Charles County teacher awarded Crystal Apple
American Legion Auxiliary gives top honors to La Plata native
As Caitlin Westhall prepares to leave her native La Plata for Germany, she has a new memento to take with her, a Crystal Apple and the title “Teacher of the Year 2017” from the American Legion Auxiliary, Department of Maryland.
Westhall said she was extremely honored to receive this award at the state and local level.
“As any good teacher would likely say, I don’t work hard for the recognition but for the kids. I truly care about each and every student,” Westhall said in an email. “While my time with Charles County has come to a close, I look forward to an exciting future teaching overseas as I relocate to Germany with my husband who is in the United States Air Force. If it is in my future, I welcome the opportunity to return to Charles County Public Schools where I have blossomed as an educator.”
The state American Legion Auxiliary organization presented Westhall, recently an English teacher at General Smallwood Middle School, with its top teacher award during its annual convention July 13. She later received her award from the local post that nominated her on July 29.
The American Legion Auxiliary was formed in 1919 as a women’s patriotic service organization; its mission is to support the American Legion and to enhance the lives of veterans,
service members and their families, at home and abroad, according to the national organization’s website.
Westhall, the wife of an Air Force serviceman currently serving in South Korea, was recognized in part for the ways in which she has incorporated the military into her lesson plan, encouraging students to write cards to Air Force personnel in basic training, creating a pen pal program between students and airmen and arranging for her husband Alexander Westhall to speak with students during Career Day via Skype from South Korea.
Westhall was named the Charles County finalist for the state title by the American Legion Harry White Wilmer Post 82 Auxiliary in April.
Linda Rollins, chairwoman of Post 82’s education committee, said Westhall exemplified excellence in teaching as well as the auxiliary’s core mission of supporting service members and veterans.
“We would have been surprised if she wasn’t chosen [for the state award],” Rollins said. “We felt for certain that when we sent her nomination up, that we had a winner.”
Rollins said four out of the five past Crystal Apple winners have been from Charles County.
“We have a lot of great teachers here in Charles County, who don’t get the recognition they deserve,” Rollins said.
Westhall grew up in La Plata and was part of North Point High School’s first graduating class in 2009. She attended the College of Southern Maryland before transferring to the University of Maryland College Park for her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education.
Westhall said that when she graduated, she wanted to come back to Charles County to teach. Her mother, Angel Willett, also works for the school system. Westhall began her career at General Smallwood Middle School in 2014.
She said teaching turned out to be even more challenging than she thought it would be.
“My first year of teaching, I came home in tears almost every day,” Westhall recalled. Still, she stuck with it and became actively involved both inside and outside her school community.
In her letter of nomination, Kathy Kiessling, principal of General Smallwood, said Westhall is the first to step up when there is a challenge.
“As a teacher, Mrs. Westhall does not shy away from students whom others may find difficult to work with,” Kiessling wrote. “She insists on working with all students, including those who have daily struggles in life and in school. Her compassion, ability to differentiate instruction, and love of children, allows her not only to be effective, but to gain the respect of those in her classes.”
Westhall said that being able to reach the most difficult or challenging students is what makes teaching worthwhile for her.
“I know a lot of teachers probably say this, but it’s the ‘aha’ moment, when the most difficult or challenging student gets it, that really makes ever ything worthwhile,” Westhall said.
Most recently, Westhall has served as the department chairwoman for language arts at General Smallwood.
“I can honestly say that Mrs. Westhall stands out among her peers,” Linda Forrest, reading specialist, wrote in a letter nominating Westhall for the award. “On a daily basis she relates to the teachers that she works with and leads by example. … No matter the task, committee, or extra responsibilities asked of her, she accepts the challenge openly.”
Westhall was unable to accept the Crystal Apple Award in person during the auxiliary’s Ocean City convention or Post 82’s presentation of her award, as she was in South Korea visiting her husband at the time, but she and her husband used FaceTime to listen and watch both events in real time while her father accepted the award in her place.
Westhall’s husband has been reassigned to Germany, and Westhall is currently in the process of preparing to move to the country. She said she hopes to continue teaching there.
Caitlin Westhall, recently an eighth grade language arts teacher and the language arts chairwoman at General Smallwood Middle School, holds her Crystal Apple “Teacher of the Year 2017” trophy from the state American Legion Auxiliary.