Elizabeth Spiller: Education major ready to fill buckets and change lives

Last fall, Elizabeth Spiller was in a first grade classroom at Earl C. McGraw School in Hampden, where she’s a student teacher, when the guidance counselor taught a lesson that struck a chord and reminded her why she decided to pursue a career in education.

“Picture a bucket in your mind,” the counselor said. “This is your emotional bucket, and every day your bucket is being filled or emptied.”

When someone or something does something that makes you feel good, the counselor explained, they are adding to your bucket. When you have a negative experience with someone or something, your bucket is being drained. Your bucket also has a lid, she said, so you can regulate what goes in and what comes out.

Beyond our own buckets, Spiller says the counselor talked about the importance of recognizing that how we treat others can impact their lives. Through our actions, we are either adding to or taking away from each other’s buckets.

“It immediately hit something inside me,” says Spiller, a senior from York majoring in elementary education at the University of Maine College of Education and Human Development.

“I’ve done a lot of work with kids — as a camp counselor, as a babysitter, and now as a student teacher — and I love the idea that helping them and teaching them is making a difference and filling their buckets,” she says.

Spiller was so inspired by the idea that she wrote about it for The Wilson Center’s Dorothy Clarke Wilson Peace Writing Prize. Her essay, “Peace Through Bucket Filling,” won the competition, which came with a $500 award. Spiller also got to read it aloud at UMaine’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Breakfast in January.

The essay recounts the lesson that the guidance counselor taught, as well as a moment that occurred just after. Two students — a girl and a boy in the class — were working on a project, when the girl spilled her pencil cup on the floor. The boy bent down to help her pick up the scattered pencils, and as he was returning them to the cup, the girl said: “Thank you, you just filled my bucket.”

Spiller related this small act of kindness, and the concept of bucket filling, to Dr. King’s teachings, especially the quote “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

As a preservice teacher, Spiller wrote, “I want to show my students the impact that they can have on the world. I aim to teach them to have civility, to be leaders of transformation, and to create positive change that will lead to a more peaceful world.”

When she finished reading her essay, the crowd at the MLK Breakfast stood and gave Spiller a standing ovation. It was a moment she says she’ll never forget.

Spiller is set to graduate in May and hopes to find work as an elementary school teacher, perhaps closer to home in southern Maine. Student teaching is one of several experiences during her time at UMaine that she says helped prepare her for her chosen profession. College of Education and Human Development students have opportunities to work in the field with children as early as their first year.

“I’ve been in McGraw elementary for a year now,” Spiller says. “It’s such a great environment, with amazing values. They have a way of incorporating civility and respect into everything they teach.”

Other experiences that have helped shape her educational philosophy include working as a camp counselor in Old Town and York.

She also says her coursework, both general education and for her major, have opened her eyes to new ways of thinking and understanding the world.

“I would say, every single aspect of teaching that I would need to know about, I’ve had a class for,” she says.

“We learn how to tailor our teaching to meet every student’s needs in different subject areas,” Spiller adds. “Now that I’m doing my student teaching, I can see how my classes have helped prepare me to work with diverse kinds of students.”

She says it all comes back to wanting to make a difference in the lives of young children.

“As I said in my essay, as a teacher, my goal is to encourage my students to be giving, to love themselves and others, to find beauty in small acts of kindness, and to fill those buckets with goodness and light,” Spiller says.

Click below to read or download, Elizabeth Spiller’s essay, “Peace Through Bucket Filling”:


Contact: Casey Kelly, 581.3751, casey.kelly@maine.edu