A new chapter: OPHS wishes Willis well as she retires

English teaching career filled with cherished memories comes to a close


Click to watch: Willis says goodbye (Part 1, Part 2)

As the last week of May approaches, we wave farewell to Jan Kelly Willis, a beloved English teacher who has been at Oak Park for almost all of her teaching career. For about 25 years, Willis has been working with Oak Park students, beginning at Medea Creek Middle School as an 8th grade English teacher, then moving on to Oak Park High School to work with freshmen, sophomores and seniors. 

Stories about sword fights, dress-up days and art projects characterize Willis’s playful teaching personality. Any student who has had Willis knows she loves to travel, showcase her students’ work and share her favorite art pieces with others. She told the Talon, “I’ve been taking posters down all year,” yet her walls still remain colorful. Her ‘East Side Gallery’ includes famous art prints, album covers and nature photography. Another wall has student poems and photos of students’ pets.

English teacher, Jessica Wall regards storytelling as Willis’s greatest skill, inspiring her students to find joy in novels and literature. 

“[Willis] is a storyteller, and she knows full well that great stories are built on a deep understanding of human relationship and the mastery of craft and the ability to inspire. As a storyteller, perhaps Jan’s greatest influence is the ability to inspire a love for narrative itself,” Wall said in a speech at Willis’s retirement ceremony. 

Wall, who was also a student of Willis’s in 9th grade, and became a colleague with Willis a couple years ago reflects on her experience as a student. She saved an essay that Willis graded when Wall was her student.

“I saved that away and I still remember the little smiley faces that [Willis] would draw next to [her] favorite lines of mine. I cannot begin to imagine how many hours of grading she has logged in her lifetime. She is incapable of rushing the grading process,” Wall said. 

Head of the OPHS English department Kathy Bowman has worked with Willis for many years. She shared that this is going to be a bittersweet goodbye.

“Mrs. Willis has become a dear friend and colleague … always going above and beyond to develop and teach English classes [including] English I CP, English II CP and Honors, and the 12th grade Senior Options classes of Children’s Literature and Women’s Literature/Film—which she developed [herself],” Bowman said. Most notably, Mrs. Willis’s “beautiful heart and wisdom, which are adored and admired by all, will be missed.” 

According to Bowman, although the English department is sad to see her go, they are “excited to see her pursue her new dreams and desires.”

When reflecting on her years at Oak Park, Willis’s greatest source of pride comes from her students, especially those who have grown as writers by influence of literature that changed their perspectives. Bright-eyed and eager to learn — that’s what she sees as a sign of potential.

“Watching students’ grow — that makes me incredibly happy, because they can take that with them to wherever they go … lifelong learners and readers and writers. I think that’s really special,” Willis said.

Senior Noah Teichner considers Willis as one of his favorite teachers at OPHS when he was a student in English II Honors. 

“I looked forward to her class everyday. I loved how interactive the class was and the way that she structured the class was amazing. She taught each book by multiple perspectives, allowing me to fully understand each novel,” Teichner said. 

The whole Oak Park community wishes Willis the best of luck on her future endeavors, as she travels to Heidelberg, Germany for a year with the Pepperdine International program.