Spotlight: Jennifer Williams (LA '19)January 31, 2020
For English teacher Jennifer Williams (LA ’19), success is making a meaningful connection with each student. “A great relationship is all the success I need,” she says. “With that, all else will follow.” Jennifer won her Louisiana Milken Award at John Q. Adams Middle School in Metairie on November 13, 2019.
Milken Family Foundation: What’s the secret to helping middle schoolers learn to love reading?
Jennifer Williams (LA ’19): When a teacher shares their love for reading students tend to follow suit. In middle school that can be a little more challenging since there are so many other things competing for their attention.
Middle school students have a better sense of what they like and dislike, so I try to expose them to the texts that are related to their interests. They must find something they want to read about and are interested in—that’s the hardest part. I read a lot of adolescent literature so I can recommend books. I also allow them to talk about the books they read, and that often piques other students’ interest.
We have learning centers in our classroom, and the reading center is the place where they have book talks and share what they are reading. I want them to understand how important reading is and that books can take them places they may never have the opportunity to go. I want them to know that being a good reader will give them a stronger voice in the world around them.
MFF: How did you end up in education?
Jennifer: Being a teacher is the only professional career I’ve ever had. I am grateful I had the opportunity to stay home with my children when they were young. I was their teacher first, and they were my inspiration to go back to school and become an educator.
When my children were in elementary school I loved being involved with their teachers and classmates, so I volunteered whenever possible and became a substitute teacher. Then, when my eldest daughter received a dyslexia diagnosis in second grade, I saw the struggle firsthand. I knew I had to do more to make a difference for her and other children with learning disabilities.
I attended classes and researched the subject in the pursuit of her having every opportunity to be successful. I was like a sponge when I re-enrolled in college at age 30 as an education major. There were so many things I wanted to learn. Becoming a teacher has been fulfilling for me, and I cannot imagine myself doing anything else.
MFF: How was your first year of teaching?
Jennifer: It was like a dream. I remember the very beginning of the year, after I received my first paycheck. I walked into my classroom, looked around and thought, “I can’t believe they are paying me to do this.”
I loved my job then, and I can honestly say that I still do. I’m pretty sure that this is not typical for first-year teachers. But I started late and had three school-aged children. Being a teacher is a lot like being a mom. I think that my motherly instincts have made me a very good educator.
MFF: What do you like about middle school students?
Jennifer: They still have an innocence about them that allows me to reach their inner child, and that helps to make learning fun. They are at the stage in life where they are trying to figure out who they are. This can be challenging since they begin to test their limits with authority, but it is also rewarding because I know that I can help guide them in the right direction and lead them to success. My attitude and relationship with them now helps set the tone for the rest of their academic career.
MFF: We hear “Test Fest” is the highlight of the year. What’s it all about?
Jennifer: Test Fest is a great celebration at the end of our LEAP [Louisiana Educational Assessment Program] tests. It is a reward for students who have a positive attitude, work hard and do their very best each testing day. This day is exciting for the students and they look forward to it all year long. No one wants to be left out!
Test Fest is our biggest event of the year and takes lots of planning and preparation. I may be the one who keeps things organized and planned, but I work with a committee of amazing teachers and administrators to pull it all together. It is definitely not a one-person job. We have a dunking booth, mechanical bull, pie in the eye, arts and crafts, karaoke, and many other booths and games. It is a reward all students strive for and one they will always remember.
MFF: Who are your role models?
Jennifer: Most of my role models have been amazing administrators who have encouraged leadership in me and made me feel appreciated daily. A little personal praise goes a long way in the eyes of a teacher to boost confidence.
Dr. Cheryl Milam was the first to give me a chance in the classroom, and I will always remember her tough but kind personality. She taught me how to be a leader and I will never forget that.
Mr. Charles Dilauro was also a role model in my career. He is the one who made me realize how important it is to build relationships with my students. He encouraged me to go beyond the classroom and do professional development presentations at conferences and in my own school to share the things that worked in my classroom.
As a student, I loved the teachers who made learning fun and the ones who took the time to really get to know me. Mr. Paul Simoneaux, one of my junior high teachers, did both of those things. I will always think of him as one of my favorite teachers, and he was one of the first to reach out to me after I won the Milken Award.
MFF: How did you feel at your Milken Educator Award notification?
Jennifer: The days leading up to the assembly were so exciting and mysterious. No one knew exactly why we were having it. There were so many rumors. When we received the class seating assignments my students were ecstatic that we would be right in the front!
As Mr. [Lowell] Milken began to talk about the Award, I remember thinking of all the amazing teachers I work with and how any of them would deserve it. I really did not think for a moment that they would call my name. When they did, I was in complete shock. I think I remember asking some of my students to hug me because I thought I might fall over. I started to cry and could not stop. I still cry when I talk about it. I am so unbelievably grateful and honored to have received this recognition. It is truly unbelievable!
MFF: How did students respond to your Milken Award?
Jennifer: Watching the video and seeing the reaction of my students was something that I will never forget. They were so excited—some were even crying, probably because I couldn’t stop crying. We watched the video together when it was posted, and they were excited all over again.
I work hard to build relationships with my students. When they accidentally call me ‘Mom’ I know I have done my job well. It fills my heart with joy to know how happy and excited they were and still are for me. I think they knew before, but now they know that I would do anything for them and that I truly love being their teacher. I think that every Milken Educator absolutely loves their job, and that makes all the difference in the world.
MFF: How do you think you’ll use your $25,000 Award?
Jennifer: I am sure that a large part of it will go into my classroom, but I really haven’t decided. I have a daughter still in college and one with a baby on the way. Being able to help them would make me very happy. Some of the money may also go towards a down payment on a new house. We haven’t had a real “home” since Hurricane Katrina.
I just want to make sure that I use it on something that makes a lasting difference in my family’s lives, since it has certainly made such a difference in mine. I could not be more grateful.
MFF: How do you define “success” for yourself, and for your students?
Jennifer: I see my success in the faces of my students, their love for learning and reading. It’s not always about academic performance. Yes, I want them to succeed academically, but I also want them to feel loved and cared for. A great relationship with a student is all the success I need. With that, all else will follow. When they feel safe and comfortable enough to talk to me, ask questions and share their lives, I know that I am reaching them on a deeper level, and they will be willing to give me all they’ve got in the classroom. Just as I do not want to disappoint them, they will do their best not to disappoint me.
MFF: What do you hope your students remember from their time with you?
Jennifer: I hope my students remember our class as one where they felt at home, loved and respected. I hope I am the teacher they remember and talk about in years to come. I strive to make an impact on each one of them every day.
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