Faculty

Susan Johnstone
,
Lower Elementary Co-Teacher & Lower Elementary Professional Development Leader

 

Susan, a Montessori teacher since 1987 and administrator since 2003, co-founded a small progressive middle and high school in Raleigh, NC called Raleigh Progressive School. Most recently, she taught in a Lower Elementary classroom at Sterling Montessori Charter School in Morrisville. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English from North Carolina State University and a Master of Arts in progressive community education from Goddard College. Susan is married to fellow Montessori teacher, Don Henchel, who has been teaching for over 30 years, and is presently teaching at Montessori Community School in Durham. Her three boys attended Montessori schools up to the 6th grade. Susan has served as a coach, mentor, and consultant for Montessori teachers and administrators. She holds an American Montessori Society Lower Elementary credential.



Catherine Oudjit,
Upper Elementary Co-Teacher & Upper Elementary Professional Development Leader

Catherine was born and raised in France, where she earned a J.D. in International Business Law. In 1995, she started her Montessori career at the Montessori School of Raleigh (MSR) where, having earned her AMS Infant/Toddler Certification from CMTE/NY, she directed a Toddler section for almost ten years. In 2005, Catherine started teaching at the Lower Elementary level at MSR, then continued in 2010 at the same level at Sterling Montessori Academy and Charter School in Morrisville, NC. She earned her AMI Montessori credential for 6 to 12 year olds and her Master of Education in Montessori Elementary Education from the Washington Montessori Institute and Loyola University in Maryland. Beginning in 2013, Catherine worked as the Director of Programs and Curriculum for the Primary Level at Sterling Montessori, and she most recently took on additional responsibilities to support the leadership transition there. Catherine and her husband Zack have two sons and a daughter who all started their Montessori education at the toddler level. She is passionate about authentic Montessori education, and is excited to join the Willow Oak Montessori team. During her down time, Catherine enjoys reading, cross-stitching and quilting.

Jen McMurray,
Adolescent (Middle School) Co-Teacher

Jen spent her first seven years of teaching in an outdoor therapeutic program for at-risk adolescents.  She facilitated team-building experiences, used outdoor living skills as a launch pad for academic learning, and helped young people discover their ability to support themselves and others in their living group.  She felt called to Montessori education and received her Upper Elementary training in 2009.  She has taught at both private and public Montessori schools.  When she’s not teaching, she dabbles in yoga, running, swimming, canoeing, gardening, playing music, and writing poetry.  A naturalist at heart, Jen is most at peace when hiking and exploring the outdoors with her two daughters and her husband.   She is excited about the promising work of growing an authentic Montessori adolescent program with the team at Willow Oak.


Charlie Cook,
Adolescent (Middle School) Co-Teacher

Charlie comes to Willow Oak from Athens, Ohio, where for years he worked with organizations and individuals dedicated to creating a sustainable regional economy based on principles of social, economic, and environmental justice. He has been a baker, builder, and member of cooperatively owned and operated businesses whose missions are to provide for the health of their local and global communities. He is a student of the world, seeking always to better understand the myriad realms of human coexistence with the natural world and each other. This led to his study of holistic sustainability, natural and organic food systems, environmental studies, human ecology, and ultimately education. As a homeschooling father, he discovered a deep interest in spiritually sound and integrative pedagogy, the Montessori approach, and his aspiration to become a teacher. Charlie graduated from Ohio University with a Bachelor of Science in Middle Childhood Education and holds an Associate in Science. He has worked in various capacities with children of all ages and can think of no greater honor than supporting young people on their paths of self-discovery as they become engaged world citizens. He is very excited to be joining the Willow Oak learning community, and will begin his Montessori Secondary training this summer. Charlie enjoys gardening, cooking, learning, playing music, contemplating the transcendental nature of the universe and our places therein, losing himself in the woods, and spending the days with his wife, Jennifer, watching his sons learn and grow.


Jessy Durizch
,
Lower Elementary Co-Teacher

Jessy holds a Bachelor of Science in Elementary Education from Mansfield University of Pennsylvania. In 2004, she moved from upstate New York to Raleigh, where she began her teaching career and love for the Montessori philosophy at a public Montessori magnet school. During this time, she completed her Montessori training and obtained the Lower Elementary Credential from the American Montessori Society. For the past five years, she has taught second grade at a Raleigh magnet school for academically gifted and talented students. Jessy earned her National Board Certification in 2011, and completed her Master of Arts in Education from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical University in 2012. In her free time, she enjoys hiking, the beach, spending time with her family, and curling up with a good book in the company of her kitty, Dewdrop. After spending a few years in a traditional classroom setting, Jessy felt her heart as a teacher calling her back to Montessori. She feels very grateful to be a part of the Willow Oak community, and is happy to be part of the team as the school continues to blossom and grow.


Sheldon Bae, Lower Elementary Co-Teacher

Sheldon graduated from Appalachian State University with a Bachelor of Science in Elementary Education. She taught for a year in Wake County before accepting a summer job with Nortel Networks that led to a career in Supply Chain Management. After 13 years at Nortel, she returned to the classroom because she discovered Montessori when she enrolled her son at Pittsboro Montessori School. Sheldon was an Assistant in one of the Primary classrooms at Willow Oak Montessori Children's House while she completed her Montessori training. She successfully obtained her American Montessori Society Early Childhood credential in 2012 and was a Lead Teacher in a Primary classroom this past school year. She is excited about the opportunity to use her traditional education and Montessori skill sets to help Willow Oak Montessori meet the needs of all of its students. Sheldon has lived in Chatham County for 13 years with her husband, Andrew, and two sons, Mason and Brooks. She enjoys giving back to the community by being a peaceful influence to the hearts and minds of children.


Emily Vance, Lower Elementary Co-Teacher

Hailing from Asheville, NC, Emily holds a Bachelor of Science in Elementary Education with a concentration in Diversity Studies and a minor in Psychology from Appalachian State University. She is also Lower Elementary certified by the American Montessori Society. Emily loves that the Montessori philosophy gives her the tools to address the individual needs of her students as they grow and develop at their own pace. Emily feels honored to have been a member of the inaugural teaching team at Willow Oak Montessori in 2013, and is excited to share in the wonderful learning experiences that lie ahead. She loves to spend her free time hiking, reading, cooking and traveling.


Jennifer Hughes, Lower Elementary Co-Teacher

Jennifer, originally from Orange County, has spent the past 9 years in Chatham County living and learning. After many years crafting fine furniture for a local company, Jennifer decided to return to school and in 2012, she received her Bachelor of Art in Education from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The blending of the Montessori philosophy with that of public school was very appealing to Jennifer, so she enrolled her daughter in the inaugural year of Willow Oak Montessori Charter School, and has been thoroughly pleased. Jennifer is very excited to bring her love of learning to the Willow Oak Montessori community. When not in the classroom, Jennifer loves to dance, go camping near a rolling river, traveling to charming locales, and most of all, being with her family.


Emily Cizek,
Lower Elementary Co-Teacher

Emily is excited to join the Willow Oak community after an inspiring summer at the Institute for Advanced Montessori Studies in Silver Spring, Maryland. She grew up in Fredericksburg, Virginia and holds a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology from Princeton University. During college, as “a teacher who didn’t know it yet,” she taught environmental science lessons to elementary school students and supervised high school volunteers at a children’s hospital. After graduation, she worked at a language training school near D.C., happily eating and dancing her way across cultures with co-workers from around the world. In 2012 she moved to Chapel Hill and began studying mathematics, with plans to teach high school; however, she felt a strong pull toward Montessori schools and their care for the whole child, and spent the past year working in the After School program and as a substitute at Montessori Children’s House of Durham. Emily has always been fascinated by museums and libraries, and admires the Montessori classroom—with its self-directed learning, appealing environment, and knowledgeable guides—as a similarly wonderful way to explore the world. Some of her favorite things are her family, her friends, live music, trail runs, and good books.


Jay Batman,
Upper Elementary Co-Teacher

Jay comes to Willow Oak from Charlotte, NC. Jay is certified in both Lower and Upper Elementary by the American Montessori Society, and has taught in both public and private Montessori schools. He has a BA in Psychology from Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville and a Masters of Fine Arts degree from the Art Institute of Chicago. Jay spent years in the restaurant business, including owning an Italian restaurant in Chicago. He loves to travel, and has lived in Ecuador and Germany. He enjoys reading and bicycle riding. And yes, that is his real last name.



Emily Barrick,
Upper Elementary Co-Teacher

After graduating from Brevard College with a B.A. in Integrated Studies: Elementary Education and completing the requirements to receive her K-6 teaching license, Emily realized that she was not comfortable with the traditional approach to teaching. She spent the next few years working as a camp and after school counselor and outdoor educator at Chestnut Ridge Camp and Retreat Center. She also worked during that time as a sales associate and nanny/babysitter. This time at different jobs taught her a great deal and helped her realize how much she truly loved teaching. However, she knew that she did not want to return to a traditional setting. At that time, through a Willow Oak family, she learned of Montessori. During the 2014-2015 school year, she completed her American Montessori Society Lower Elementary certification and spent time in the school's upper elementary classroom. The time she spent there helped her make the decision to pursue her upper elementary certification, which she will do during the 2015-2016 school year. She is looking forward to learning from all of her students just as much as she teaches them.


Hetal Amin,
Upper Elementary Co-Teacher

Having visited 25 preschools in 2007 in search for the perfect start for her son’s education, she stumbled into a Montessori classroom and it has been a unique trip ever since. Hetal graduated with a BS in Molecular Biology and Microbiology from the University of Central Florida. Whilst this was an interesting academic experience, Hetal soon realized she was not quite working with people in the same way as she had always imagined when running tests in a lab. She transitioned into pharmaceuticals for a while, until her husband brought her to Chapel Hill, NC in 2003. It was here that she continued working in the hospitality industry until she had twins in 2010. The opportunity of volunteering at her son’s Montessori school led to a desire to further engage with the classroom dynamics, so she became a substitute and then a teacher assistant. She is currently undertaking the Montessori training for Lower and Upper Elementary. She is excited to join Willow Oak this year and she plans to bring with her a certain mix of wit, enthusiasm, and desire for the Montessori model.


Leslie Kasell
, Upper Elementary Co-Teacher                

Leslie grew up the youngest of four sisters in Springfield, Virginia, studying Spanish from the age of 8. Upon graduating from the University of Virginia with a degree in Anthropology, Leslie taught English for a year in central China, returning to the U.S. to study at the Institute for Advanced Montessori Studies in Silver Spring, MD, where she received her Elementary Montessori teaching certification in 2009. Leslie completed her internship year working at the Montessori School of Northern Virginia and then became a volunteer at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. Leslie received her Master of Arts in Teaching degree through Trinity Washington University in December 2011. She was a Lower Elementary teacher at the Latin American Montessori Bilingual Public Charter School in Washington, DC for three years before coming to work at Willow Oak Montessori. She is dedicated to advancing her bilingualism, including orchestrating a trip to Panama in 2011 for Spanish studies. Leslie is excited to be working at Willow Oak Montessori in this inspiring time of expansion. She is committed to providing high quality Montessori education to all children in her care that promotes a love of life and learning, and a sense of responsibility to the world at large.


Erica Halter
, Upper Elementar
y Co-Teacher

Erica grew up exploring, skiing, and enjoying life in Fort Collins, Colorado. She decided to move to the South to attend college at Clemson University.  While at Clemson, she studied Elementary Education with a Math and Science Emphasis. During this time, her parents decided to follow her and moved to Chapel Hill. This led to her spending summers in Chapel Hill working as a nanny for children who attend a Montessori school and as a summer camp counselor/director at Montessori Community School in Durham. There she was introduced to the Montessori philosophy, and was impressed by the students' intelligence, compassion, and independence. She spent a year teaching at a public school in Bluffton, SC before realizing that a Montessori school would be a great fit. She is very excited about joining the Willow Oak Family! In her free time, she loves to be active, eat delicious food, travel, laugh with friends and family, and play games.


Ginny Thompson, MS-CCC, SLP,
Diverse Learning Community Specialist


Ginny has been practicing as a Speech Language Pathologist for 32 years, most recently at Perry Harrison Elementary School. After receiving a BS in Elementary Education at Atlantic Christian College, Ginny went on to complete her MS in Speech Pathology from UNC-Chapel Hill. From 2000 to 2004, Ginny taught first grade at Caldwell Academy in Greensboro, NC, giving her an invaluable classroom perspective. Ginny is committed to the academic and social success of all students within the school environment. Ginny completed the Social Thinking Mentor Program with Michelle Garcia Winner in 2008, and employs this approach daily to help her students successfully navigate their social world, problem solve, and learn to think about others. She brings experience with various disabilities, including autism, nonverbal learning disorder, ADD, LD, speech/language, and cognitive deficits. Ginny is happy to partner with the staff, parents, and students at Willow Oak Montessori as they strive to make learning both possible and fun for all. Ginny lives in Chatham County with her husband, Rick. Her son, Matthew, works as an elephant caregiver at the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee. Her daughter, Sarah, lives in Raleigh, where she works and takes classes at Wake Tech. Both of her children have struggled with learning and social differences, giving her a strong parent perspective on the challenges and joys these children bring to a family at home and at school. Ginny enjoys a walk every morning with her dog, Lacey.


Rachael Piers
,
Diverse Learning Community Specialist

Rachael grew up in Chicago and graduated from Hope College in Holland, Michigan with a Bachelors of Arts in Special Education and a minor in Elementary Education. After graduating, she moved to Hawai’i where she taught kindergarten through fifth grade students with a wide range of diverse learning needs. It was this experience that ignited her passion for creating a community classroom where a diverse group of students can become lifelong learners. Rachael then moved to Denver, Colorado where she taught at-risk youth at an alternative high school and directed the Work Experience Study Program, which focused on career and life skills for students with diverse learning needs. She coached the soccer team, served as a Young Life leader, and earned her Masters of Education in Special Education during this time. Rachael loves to travel the world and go on adventures with her husband, Christian. Camping, backpacking, surfing, and scuba diving are some of her favorite activities. Rachael is excited to share her love of learning, social justice, and equality at Willow Oak Montessori.


Caroline Carlson
,
Diverse Learning Community Specialist

Caroline grew up in Chapel Hill and graduated from UNC with a degree in Elementary Education. While living in Minnesota, she received a Master of Science degree in Special Education from Mankato State University. Several years were also spent working in residential mental health facilities for children, teens and adults. Returning to Chapel Hill, Caroline worked as an Exceptional Children's Teacher at Estes Hills Elementary. She earned her first National Board Certification in 2002. Caroline has been honored as Chapel Hill's Outstanding EC Teacher of the Year and as Exceptional Children's Teacher of the Year by the NC Department of Public Instruction. Caroline's children and grandchildren have attended Montessori schools (3 at Willow Oak!), and Caroline is a strong advocate for the philosophy and practices of Montessori schools. Caroline retired from Estes Hills in 2013, and has been thrilled to be a part of the making Montessori more accessible for all children at Willow Oak Montessori. Her great joy is working in collaboration with children, teachers, and parents to support academic and social growth.


Kathleen Hughes
, Reading Specialist

Kathleen received her Bachelors of Arts in Elementary Education from the University of Iowa and her Masters of Education in Literacy from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She holds an Early Childhood Credential from the International Montessori Council and was a Lead Teacher at Willow Oak Montessori Children's House before accepting the Reading Specialist position at the Charter School. Kathleen feels so fortunate to be a part of the nurturing community of Willow Oak Montessori. She lives in Chatham County with her husband, David, and their sons, Hunter, Nicholas, and Ethan.


Laurie Walker
, Math Specialist

Laurie grew up in the beautiful Appalachian mountains of East Tennessee.  At an early age, Laurie decided she wanted to be a teacher.  After she received her Bachelor of Science in Mathematics and Masters of Science in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Tennessee, she began her teaching journey.  She has taught a wide range of ages and subjects from a pre-school art and movement class to high school Physics.  She has also taught in a variety of settings and places.  She has taught in three states:  Tennessee, Mississippi, and North Carolina.  For the last five years, she has taught 7th grade Math and Math I at Margaret B. Pollard Middle School.  She has also worked as an AIG Specialist.  She is married to her high school sweetheart, Robert.  They have three wonderful children.  In her free time, she loves to read, travel, try new restaurants, and spend time with family.


Carrie Boone
, Music Teacher

Carrie comes to Willow Oak via a circuitous professional path that has always included music in some way. After earning a Masters in Music Therapy from Lesley University in Massachusetts, she worked as a music therapist for several years before moving to North Carolina to pursue graduate studies in musicology at UNC-Chapel Hill. In addition to her clinical work as a music therapist, she has spent many years teaching music privately, specializing in helping children with a wide range of needs and abilities discover the profound delights of music-making. Most recently, she has started a series of group music classes in Pittsboro for young children and their families, which she co-leads with her ethnomusicologist husband and considerable input from their two enthusiastically musical children. Carrie is excited about the chance to help develop a strong music program at Willow Oak, and looks forward to witnessing students discover the ways in which music and musicianship can support their academic, social, and humanistic endeavors.


Michelle California-Aguiar
, Art Teacher

Michelle holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Psychology from Pennsylvania State University. She moved to Raleigh after graduation and started her career in the painting and design industry. In 1996, she moved to Toronto, Canada to begin an apprenticeship with one of the leading Decorative Painting Schools in the US and Canada. Her 6 years in Toronto included extensive on-site work as a decorative painting contractor, as well as teaching her craft to students. It is also where she met her husband, Davide and had her first son, before returning to Raleigh in 2002. Together, she and Davide own a successful painting business in the Triangle area. Michelle also creates her own works of art that are regularly hanging at local galleries. You may have even seen the 2 cows that they created for the 2012 Cow Parade North Carolina (Moosai and Mootallic). They have 2 amazing boys that she likes to use as guinea pigs for her art project ideas. They frequently travel to Portugal where her husband was born, to visit family. She hopes to create fun, cultural, educational art lessons and projects this year to share with your children.


Mirka Budlong
, Physical Education Teacher

Originally from Slovakia, Mirka moved to North Carolina in August.  Living in San Diego for the past 19 years, she was a classroom teacher and taught Physical Education for various age groups from K-8.  Mirka received her Master’s Degree in Education with an Emphasis in Physical Education from Constantine the Philosopher University in Slovakia. She is CrossFit Kids certified and incorporates CrossFit into her PE classes. Mirka is looking forward to joining our team and helping our students grow in their physical abilities.


Administration & Staff


Pete Rubinas
, Head of School

Pete Rubinas has been the Head of School of the Willow Oak Montessori Children's House program since July of 2009. Prior to that time, he served as Treasurer of the Children's House Board of Directors. Pete, who holds a Bachelor of Business Administration in Management Information Systems and Sociology from the University of Notre Dame, spent over nine years as an internal control auditor with PricewaterhouseCoopers before resigning to become a stay-at-home dad for two and a half years. Pete and his wife Tara relocated to North Carolina in 2005 and have lived in Chatham County with their four children – Charlie, Patrick, Senorina, and Severina – since 2006. Pete is passionate about the Montessori philosophy and is very excited about the opportunity to help the Willow Oak Montessori community realize its greatest potential in the coming years!


Kyle Martin
, Assistant Head of School

Originally from Columbus, Ohio, Kyle joins the Willow Oak community after serving as the Assistant Principal of Secondary School at the American Nicaraguan School in Managua, Nicaragua. Kyle graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University with a B.A. in Psychology and Sports Science. It was through his experience in Teach For America, while teaching middle school science in Phoenix, Arizona, that Kyle realized his passion for education. During this time, Kyle sought to continue his development as an educator by earning his Masters of Education from Arizona State University. Before moving to Nicaragua, Kyle worked as a Director of Athletics and Extracurricular Activities at a charter school in Boston, MA, and as a founding 7th grade math teacher at a charter school in Henderson, NC. Kyle is excited to join the Willow Oak Community because it is a community that helps students develop into critical thinkers, problem solvers, and lifelong learners. During his free time, Kyle enjoys running, reading, watching/playing sports, traveling, and has recently found a passion for cooking.



Melissa Beck, PhD, Diverse Learning Community Coordinator

Melissa received her PhD in School Psychology from UNC- Chapel Hill and completed her internship and postdoctoral fellowship at the Kennedy Krieger Institute and Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. She later served as the Outpatient Coordinator of the Pediatric Psychology Clinic and Consultation Service and was an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Johns Hopkins University. After moving back to North Carolina in 2006, Melissa spent several years at home with her husband, Mike, and three children, Sarah, Anna Katherine and Michael. She then worked part-time at UNC as part of a research study investigating the early development of children at-risk for autism. She joins the staff of Willow Oak Montessori following a term as a Board member, and is looking forward to using her professional knowledge in new ways to ensure that every child's unique needs are met at Willow Oak Montessori.


Melissa Frey
, Business Manager

Originally from the Northeast, Melissa Frey has been living in Chatham County since 1993. Her two children, Tucker and Ava Marinne are native North Carolinians, and she can hardly believe they are young adults already! After earning a BA in Family Studies from Syracuse University and Messiah College, and being home with her young family, Melissa was the Founding Board President, Project Manager and Marketing/Owner Services Manager of Chatham Marketplace, our local co-op grocery from 2003-08. Gravitating towards new and growing endeavors, she has been involved in various projects including The Plenty local currency, Company Shops Market in Burlington, and administrative work with the former Community Independent School. Melissa is actively involved in the community, having served on a variety of non-profit boards and engaged in ongoing volunteer work, all while making as much time as possible for organic gardening, biking, and power walking. Melissa has been with Willow Oak Montessori, first as Board Vice President, since 2011 and is pleased to be a part of this exciting time of expansion.


Kim Harris
, Office Administrator

Kimberly Brooks-Harris is a native of North Carolina with deep roots in Chatham County. Kim attended North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro, North Carolina. Soon after college, she moved to Chatham County and worked at Perry Harrison Elementary School, where she enjoyed nurturing young minds and serving the school in several capacities. Her last assignment there was as the Office Administrator. After several years of working in the public school system, she worked at UNC Hospitals as a Patient Transport Lead and Guest Services Representative. Having a desire to be back in a setting where she could once again nurture the lives of children, she came to Willow Oak as the Office Administrator in late October of 2016. Kim enjoys spending time with her family and friends, and attending her children’s sporting events at North Carolina Central University and Northwood High School. She loves to bake, sew, and read in the time that she can call her own.


Luanne Bannan
,
Community Cultivator

Luanne became the Assistant Head of School at Willow Oak Montessori Children's House in January 2016 and joins the Charter School as Community Cultivator in August 2017. Previously, Luanne was a long-standing member of Willow Oak Montessori's Board of Directors from 2006 to 2015. Luanne earned her Masters of Social Work from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 1988 and worked full time as a social worker until 2005, when she chose to embrace parenting and volunteer opportunities following the birth of her son, Zane. She remains licensed as a clinical social worker, and has always had a special place in her heart for connecting with children and families. Luanne and her husband, Eric relocated from Chicago to Pittsboro in 1994 and love living in Chatham County. Luanne enjoys having adventures with her family, dancing Nia, creating with Zentangle art, and reading.


Contracted Service Providers

Donna Huff
, Occupational Therapist

Donna is a creative, energetic licensed and registered Occupational Therapist with 37 years of experience in a wide variety of settings, including over 28 years with pediatric home health and school system settings.  She has enjoyed treating students of all ages with a wide range of disabilities.  She is well experienced in many areas of Occupational Therapy, including sensory integration, therapeutic listening, positioning and handling, spasticity management, auditory and visual processing, praxis, and a wide range of school related issues. Donna lives in Chapel Hill with her husband John, who is also an Occupational Therapist, and her two adult daughters.  Donna is especially excited to be at Willow Oak Montessori with such a cohesive and talented team, and enjoys the challenge of problem-solving the diverse learning needs of all students.


Kessonga Giscombé, Mindfulness Instructor

Kessonga is a Licensed Acupuncturist, Certified Holistic Health Counselor, and Mindfulness Meditation Instructor. He holds a Bachelor's Degree in Biology and a Master's of Science degree in Acupuncture from The New York College of Health Professions.  He specializes in Japanese Meridian Therapy, as well as Traditional Chinese Acupuncture.  Kessonga received his national certification for Holistic Health Counseling from the Institute of Integrative Nutrition located in New York. He is also a qualified Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) instructor through the Oasis Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts, and also completed a Mindfulness Teacher training through the Program on Integrative Medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine, where he is currently a MBSR instructor. Kessonga is dedicated to bringing Mindfulness to children and completed a teacher training program with the Mindfulness in Schools Project.


Joan Gillis, School Nurse

Joan has over 8 years of experience as a School Nurse and has been with Willow Oak Montessori since the charter school opened its doors in 2013.  She is energetic and strives to ensure that all of our children and staff stay safe and healthy. Originally from Northern New Jersey, Joan received her RN from St Vincent’s Hospital in New York City.  After backpacking in Europe and North Africa, she moved to the Pacific Northwest to complete her BSN in Ashland, Oregon, followed a few years later with her Masters in Occupational Health and Safety from the University of Washington in Seattle.  Her practice has included pediatrics, med-surg, ER, ICU, home care, and hospice.  She has also taught Nursing in American Samoa and at the Watts School of Nursing in Durham.  She presently works per diem in geriatrics and Alzheimer’s care.  While sailing half-way around the world, she was able to work in New Zealand for 2 years and teach in American Samoa.  She and her husband Gary moved to North Carolina 18 years ago and presently live in Briar Chapel. They continue to travel in their RV with their 16 year old daughter, the smallest Shih Tzu in the world, and a well-fed Russian Blue cat.