Michelle Cottrell-Williams poses for a photo with Virginia’s superintendent of public instruction, Steven R. Staples. (Photo courtesy of the Virginia Department of Education)

A TED Talk shaped Michelle Cottrell-Williams’ perspective as a teacher.

The talk, led by scholar Brene Brown, delved into how vulnerability and shame influence people’s connections with one another, Cottrell-Williams recalled.

The 35-year-old teacher took the lesson to heart and, since then, has made it a point to talk less and listen more to her students, to let them be the guides for their own learning.

“I learned how important empathy is,” she said.

Cottrell-Williams, a social studies teacher at Wakefield High School in Arlington County, was named Virginia Teacher of the Year on Monday. She was selected from among educators representing eight regions across the state.

She said advocating for students of color and those who learn English as a second language is one of her priorities. That’s important, she said, because public schools don’t do enough for those students.

Chris Willmore, Wakefield’s principal, said Cottrell-Williams challenges her students and encourages them to consider different perspectives.

“She’s extremely warm, caring, passionate, dedicated to her kids,” Willmore said. “She’s got a belief in each and every one of them.”

She has taught high school social studies for 11 years, according to a news release from the Virginia Department of Education. She received a bachelor’s degree from Utah State University and a master’s degree from George Washington University.

Cottrell-Williams will be considered for the national Teacher of the Year award, which will be announced in the spring.

The committee that selected Cottrell-Williams was constituted of professional and education associations, business community members and the state’s outgoing Teacher of the Year, Toney Lee McNair Jr., according to the release.

The other nominees included:

  • Greenlee B. Naughton, an English teacher at Highland Springs High School in Henrico County
  • Theresa A. Guthrie Goltermann, a STEM electives teacher at Tabb Middle School in York County
  • Sarah M. Adamson-Mair, a kindergarten teacher at Lewis and Clark Elementary School in Caroline County
  • Russell T. Jennings, an agriculture teacher at Fluvanna County High School
  • Karey A. Henzey, a special education teacher at West Salem Elementary in Salem
  • Chrystle M. Gates, a music teacher at Chilhowie Elementary School in Smyth County
  • Tiffany W. Lynch, an English teacher at Park View High School in Mecklenburg County