Josh Bill ’04 awarded National History Teacher of the Year

Josh Bill ’04 is a different kind of history teacher. Rather than relying on textbooks for his lessons, he makes historians out of his students.

This unique approach to teaching, a strategy he picked up as a history and education double-major at Lake Forest, is one reason why he is the National History Teacher of the Year, an award co-sponsored by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, HISTORY®, and Preserve America.

Bill has been a history teacher at Waukegan High School since the fall of 2004. He accepted his award on December 4 during a ceremony at the Frederick Douglass Academy in New York City.

Bill’s family, two of his students, and three of his school administrators accompanied him on the trip, which also included a private tour of The Gilder Lehrman Collection. He describes the archive as one “of huge national significance.”

“It was just an unbelievable day. Nobody really gets to see those documents except the people who work with them,” he said.

His favorite document: The copy of the 13th Amendment with Abraham Lincoln’s original signature.

Bill’s students offered remarks during the award ceremony, as did Caroline Kennedy, a member of the influential Kennedy family, who addressed the vital importance of history education in U.S. schools.

Bill was one of 1,000 candidates nominated for the award. His colleague Ali Schultz nominated him by submitting a letter of recommendation. Bill followed up with about 20 pages of material, including a philosophy statement, an extended student project description, student work samples from that project, and more. 

He says history is about doing, which is why he frequently asks his students to become historians as part of their classwork.   

“Waukegan has unique history. It’s often overshadowed by Chicago history, and the kids have no idea,” he said. “They need to know that their community does matter.”

Bill’s interest in history started when he was growing up in southern New Hampshire and taking school field trips to the site of the Boston Massacre and walking the Freedom Trail. A couple of his most inspiring teachers were history teachers, and his experiences at Lake Forest College in the history and education programs “solidified to me what history is really all about.”

“I wouldn’t have had a clue of how to [turn my students into historians] in my classroom without both Lake Forest’s history classes and education courses,” he said.

His true inspiration, though, is his students.

“The students at Waukegan High School are not often celebrated and it’s a real shame because I don’t think I could continue to do what I do without them,” he said. “The work they produce, especially when they’re studying Waukegan history, is nothing short of inspirational.”