his school district, how do I know these facts? Because James was a mentor to me as well when I moved from a position in a standard, walled classroom to Dixon where there were few walls around any section of the building. Though I was older and more experienced in many areas of education, James was my guide through the “darkness” of the “open classroom.” From the day I began my tenure at Dixon, until I left the classroom to become the interim principal, and then to run for election to the school board, James was always–still is–the most consistent, accepting, supportive, dependable teacher I know.

    I don’t remember his being mean or hurtful to any student (even though he compared me at lunch once to Mama Cass from the Mamas and the Papas–just to keep me humble I think!), and I am honored to say that he has been my friend and colleague for most of my career. Thank you for sharing this kind and dedicated man with the rest of Kentucky.

    Dr. E Carolyn Tucker
    Webster County Board of Education
    Dixon, KY 42409