Meet Quantrell Willis – The College Dean Who Became a Special Education Teacher

Quantrell Willis teaching math lesson to three high school boys

Through RCOE’s Center for Teacher Innovation Preliminary Intern program, Quantrell Willis has transitioned from a career in higher education to Education Specialist in Val Verde Unified School District.

In his mid 30’s, Quantrell Willis was building a career in education by working with students and student organizations as an associate dean of students at the University of Oregon.

During his tenure in higher education, Quantrell noticed how many students were coming to the university ill-prepared for life after high school. He also noticed that access to college was obstructed for many students.

Although his mother and step-father only completed high school, he recalled the value his mother put on education for Quantrell and how he wanted to become an educator or a pediatrician in order to help other people through his career choices.

“I wanted to work with those who were already marginalized—including minorities, and students with disabilities,” Quantrell said. “I wanted to get ahead of what I was seeing at the university and help students when they were younger.”

When Quantrell moved to California and got married, he faced the decision of searching for employment back in higher education or looking for a way to activate that desire to help students earlier in their educational journey.

Fueling his desire to help others was the reality that Quantrell’s son had received an autism spectrum disorder diagnosis.

“He inspired me to think about how great it would be to better understand him through education, and have a positive impact on people and students who could identify like him,” Quantrell said.

Quantrell initiated a Google search to learn what it would take to become a special education teacher in California. The prospect of returning to school in order to earn the required credentials not only represented a new expense of tuition, but the reality of a reduced family income without a job.

“The fiscal challenges of becoming a teacher played very heavily in my decision on whether to pursue this new career or not,” Quantrell admitted. “My wife asked me, ‘What’s your purpose?’, and she knew that my purpose was to be in high schools and that I needed to dare greatly.”

Quantrell’s research led him to the Riverside County Office of Education’s (RCOE) Preliminary Intern Program offered by the Center for Teacher Innovation where he could earn the requisite credentials at a lower cost than a university while teaching full-time in a school district with benefits.

“Many people don’t understand how many sectors there are in education. Even though I was already in the education field, I had to realize it was a different environment in K-12,” Quantrell shared. “I had to retool myself.”

In the summer of 2018, at the age of 37, Quantrell took the leap into a new career when he was hired by Val Verde Unified School District as a resource specialist assigned to Orange Vista High School. After being hired, he was immediately accepted into RCOE’s Preliminary Intern Program and began taking classes twice a week in person with fellow program participants who were hired by districts that work with the program to fill special education positions.

Before he set foot in the classroom that fall, Quantrell completed pre-intern courses and passed a statewide credential exam. His involvement in the program even prepared him for the job interview.

In his first year, there were growing pains as Quantrell worked to establish a new professional identity.

“There were times when I wondered if I made the right decision,” Quantrell said. “I wondered if this really was the best move for me.”

Quantrell quickly found that the support for practical and existential challenges like this were common for new teachers and that working through them was built into the fabric of the RCOE Preliminary Intern Program.

“I kept going to the classes during the week, and while I was with the other teachers in my group, I was able to bounce ideas off of other intern teachers and get feedback from them and our facilitators,” Quantrell said. “It reassured me that I was in the right spot and where I needed to be—not just where I wanted to be.”

Quantrell and all preliminary intern program participants also have a designated on-site mentor to reaffirm and help support them along with a program coach who makes regular visits to Quantrell’s classroom. His cohort group of intern teachers are former police officers, mechanics, biotechnology professionals, and others from various careers who want to make an impact on students and bring their own experiences from different walks of life.

At Orange Vista High School, Quantrell’s daily schedule includes working with a wide variety of students in one-on-one, small group, and larger classroom settings. The students he serves face everything from auditory processing barriers and reading comprehension issues, to communication and behavior challenges.

“As I was learning things with the program each week, I was incorporating those things directly into lesson plans,” Quantrell said. “Every day, I’m helping students gain academic confidence and be more interactive and engaged in their own learning in ways that wouldn’t be available as options in a general education classroom.”

Throughout his first year, Quantrell’s preparation to serve students’ needs caught the eyes of educators around campus.

“Other teachers would ask me—‘Wait, you’re an intern? You don’t teach like an intern,’” Quantrell said. “The program is akin to giving me a map and a flashlight so I can find my way home. And, they’re giving me valuable guidance along the way as a teacher.”

As he enters his second year of teaching, Quantrell has observed how students from his first year of teaching are thriving with newly-minted confidence in themselves and their future at school and in the real world.

“I’ve seen them grow right in front of me and that is just amazing to me since I believe my job is helping them know what it means to be an adult outside of academics,” Quantrell said. “I’m so fortunate to be in a position to impact their life beyond today. I’m so thankful that a program like this exists so that more people like me and my students can become not just what we want to be, but what we need to be.”