Social Studies Teacher Erin Merrill named Virginia Middle School Association Teacher of the Year
Posted on 10/14/2019
Making the Grade feature graphic with headshot of teacher Erin Merrill

Erin Merrill, U.S. history and civics teacher and social studies department chair at Pennington Traditional School, has been selected as the Virginia Middle School Association (VMSA) “Master in the Middle Awards” Teacher of the Year. This is Merrill’s seventh year teaching in Prince William County Public Schools. She believes that middle school education, situated between the fundamental skills learned at the elementary level and the rigor of high school, is uniquely positioned to the opportunity to “turn itself inside out and be at the forefront of educational pilot programs and philosophies.” Known for innovating her practices, Merrill takes full advantage of this opportunity.

“Erin Merrill is an engaging civics teacher who incorporates real-life situations into her teaching,” said Donna Notarantonio, reading teacher at Pennington. “Her passion for teaching creates enthusiastic learners. She models what she teaches for her students by being actively involved in policymaking and government procedures at the county and state levels. Her commitment and love for teaching civics is helping to develop students that are politically engaged but open to understanding multiple points of view.” 

Erin Merrill and student

VMSA celebrates the success of educators by recognizing teachers in grades 6-8 who serve as educational leaders and role models, seek social equity and access to programs, and actively support a developmentally responsive school climate, among other criteria. Merrill will receive her award at the VMSA Conference on November 1, 2019, at James Madison University.

Because she is always reinventing what and how she teaches, one peek into Merrill’s classroom is rarely the same as the last. On any given day you might see students discussing with Merrill how history connects to current events; creating superheroes to represent the principles of government or cabinet officers, forming new political parties to address issues they are concerned about; or working together to sort through primary sources to answer such questions as “Was Prohibition successful?” 

"Each time I am in Ms. Merrill's classroom, I am able to see the depth of her planning and instruction, the impact it has on students' knowledge and engagement, and I am able to see the development of a love of learning in each student,” said Pennington Principal Amanda McCulla. “Ms. Merrill truly makes learning come alive for her students - it's incredible!" 

Introducing new technology is one of Merrill’s favorite means of engaging and innovating. In 2017, Merrill received a virtual reality (VR) headset as a gift and immediately began looking for apps to decide whether she could use it as a relevant instructional tool. Her first lesson included a World War I trench experience app and, from there, she has incorporated the headsets multiple times to extend her students’ experiences with in-class curriculum. She was even featured in a “WeAreTeachers” website article on integrating VR headsets.

Merrill also has embraced the benefits of gamifying her classroom. “We played through simulations on, played games to reinforce content on, produced campaign ads on green screens, and made comic strips using PowToons and Storyboard That!” said Merrill.

“I believe that my best experiences as a middle school educator come from when the students put what they’ve learned into effect, showing maturity and initiative. At Pennington, we ask what our students see themselves being after they leave. My students will tell you – they are the future.”